Michelle Wie's star power rising
When Michelle Wie tees off at the Women's British Open this week, she'll do so with a descriptor she's never had before: major champion.
Her victory at the U.S. Women's Open at Pinehurst on June 22 boosted Wie's profile. And it's fair to say that's good for the bottom line -- both Wie's and the LPGA's.
"I think with the LPGA, the impact of major wins is even more heightened," commissioner Mike Whan said. "The men's tour tends to get big TV and media attention kind of week in and week out. ...
It's driven interest not just among fans and members of the media, but also amongst prospective corporate partners -- in all different parts of the sports-marketing industry. So I think it's a really interesting time for her.Carlos Fleming
"On the women's side, there are fewer times when the sports world really pays attention, and the U.S. Open is the max. When a player on the LPGA Tour wins a major, the exposure jump is dramatic."
No LPGA player was better prepared than Wie to take advantage of such exposure.
"She's one of those athletes, in part because of her backstory, who intrigues people," said Carlos Fleming, an IMG agent who works with Wie. "Plus what she brings to the table, being a Stanford graduate, still very young, having a major title ... those things move the needle.
"It's driven interest not just among fans and members of the media, but also among prospective corporate partners -- in all different parts of the sports-marketing industry. So I think it's a really interesting time for her."
The backstory, of course, starts with Wie bursting upon the golf scene as a preadolescent. The lanky kid from Hawaii who talked about wanting to play in the Masters has grown into a svelte, more savvy 24-year-old who seems to be just at the beginning of mastering her own game and her own brand.
When Wie turned professional at age 15, she signed deals with Nike and Sony. The latter company parted ways with Wie in 2009, but Nike remains one of Wie's major sponsors, along with Kia and Omega.
Her U.S. Women's Open title, which was her second LPGA victory of 2014 and fourth of her career, will open the door to more sponsorships.
Wie's good play at Pinehurst also dramatically impacted television viewership. Ratings for Sunday's final round on NBC were up 89 percent over last year, when South Korea's Inbee Park won. Saturday's ratings were up 71 percent, and both days the U.S. Women's Open drew a bigger audience than the PGA Tour event on CBS. That's the kind of data businesses notice.
"Absolutely, there are opportunities now for her to grow her endorsement portfolio," Fleming said. "She will add on sponsors, but it's a matter of doing it in a measured and intelligent way, so she's not over-committing herself.
"First and foremost, she wants to focus on trying to be the best golfer in the world. She wants to be able to take advantage of corporate partnerships, philanthropy and other projects. But she knows those opportunities are driven by success on the course. She knows she has to perform at the highest level to do other things."
Over the years, Wie and the team around her -- including her parents -- have been criticized by some for being more "style" than substance. But anyone who's watched her game evolve, especially over the past two years, knows Wie has matured quite a bit from the potential-filled prodigy who first garnered all that attention more than a decade ago.
Her game is in a good groove. She finished second at the season's first major, the Kraft Nabisco Championship, and then later in April won in her home state of Hawaii. The week after the U.S. Women's Open, she tied for eighth at the tour stop in Arkansas -- her 10th top-10 finish in 2014.
There doesn't appear to be any major-breakthrough hangover for Wie. Yes, she and her good pals did party after Pinehurst, and some images of twerking and imbibing found their way to the Internet. But photos of rather standard 20-something revelry didn't raise any ruckus.
Wie appeared radiant and effervescent in various television interviews in New York a couple of days after the U.S. Women's Open before going to compete in Arkansas. If you were judging crossover star potential on how much energy and humor Wie put into those media opportunities, you would say she looked and acted the part of what the LPGA longs for. That is, a personality well-known outside of the sports world.
Q Scores, the New York-based agency that measures celebrities' familiarity and appeal to the U.S.-based public, hasn't updated Wie's score yet after her major win. But according to Henry Schafer, executive vice president of the firm, Wie had been starting to trend back up earlier this year, even before her victories.
"The average Q score for golf personalities is 17," Schafer said. "And she's at 14 right now, after being at a high of around 16 in years past. But given that she won the U.S. Open this year, I would think she's going to get more exposure. That should impact her rating when we measure it again."
That new Q score likely will reflect what already seems evident: that Wie's victories benefit the LPGA. Friendly rivals such as Stacy Lewis, the current No. 1-ranked player, and Lexi Thompson, the Kraft Nabisco winner, laud the popularity boost that Wie brings the tour, even as they, also, are adding to that.
Whan said when he took over as LPGA commissioner in 2010, he was asked a lot about whether he "needed" Wie to win in order for the tour to be successful.
"I thought that was kind of overkill for Michelle and for the LPGA, but I understood the question," Whan said. "From the standpoint of, some stars are just bigger.
"Based on her win in Hawaii, and her close call at the Kraft Nabisco, we could kind of already see this coming, just in terms of the amount of interest she generates. I think the U.S. Open was a whole other step. There aren't a ton of athletes who can transcend their sport, but Michelle has that possibility."