Michelle Wie is one of the best bargains for tournament directors across the country. At just 13 years old, her ability to drive the golf ball nearly 300 yards can help to sell tickets and increase television ratings as her popularity continues to grow. But as long as she remains an amateur, her appearance fee will remain an appearance free.
Unable to become a member of the LPGA Tour until she turns 18, Wie, in fact, may wait another four years before she begins cashing in on her golf game. For now, her sights are set on playing collegiately before professionally.
That could be a lot of cash left on the table.
LPGA Senior Tour president Jane Blalock, a former LPGA standout who now owns her own golf-marketing company, estimates that Wie could earn as much as $10 million a year in endorsement deals.
Gil Pagovich, a partner in Maxximum Marketing, a sports marketing firm, also believes Wie can strike it rich in the endorsement arena. "Everyone is always looking for the next big future star and American corporations like to spend money on speculation and hype. If they determine that she's the real deal, the endorsement dollars could get high enough that it would be in her best interest to go pro."
Others say it's too early to tell how much companies would be willing to spend on Wie to endorse their products. In the sluggish economy, her ninth-place finish at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, a major on the LPGA Tour in March, wasn't enough to have millions of dollars thrown at her.
"Once she wins a tournament, she'll truly be everywhere to the point where advertisers and marketers will have to at least entertain the idea of wooing her," said Jeff Chown, managing director of The Marketing Arm, a sports consultancy firm.
Chown says the amount the 6-foot Korean-American could command would depend on her ability to remain consistently competitive.
"In order to create a marketing icon, you have to have a person who represents a major point of difference," Chown said. "Tiger Woods did things no golfer had ever done before and Michael Jordan did things no basketball player had ever done before."
Big-time dollars will be hard to secure. Annika Sorenstam, the top professional golfer on the LPGA Tour, earns a fraction -- reportedly less than 10 percent -- of Tiger Woods' endorsement income, which surpasses $60 million a year.
But Sorenstam's appeal could increase greatly should she be competitive against the men. This week, Sorenstam will become the first women's golfer in 58 years to play in a PGA Tour event when she tees it up at the Bank of America Colonial.
Wie could have that same opportunity in the future. Last week, Wie accepted a sponsor's exemption to play against men in the Nationwide Tour's Boise Open in September. She already had planned to play the Bay Mills Open Players' Championship, a Canadian PGA event, in August. In the future, Wie said she dreams of playing in The Masters.
"Companies that spend money on athletes count on those athletes getting the company's name out to the public and hope to make a connection to sell more product," said David Schwab, director of strategic marketing for Octagon, which represents Davis Love III and Beth Daniels, among other professional golfers. "A couple of appearances in men's tournaments won't do it. She has to have a consistent presence and in that sense performance is everything."
Since the women's game gets a lot less attention than the men's, leaping onto the PGA Tour stage could be a smart marketing move.
Wie's "true worth lies in the future of her ability to crossover and be successful playing against men," said Bob Williams, president of Burns Sports, a sports marketing firm. "If she can bridge the gap between men and women, she has a chance to be a standout star in the marketing world. Imagine if she played PGA Tour, instead of the LPGA Tour."
Some involved in marketing women's golf products say they are willing to wait until Wie surrenders her amateur status.
"The moment she goes pro we will give her a call, but we're fine waiting until she makes that decision," said Tim Muret, director of product development for Upper Deck, which debuted a set of LPGA player cards in early May.
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.firstname.lastname@example.org.