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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, October 6, 2005

Banking on a one-and-only

Photo gallery
Video: Highlights from yesterday morning's press conference
Audio: Q&A from the press conference
Reader poll: Is going pro the right thing for Wie?
 •  Wie takes first steps in a brilliant career
 •  World watches Wie begin 'new journey'
 •  Millions richer, but best yet to come
 •  To other kids, Wie's a shining example
 •  Wie will have target on her back

By Ferd Lewis
Advertiser Staff Writer

Golf’s newest millionaire, Hawai‘i’s 15-year-old Michelle Wie, stretches next to her agent, Ross Berlin, of the William Morris Agency, before a photo opportunity at the Waialae Country Club.

RICHARD AMBO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Twenty-one months after Sony gave Michelle Wie the biggest break of her fledgling career with a sponsor's exemption into the Sony Open in Hawai'i, the electronics and entertainment giant is counting on their association to pay global dividends.

While Sony took some criticism for the ground-breaking 2004 tournament exemption, Wie's performance on the nationally televised stage, where she captured imaginations in missing a PGA Tour cut by one stroke, helped set in motion yesterday's $8 million to $10 million pro deal.

Now, as the company tries to create what its chief executive, Howard Stringer, has called "champion products," it is counting upon Wie to be its champion marketer of some of them for an estimated $4 million to $5 million per year.

"We have a young, superstar, elite player who complements the same thing Sony means, quality, innovation and style," said Mike Fasulo, chief marketing officer for Sony.

Where Nike, which will ante up on the rest of the multi-million dollar package, was seen as an automatic fit for Wie, extending the reach Tiger Woods has given it for a decade, Sony's tie-in with the Punahou School junior is more intriguing.

For one thing, Sony hasn't delved much into individual athletic sponsorships. What few there are, such as Peyton Manning and NASCAR's Ryan Newman, have been primarily for domestic consumption. But Wie is being positioned to blaze new, global trails.

For another, the investment in Wie comes two weeks after Sony announced a major restructuring that includes a 6.6 percent cut in global workforce, the closing of 17 percent of manufacturing plants and reduction of product categories.

Yet, it was a deal that all concerned say came together quickly given their nearly two-year association. "When it came time to push the buttons (on the deal), they were pushed very fast, which, for a corporation as large as Sony, is pretty impressive," said Ross Berlin, who oversees Wie's career for the William Morris Agency.

"It was interesting how quickly this came together for us because we weren't in the market for an athlete," Fasulo said. "But we'd had a long-term relationship already with Michelle and when she contemplated turning pro, it just started to roll for both parties."

For Sony, the appeal is that, "she hits a key age group, the 10- to 30-year-olds, right in the sweet spot for Sony," Berlin said. "This is a marriage made in heaven."

Analysts expect Wie to play a role in Sony's PlayStation Portable, or PSP, line. "They want to turn it into the portable video player of choice and, ultimately, they are probably going to put music on there and try to make it into a little mini iPod," said Michael Pachter, an industry analyst with Wedbush Morgan Securities. "So, I can see how Michelle Wie may represent this active lifestyle person who uses this device."

But Fasulo said Wie's association, "won't be limited to a single line. We'll work out the details as products come to market."

The first series of the Wie campaign could come as soon as January for the Sony Open, where the company is expected to extend its sponsorship.

"We're not commenting on (the tournament extension) today," Fasulo said. "But that is coming in a few weeks — and I mean, literally, weeks — when we have a briefing to go over the specifics."

Reach Ferd Lewis at flewis@honoluluadvertiser.com.