By Published on .

Marketers looking for the next big thing in sports have a young, diverse, charismatic crop to pick from. But which ones are the best bets? `Ad Age' looks at the top 10 prospects

just before this year's Wimbledon, Maria Sharapova, the Russian-born, American-bred blonde beauty who made the semifinals before losing to eventual champion Venus Williams, remarked, "I've become a global brand now."

In just over a year, in fact, since winning Wimbledon in July 2004, the 18-year-old tennis star has earned $20 million in endorsements from marketers including Nike, Pepsi-Motorola, Tag Heuer and Colgate-Palmolive, and she's launching her own fragrance.

Like Ms. Sharapova, there are a number of up-and-comers poised to become the next Michael Jordan and Joe Montana. The new generation of superstar endorsers swing golf clubs (Natalie Gulbis), drive race cars (Danica Patrick) and aren't even close to graduating from high school (soccer star Freddy Adu and golf phenom Michelle Wie). There is untapped potential from established stars (Tony Stewart) and oddball sports like poker (Chris Moneymaker.)

But as marketers clamor for the next Jordan, they do so in a changing atmosphere in the business. They want winners, and they want their winners filled with charisma and character. And to bring in big endorsement bucks, they have to keep winning. Until then, they're just Anna Kournikova.

Advertising Age takes a look at the top 10 prospects who could join Ms. Sharapova a year from now in the eight-figure endorsement club. They are listed with the highest potential earners first.

1 Danica Patrick

Two years ago, when she was still a fledgling racecar driver on a smaller circuit, Danica Patrick turned heads when she posed scantily-clad in the lad-mag FHM.

Now the Indy Racing League driver is turning heads for a different reason: She’s good. Really good. Ms. Patrick burst on national scene in May when she finished fourth at what is arguably the most visible race in the world, the Indianapolis 500. She had the lead off a restart with 10 laps to go, but got passed when she had to conserve fuel to finish the race.

Sports Illustrated put her on the cover of the magazine, and she appeared on David Letterman’s "Late Show" on CBS. Well, that was a given. After all, Mr. Letterman and racing legend Bobby Rahal own the team for which Ms. Patrick drives.

Ms. Patrick has signed endorsement deals with Argent Insurance and Bebe clothing that total just over $1 million.

"Our gut instincts will tell us which [offers] we want to deal with and which ones fit me the best," Ms. Patrick said.

Ironically, word on the IRL circuit is that Ms. Patrick’s handlers have purposely avoided deals with beauty products so as not to create an obvious association.

Sport: Car racing

Age: 23

WHY: The fastest woman in a male sport

2 Michelle Wie

At 6 feet tall, she has a golf swing experts say is among the best they’ve ever seen. Tiger Woods good. Her classic Hawaiian beauty is coupled with a personality that is as equally effusive. And Ms. Wie believes her future lies not with the Ladies Professional Golf Association, but by competing on the men’s tour.

Oh. And she’s only 15.

"Marketer’s dream," said Marc Ganis, president of sports-marketing firm SportsCorp, Chicago. "There is a lot of crossover appeal there."

So far, Ms. Wie--managed by her father, B.J. Wie--has maintained her amateur status and has not accepted endorsement money from any company. She has not won on the LPGA tour, but does have three second-place finishes.

But that all could change Oct. 11 when she turns 16. According to Golfweek magazine, Ms. Wie will then turn professional and sign a $12 million endorsement contract with Nike. Like Mr. Woods, she will likely play with Nike equipment in addition to having a clothing line. U.K. magazine Standard Sport also reported that Ms. Wie will sign and endorsement deal with Walt Disney Corp. and a "leading console-game manufacturer."

Sport: Golf

Age: 15

WHY: She could be the next Tiger Woods

3 Tony Stewart

Say what? The 2002 Nascar champ, currently leading the Nextel Cup chase this year, is only a prospect?

Well, if you want to count the money, Mr. Stewart is way up there. His regular salary, his earnings from winning on the track and income from licensing deals earn him almost $15 million per year.

But very little of that comes from endorsements. Mr. Stewart, you see, is what is known in the business as a "hothead." And marketers are leery of hotheads. At varying points during his career, 34-year-old Mr. Stewart has used coarse language during media interviews, chased down a fellow driver after a race looking to start a fight and, in an incident in 2002 that earned him fines and probation from both Nascar and his main sponsor, Home Depot, he punched a photographer after the Brickyard 400 in Indianapolis.

Still, Home Depot has stuck by him as his primary team sponsor. And he has toned it down quite a bit since 2002. But will other sponsors jump on board?

"It has to be the right brand," Mr. Bonham said. "He’s going to have limited marketability throughout his career because he has a personality that isn’t good or bad, it’s just different."

Sport: Car racing

Age: 34

WHY: He’s great on the track... if a little mouthy

4 Natalie Gulbis

She’s the Ladies Professional Golf Association’s pin-up girl. By design.

Ms. Gulbis has her own Web site, her own swimsuit calendar and her own fashion calendar: "It was just a little something I wanted to do, a step away from the normal thing you might see a golf professional get involved in."

Ms. Gulbis is completing a deal to star in her own reality TV series which will chronicle her attempts to market herself. And this one has a neat twist: Her father/manager, John, is a character straight out of central casting. A retired corrections officer, he looks like he just jumped off his Harley after a ride with the Hell’s Angels.

Rest assured the reality TV program will mostly feature the 22-year-old Ms. Gulbis, and she shouldn’t have too many problems nailing down endorsement deals. If marketers are wary of attaching themselves to another Anna Kournikova--all looks, no game--they won’t have that problem with Ms. Gulbis. She is sixth on the LPGA money list this year with almost $800,000 in earnings.

"We think it’s great," said Ty Votaw, the former commissioner of the LPGA Tour. "It is clear to me that she is extremely comfortable with what she is doing."

Sport: Golf

Age: 22

WHY: She’s good and wants to market herself

5 Sidney Crosby

If he hasn’t heard this directly, he’s certainly gotten a sense of it.

"Welcome to the National Hockey League, young man. We know you’re only 18, we know you have to get used to making the jump from the junior leagues to a whole new talent level and we know you have to acclimate yourself to a whole new lifestyle, as does every young player.

"Um, one thing. We kind of need you to save the NHL."

By all regards--even from The Great One himself--Sidney Crosby is the next Wayne Gretzky. But instead of coming into the league and developing at his own pace, Mr. Crosby, who was drafted by the Penguins and will play in Pittsburgh this year, will find things a bit accelerated. The NHL is desperate for a new star and a new face in the wake of a devastating labor dispute that wiped out the 2004-2005 season, including the Stanley Cup playoffs. It was the first time in North American team sports history that an entire league had a season canceled.

Enter Mr. Crosby. He has already signed a five-year, $2.5 million deal with Reebok. Last month, he reached an agreement with Gatorade on a deal that is rumored to be the highest a hockey player has ever signed with the sports drink giant.

Sport: Ice hockey

Age: 18

WHY: The NHL is in need of a new Great One

6 Freddy Adu

The biggest thing for most teenagers is worrying about getting rid of that pimple. For Freddy Adu, it’s carrying the weight of being known as the greatest American soccer prodigy on his slim, 5-foot-8-inch, 150-pound athlete’s shoulders.

Now 16, Mr. Adu became the youngest professional player in American team sport history last year when he was drafted No. 1 by the (Washington) D.C. United of Major League Soccer. Originally from Ghana, he came to the U.S. at the age of 8 with his mother and brother and settled in suburban Washington.

"Great storylines there for any marketer," said David Carter, president of Los Angeles-based Sports Business Group. "His talent can work for another. But, there’s always the 800-pound gorilla in the room with this."

And that is? "Is America going to watch enough soccer for it to be worthwhile? I don’t think so," said one TV sports executive, who asked not to be identified. "Look, the kid is an amazing talent. ... Unfortunately for him, we are not a nation of soccer fans. ... He’s not going to be here what David Beckham is every place else."

Sport: Soccer

Age: 16

WHY: If anyone can hook the U.S. on soccer, it’s Adu

7 Albert Pujols

Baseball’s best Latin-American player is on the cusp of becoming the game’s biggest star. He’s the only man in baseball history to have five consecutive 100-RBI seasons in his first five years in the game, and is generally acknowledged as one of the game’s best pure hitters.

Yet the St. Louis Cardinals slugger is a virtual unknown on Madison Ave. For now, anyway.

And that has been a problem with the game’s Latino players. Pedro Martinez, Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz, Vladimir Guerrero ... all of them superstars in their own right, but with the exception of Mr. Guerrero’s ad for Pepsi this summer, none of the major Latino stars have landed endorsement deals.

When Miguel Tejada won the American League MVP Award for Oakland in 2002, it still didn’t get him an endorsement deal.

And Mr. Guerrero’s ad, with Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees, was telling: neither of them spoke in the spot.

"That’s been one of the problems: getting the Hispanic players to speak English well enough," said one sports marketing expert who asked not to be identified. "But I think with Albert, he could be a breakout endorser."

Sport: Baseball

Age: 23

WHY: Best hitter in baseball is due to break out

8 Eli Manning

Few players enter the National Football League with as much heritage as the New York Giants quarterback. His father, Archie, was a legend at the University of Mississippi and went on to the NFL to quarterback the New Orleans Saints. His brother, Peyton, quarterbacks the Indianapolis Colts and last year broke the league record for most touchdown passes in a season.

Now Eli, 24, begins his second season and it appears the sky is the limit. He has already done spots, with his brother and father, for DirecTV and the "Got Milk?" campaign. He and New York Jets quarterback Chad Pennington have filmed a commercial for Reebok in which the two appear to be playing catch by tossing balls across the Hudson River to each other.

"You always use caution, or the caveat of saying that he has to win, first," said Brandon Steiner, president of Steiner Sports Marketing. "But with his pedigree, and playing in New York, he could be huge."

Mr. Manning injured his elbow two weeks ago and has missed the last two preseason games. But he is expected to start when the Giants open their season on Sept. 11 against the Arizona Cardinals.

Sport: Football

Age: 24

WHY: He’s the young prince of the NFL

9 Shaun White

Never heard of him? Ask your kids.

The 18-year-old with a shock of red hair is the biggest thing in skateboarding right now, thanks to ESPN’s X Games and The Dew Tour on NBC, sponsored by Mountain Dew. Mr. White has deals with a clothing company, a snowboard and skateboard manufacturer, Mountain Dew and Target.

"If you’re trying to reach that young male, here’s the opportunity," said Jim Andrews, senior VP of Chicago-based sponsorship tracking firm IEG.

That’s an understatement. According to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, the number of skateboarders in the U.S. grew 47% between 1998 and 2004, and those that participate in snowboarding are up 30% in the same period. The impact of the so-called alternative sports has been clear, and Mr. White is the poster boy of success.

IEG said that when the X Games began 11 years ago, there was less than $25 million in corporate sponsorships. This summer’s games drew more than $100 million.

"You’re going to see a lot more endorsers start to come from this category," said Mr. Andrews.

Sport: Skateboarding


WHY: He’s the key to that elusive young male demo

10 Chris Moneymaker

He’s a poker player, so if this isn’t the most fitting name in the history of sports, what is?

Normally, such an obscure sport wouldn’t produce a potential endorser. But poker is the hottest craze going right now, thanks in large part to the exposure received on ESPN and the Travel Channel, and shows no signs of abating.

Mr. Moneymaker--yes, that’s his real name--has a compelling back story that would make him a nice fit for any gaming products, including video games. Two years ago, he invested $39 to enter an online poker tournament. If you won $10,000, you earned a spot into the World Series of Poker. He won, and the rest his history. Mr. Moneymaker, now 28, hopped a flight to Las Vegas, competed in the WSOP and won the whole thing, a $2.5 million first prize.

No endorsements yet, but don’t bet against him. Mr. Moneymaker is already lending his name to a series of online satellite tournaments and various events at Harrah's casinos that will culminate in a poker championship next March to benefit Nascar driver Jeff Gordon's charitable foundation.

Sport: Poker

Age: 28

WHY: The best back story in the Hold ‘Em world

Photos: Patrick by Sherry Lavars, Wie by Robert Galbraith, Stewart by Brian Cleary, Gulbis by Andy Attenburger, crosby by Mario Anzuoni

Photos: Adu by Kamenko Ppajic, Pujols by Tom Dipace, Manning by Laura Cavanaugh, White by Mike Fanous, Moneymaker by PR Newswire

In this article:
Most Popular