Nike Bets Big on Michelle Wie and LeBron James

Potential is an amazing thing in the world of professional sports. Potential can be rewarded with multi-million dollar endorsement deals before an athlete has even stepped foot on a professional playing field. Highly paid NBA scouts travel the world and go to high school gyms in search of potential. Potential is essentially what professional sports drafts are based upon. Sports executives have become so eager to find the next great up and coming athlete, that they will often pass over proven athletes, in favor of unproven athletes with greater potential. Essentially, it is gambling, or speculating, on the future success of young athletes based solely on their limited amateur track record.

In the last few years, two athletes in two different sports have arrived on the sports scene with perhaps greater potential and definitely higher expectations than we have seen in quite some time. LeBron James, 21, and Michelle Wie, 16, are both very young and exceptionally gifted athletes who carry a world of expectations on their shoulders. Athletic apparel and footwear giant Nike awarded each of these athletes with multi-million dollar endorsement contracts the moment they turned pro. Neither athlete had accomplished anything as a professional, but Nike had seen enough of their amateur careers, and their potential, to speculate on them.

LeBron James was the consensus national high school player of the year as both a junior and a senior. There was so much interest in LeBron’s career that cable companies sold his high school games on pay-per-view. His high school gym could not accommodate all of the fans that wanted to see him play, so most of his games took place at the 6,000 seat University of Akron arena. LeBron was so dominant in high school that he was essentially a man playing against boys. He was so talented and exciting to watch that people were beginning to label him “the next Michael Jordan” even though he was still in high school.

Despite the magnitude of the expectations placed on him, and the enormous hype surrounding him, LeBron seems to be fulfilling his potential. While it is still too early to compare him to Michael Jordan, LeBron has already become an NBA All-Star and is arguably the best player in the NBA today. It is amazing that he has been able to accomplish this despite his incredibly young age and the overwhelming pressure he has faced in the brightest of all spotlights. LeBron will continue to be a huge star and may ultimately be considered one of the best players of all time. Only time will tell.

Michelle Wie’s amateur career was equally impressive. At 13, she became the youngest player to ever win the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links championship. She also competed in her first LPGA major tournament that year and made Sunday’s final pairing before eventually finishing in 9th place. A year later, she competed in a men’s PGA tournament and missed the cut by only one stroke. Not bad for a girl in high school.

Michelle Wie has the potential to change her entire sport. She has perhaps the most potential of any athlete since Tiger Woods, and possibly more. Tiger Woods transformed golf with his enormous talent and popularity. Tiger’s success increased the popularity of golf so much that TV ratings, attendance, tournament purses, and merchandise sales have all grown exponentially since he turned pro. In addition, the increased popularity of golf has led to many new players taking up the game. So much so, in fact, that record numbers of golf courses have sprang up in recent years. Michelle Wie has the potential to make a similar impact on women’s golf. If she is successful, countless numbers of young girls and women will take up the game and LPGA attendance, revenues, and tournament purses will all rise. In addition, with her great size and strength, and the ability to drive the ball 300 yards, she could potentially compete successfully on the men’s tour as well. If that happens, Michelle will bring an even greater spotlight to the game of golf. Once again, only time will tell.

Years from now, we’ll know if LeBron and Michelle have lived up to their hype and impacted their sports much like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods before them. Until then, we can only believe in their potential and watch their careers unfold. That is the beauty of sports. Anything can happen and you have to watch to find out. Stay tuned.

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