Commentary

WNBA players wise to aim for Annika

Swedish golf legend prepared for successful life after golf career ended

Originally Published: July 8, 2011
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

Annika SorenstamDoug Benc/Getty ImagesAnnika Sorenstam's Hall of Fame career included 10 major victories.

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- She's long since elevated to the status of being recognized by her first name only. Now she's talking about her two young children, the youthful players on the LPGA tour, her varied business and charitable enterprises, the state of her sport.

It's a good time to take stock, considering it was here at the Broadmoor in 1995 that Annika Sorenstam took her first big step to becoming known as just "Annika." She won her first LPGA title in the most important golf tournament for females, the U.S. Women's Open.

She was 24 at the time, but even then it was neat for me, actually, to see how she'd panned out. The previous fall, doing a story on up-and-coming young non-American players on the LPGA tour, I'd been steered toward Sorenstam.

She was competing for Europe in the Solheim Cup, then in its third rendition. It was one of those impossibly beautiful, crisp autumn weekends at the ritzy Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va.

[+] EnlargeAnnika Sorenstam
Pete Fontaine/Icon SMIIn March 2009, Annika Sorenstam launched her new perfume, one of many business ventures she has spearheaded.

At the time, Sorenstam was still shy and seemed to regard interviews as ordeals to endure. I talked to her behind the 18th green on the final day of that Solheim Cup. At that point, I knew little about her other than she was an up-and-comer from Sweden who'd played collegiately for Arizona. I would have described her after that interview as intelligent, competitive … and very guarded. There are people who are quite polite but still leave you with the impression that they will be quite relieved when the interview is over. That was Sorenstam then.

I've long said that I can't think of any athlete I've covered who worked harder than Sorenstam did to break away from her own personal comfort zone in order to become the bigger personality her sport needed.

Steffi Graf, for example, really couldn't quite do it in tennis. Not the way Sorenstam did in golf. By the time she captivated the sports world with her appearance in the PGA Tour's Colonial tournament in 2003, Sorenstam had transformed herself enough to not just deal with a withering amount of attention, but actually thrive in it. Thus, when Sorenstam did step away from playing golf for a living, she had the confidence, the contacts and the drive to move successfully into the business world.

Now, if you're wondering why I'm writing about this in my regular spot on ESPN.com's women's basketball page, here's the reason. I wonder if any WNBA athletes might end up having a post-competitive career similar to what Sorenstam is doing. Her many business ventures include course design, apparel, equipment and golf academies.

"I'm very competitive in the business world, and it's very needed today," Sorenstam said Wednesday. "As you know, with the economy, I can't think of a tougher time to jump into the business world with the different ventures that I have. So I get my competitive fix there."

She appears on her way to establishing herself as a sustainable, multi-product brand name to a degree that no other female golfer has really achieved -- not even the very popular Nancy Lopez.

Part of that, no doubt, is Sorenstam's herculean work ethic, which she has transferred from playing golf to being a businesswoman and patron in the golf realm. Admittedly, though, there are differences between that and the basketball world.

Sorenstam won over $22.5 million in prize money during her pro career (1993-2008), the most in LPGA history. Add in what she made in endorsements in that time, and she earned more than any WNBA player has -- or will for the foreseeable future -- during her playing days.

[+] EnlargeAnnika Sorenstam
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesAnnika Sorenstam won more titles than any other female golfer, with 90 international tournament wins, including 72 LPGA tournaments.

Also, equipment and designer apparel are such large industries in golf. And there is no business venture in basketball similar to course design in golf.

Still, athletes wanting to transition into the business world after their competitive careers need not focus only on opportunities in their sport, of course. Virtually all American-born WNBA players have earned their college degrees. All the current WNBA players have had the league as an employment option for their entire lives as professional athletes.

So how will they move from making their living as athletes to whatever comes next? Will they stay involved in the sport? Will they understand how important they still can be in the development of women's basketball, even if they don't go into coaching?

"I look back on my career, and it's so important to have the support system and have the networks that help you," said Sorenstam, explaining her involvement in various youth-golf initiatives. "I think it's so important that we start at the grassroots level, get these kids to play, grow the game in every area we can, and focusing on the girls.

"The invitational that I host -- we've done it for three years -- we have now taken it to Asia. I'm hosting an Annika Invitational in China this August, and we're hoping to expand it around the world. For me, it's just a great way to give back. I love doing it, and to see these girls with their smiles and their dreams, there is nothing better. It wasn't that long ago that I was there. So for me to give them a helping hand is really, really cool."

Sorenstam also serves on the LPGA's advisory board, and she's known for giving younger players, including No. 1 ranked Yani Tseng, helpful tips.

Sorenstam, 40, is the same age as the WNBA's oldest active players, Minnesota's Taj McWilliams-Franklin and Tulsa's Sheryl Swoopes. Will women's basketball players of their generation who made a living as professional athletes be able to make a substantial impact on their sport after they're done playing? And how about the generations of pro women's basketball players after them?

At some point, will we see a former WNBA player as the league's president? Could we see a former player get into the position financially to become an owner or co-owner of a WNBA franchise?

The time for current pro players to start thinking about their post-playing futures is … well, yesterday. At the very least, they need to focus on it sooner rather than later.

Sure, Sorenstam qualifies as an outlier on the high end of the achievement scale in women's athletics. But she wasn't born wealthy. She came from an average family. She didn't get anything handed to her. She worked for every bit of it.

So she's somebody that any female athlete should recognize as a role model. And hers is the kind of success story that the most ambitious women in the WNBA should really familiarize themselves with. She's showing you don't have to stop being a big winner just because you stop playing.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.