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Michelle Wie, who turns pro Wednesday, might be getting paid by Nike, but she won't receive the same welcome. Given the attention being paid to the 15-year-old over the past couple of years, she doesn't need some shoe and apparel company to introduce her to the world. They already know her well. They are ready for her.
|Wie will earn millions in endorsement deals the minute she turns professional Wednesday.|
Most industry insiders agree that Wie represents the perfect blend of the next great sports endorser.
"I don't think Michelle has to worry about endorsements," said golfing great Jack Nicklaus, who still earns millions of dollars each year pitching products. "She's a good -looking gal, she's nice and she's talented. My advice to Michelle -- even though she never asked me -- 'Don't worry about endorsements, they will come. Just go play golf.'"
Nike might have plenty to root for in Wie, but it won't try to force the issue on the masses. Wednesday's announcement won't include Nike's unveiling of a new logo or a signature line of Wie-inspired shirts.
How much the company will use her will be based on her ability to raise one of those oversized checks in front of the television cameras.
"In order to be a great Nike athlete, you have to be a winner first," said Bob Wood, president of Nike Golf, who has been working for Nike for 25 years. "It didn't look good when Andre Agassi said that 'Image is everything' in that Canon commercial before he even won a major. That was bull. And Michael Jordan could sell shoes, but he didn't turn into the great marketing icon until his team started winning championships."
It was in May 2003 that Nike signed 13-year-old soccer player Freddy Adu to a reported $1 million deal. Adu just appeared in a recent commercial, but there are no Adu Nike products at mass retail and that's partly because the youngster has been sitting on the bench for D.C. United.
Nike officials would not divulge details of the Wie contract, but one source with knowledge of the deal says the company would not try to control the number of events she plays each year or where she plays. One of the reasons for this is that such language might constitute violations of the LPGA and PGA tours' appearance fee policies.
"Michelle has been thrust into a game where she hasn't been able to win yet, and there's a difference between coming in second place and winning," former American Ryder Cup captain Hal Sutton said. "She's at a disadvantage because she's playing with people that are older than her and a lot more experienced. In my mind, there are still plenty of excuses for her. She's not ready yet. She needs to beat some people and get into the winner's circle, and it might be a longer process than we think."
But winning isn't enough to become a great pitchwoman. Just look at Annika Sorenstam.
In the past seven years, Sorenstam has won 63 events and has been the LPGA Tour's Player of the Year in all of those seasons. Her stats and accomplishments compare favorably with Tiger Woods', but the endorsement money is only a small percentage. Sorenstam has deals with Callaway, Cutter & Buck, Mercedes, Kraft, Rolex, Oakley and ADT, among others. But she rakes in only about $6 million per year because she doesn't have that it factor that will help sway the masses about their purchasing decision.
Wie might have what Sorenstam is missing. Wood said that Nike is well aware of the youngster's charismatic personality.
"When you watch her at an event from afar, there's this aura about her, and you can feel it when you meet her and talk to her," Wood said.
Then there's the potential of her one day playing with -- and beating -- the men, something experts say will present intriguing marketing angles for companies. Wie has played in five events against men -- including three PGA Tour events -- but failed to make the cut each time.
"She might play an occasional PGA Tour event," Nicklaus said. "But Michelle will play most of her career against the women and she can still make a great name for herself."
Wie's Asian heritage also helps. Sure, there have been successful Korean golfers on the LPGA Tour, including Se Ri Pak and Grace Park, but Wie could take it to the next level.
Why is Asia so important?
Well, 40 percent of Nike's golf business is done internationally, and 20 percent of the world's golf retail business takes place in Japan. Wie speaks Korean, Chinese and Japanese.
Combine the huge population with the fact that women's events in Asia consistently have higher TV ratings than the men's events, and it's easy to see why there is so much excitement about Wie at Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Ore.
"Nike has done the right thing in winning the battle for Michelle," said Steve Lauletta of The Radiate Group, a global network of marketing agencies. "The long-term investment that they've made is small compared to their sales."
Wie's potential also lies in increasing the amount of women who play the game. Year-to-date rounds of golf played across the country are currently down 1.1 percent from the 2004 totals through June, according to the National Golf Foundation.
If more women play, more women will have the need to buy new equipment and apparel. All Wie's current clubs are Nike clubs, and she'll have plenty of swooshes on her clothing.
Golf equipment was the second largest category of sporting goods equipment sold in the United States last year. Its $2.51 billion wholesale market was behind only exercise equipment machines ($3.94 billion), according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. Sales of women's products currently make up 15 percent of the Nike's golf business.
Steve Stoute of Translation, an entertainment marketing firm, said: "If she becomes vocal about inviting women to play the sport, I firmly believe her competing with the men is secondary to her being a marketing success."
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.