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Brand Reputation: the Cost (or Not) of Being a Gay Athlete

National Basketball Association (NBA) player Jason Collins became the first in major US team sport to come out last month. But what affect it will have on both his on-court and off-court commercial value?

'I’m a 34-year-old NBA centre. I’m black. And I’m gay' was the opening sentence of Jason Collins’ essay in Sports Illustrated magazine on May 6 2013. 'I didn’t set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport. But since I am, I’m happy to start the conversation.'

His decision was received with almost universal support, from both in and out of sport, including NBA and Nike, the player’s long-time sponsor. “I want to salute Collins for making more space in the world for more people barred by social norms from being fully who they are,” said influential political blogger Andrew Sullivan. “He has single-handedly increased the level of oxygen gay athletes can breathe.”

The immediate reaction from sports industry commentators on social media was that Collins’ decision would prompt an outpouring of endorsement money from brands seeking to make a statement on the issue of diversity.

John Amaechi, the first former NBA player to publicly announce his homosexuality, says it is difficult to predict how accurate that assertion is. “The idea that because Jason has come out he is about to benefit from a sponsor gold rush should be treated with great suspicion,” he told SportBusiness International.

“I hope that is right, but let’s wait for the papers to be signed.”

Although Collins is the first to come out in the American major leagues, there have been other trailblazers – most notably United States international footballer Robbie Rogers, who made his debut for LA Galaxy last month, and England cricketer Steven Davies – who have been, on the whole, quietly ignored by the sponsor community.

Like Amaechi, Martina Navratilova was one of the sane voices urging restraint in the rush to proclaim Collins as the poster boy for a new era of enlightened sports industry attitudes.

“Remember Reggie White? In the 1990s, the [Green Bay] Packers star appeared in a newspaper advertising campaign to persuade gays and lesbians that they could ‘cease’ their homosexuality. The NFL responded with…a lot of silence,” she said.

Navratilova estimated that coming out cost her in the region of $10 million in sponsorship deals. “When I came out, in 1981, I didn’t have much public support and I know I lost endorsements,” she said.

“But I never had to worry about losing my job. In tennis, there are no bosses, no general managers and no coaches who can keep players from competing. So I was safe in that regard. “For team sports athletes, this is not the case. A homophobic coach at any level – high school, college or in professional sport – could keep a player from playing. Remember Rene Portland, the women’s basketball coach at Penn State?

She proudly boasted that she would not allow a lesbian on her team. In the past, that kind of homophobia would have had support from the front office. Why come out when – apart from dealing with all the other complications – it could kill your sports career?”

For Amaechi, no athlete would come out in the expectation of greater sponsorship return. “It is just not part of the decisionmaking process,” he says. However, cynics point out that Collins’ contract expires in July, with questions as to whether his on-court performance – an average of only 1.1 points and 1.6 rebounds for the Washington Wizards in 2012/13 – would merit a renewal.

Five NBA general managers told Sports Illustrated that Collins’s sexuality will have nothing to do with whether they sign him, they’re just not sure if he can produce anymore. Also, because of his tenure in the league, Collins will command $1.4 million in his next contract, $885,000 paid by the team. A second-round pick would make his minimum salary $490,000.

As ever, Nike’s role in the issue is worth noting. The sub-plot runs that post-Lance Armstrong’s admission of doping earlier this year, Nike was keen to be at the front a potentially brand-defining good news story.  The normally positive Nike PR team tried to strike an understated tone when the story broke.

“Jason [Collins] is a Nike athlete. We are a company committed to diversity and inclusion,” was how it met the Collins news, hardly a bells and whistles endorsement. This was, however, later updated to a less corporate response: “We admire Jason’s courage and are proud that he is a Nike athlete. Nike believes in a level playing field where an athlete’s sexual orientation is not a consideration.”

Collins’ decision was unlikely to have been taken without the full involvement of Nike. Interestingly, a few weeks before Collins came out, Nike signed Women’s NBA rookie Brittney Griner to a reportedly big contract only days after she stated her homosexuality, while last year also saw the first-ever Nike LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) Sport Summit in Portland.

Do brands only want vanilla athletes?

It remains to be seen whether Jason Collins stands for anything beyond the next big media moment. The endorsement market is famously conservative, says Amaechi, who adds that we should be cautious before  applying greater meaning to one brave and intensely personal decision.

“Brands want vanilla athletes, people who stand for nothing. There’s less risk that way,” he says. “If you have strong convictions about child poverty, the question of where your shoes are made instantly becomes a factor.”

American brands, Amaechi says, exist in a country where 29 states have laws denigrating gay and lesbian people via the controversial Proposition 8 legislation.

“Will they move to alienate that number of people? Many of those brands are entirely more comfortable with gay issues than the states they exist in, but it remains a risk factor,” he adds.

“Jason Collins is gay. He is also a very clever person. How many clever people get sponsored? How many people attract sponsors for the saying and thinking things that matter?”

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