NEW YORK — Get ready to see more of Michelle Wie.
The 15-year-old golf star confirmed Wednesday she has gone professional and has signed endorsement deals with Nike and Sony in the first steps of what is expected to be a marketing blitzkrieg.
“From the first time I grabbed a golf club I knew I would do it for the rest of my life,” said Wie at a press conference in Honolulu, held prior to the start of her school day, to announce her pro status. “My goal is to become the best golfer in the world.”
Nike executives declined to reveal details of her contract, but she is believed to be receiving between $4 million and $5 million a year. It is also likely there will be a Michelle Wie golf apparel line, similar to the merchandise deals Nike has with Tiger Woods and Serena Williams, and that she will be the centerpiece of upcoming Nike marketing campaigns.
“As far as Nike is concerned, Michelle is a unique individual, and she has the potential to transcend her sport, like many great athletes,” said Bob Woods, the president of Nike Golf, at the Honolulu event. “From a Nike brand perspective, it will be a great story to tell as it unfolds.”
The deal is another indication that female athletes are now garnering major sponsorship deals and can command high price tags. Maria Sharapova earned $18.2 million last year, while Williams racked up $12.7 million, according to Forbes magazine. By comparison, Tiger Woods took in a whopping $87 million.
While she can’t officially become a member of the Ladies Professional Golf Association until she turns 18, Wie, who is a high school junior and six days shy of her 16th birthday, has already played in a number of high-profile events against men, and as a professional she plans to play in both PGA and LPGA events. She will make her professional debut as a Nike athlete next week at the LPGA Samsung World Championships.
With her golf aptitude and wholesome image, Wie, who is represented by the William Morris Agency, is considered a savvy marketing force who could hawk products in a wide range of categories. To improve and refine her look, Wie has also reportedly hired image consultant-to-the-stars David Lipman, who has worked with celebrities such as Angelina Jolie.
While she is today an official Nike athlete, Wie has long been sporting the brand’s apparel and equipment and it has been rumored a deal with the activewear brand was imminent.
For Nike, the move represents another step in its goal to build its golf business, which has been targeted as a key area of growth. Nike signed Tiger Woods in 1996, marking its first significant sponsorship in the golf arena. The company doesn’t break out sales of its golf products, but executives have recently been touting the company’s opportunity in the category and Nike has expanded its product offerings to include a range of apparel, accessories, footwear and equipment for men and women.
Nike Golf operates as a separate division within the company, similar to Cole Haan and Bauer Hockey. The company’s “other business” category including golf had sales of $1.7 billion last year, and Nike Golf is the largest segment within that category, analysts said. Nike also now operates golf camps and schools, similar to what it does in tennis and other sports, as a way to tap young talent and build its brand among young athletes.
Jamelah Leddy, an analyst with McAdams Wright Regan, said Wednesday: “While Wie is young and still largely unproven, going out and signing athletes when they are at the beginning of their career is a good strategy for Nike. It reminds me of what Nike did with Lance Armstrong when no one else would talk to him.”
Signing Wie also comes at a time when one of Nike’s highest-paid female athlete, Williams, seem less interested in playing tennis than other activities. Nike’s other key sponsored female athlete now is Sharapova. Over the years its roster of female athletes has included soccer champ Mia Hamm and runners Marion Jones and Jackie Joyner-Kersee.
At the press conference, Wie, sporting a pink Nike shirt and heels, said Wednesday she plans to donate $500,000 to the Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. “Turning pro has a lot of benefits, but I am most grateful to be in a position to help people. Over the last month, so many people have lost so many things, and I felt it was my duty to donate to people affected by Hurricane Katrina.”
Wie, the only child of Korean immigrants, also stressed that she planned to attend and hopefully finish college, but conceded that she would likely only be able take a few classes each semester.