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Coming Out Boosts Collins Marketability, Experts Say

USA Today, May 01, 2013

By Erik Brady

When the week began, Jason Collins was a free-agent NBA journeyman who had played sparingly for the Washington Wizards, one of the league’s worst teams, not exactly a candidate for lucrative endorsement deals.

Tuesday was his first full day as an out gay athlete and experts say endorsement deals will almost certainly be his for the taking.

“If he wants to capitalize on that, and that’s always a question, then the opportunities will be there, for sure,” said Jim Andrews, senior vice president of content strategy at IEG.

Collins is the first active openly gay male athlete in one of the four major North American team sports. He revealed that to the world in a first-person essay for Sports Illustrated that ran online Monday.

“Jason represents courage and bravery and being who you are,” said Cyd Zeigler, a manager of OutSports, a leading website on gay sports. “These are values most American companies would want to be associated with.”

Andrews said mainstream companies that market to the LGBT community include MillerCoors, Target, Subaru, American Airlines and “almost all of the banks and financial services companies.”

Chris Raih, managing director of Zambezi, an ad agency specializing in sports and entertainment, suggests companies such as Levi’s and Gap.

“I think it is less about ‘gay brands,’ whatever that means,” Raih said, and more about brands “that organically fit into the champion pioneer in all of us.”

He said he could envision Collins as part of an ensemble ad campaign with others who have “broken perceived barriers,” such as Girls actor-writer-director Lena Dunham and Twitter creator Jack Dorsey.

Paul Swangard, who oversees sports business studies at the University of Oregon, thinks that “Collins’ best marketing opportunities will likely be targeted speaking engagements and group/corporate outings.”

Raih thinks Collins could eventually write a book or turn up as a talking head on TV: “The more interesting possibilities are post-career, transcending his day job.”

Even so, Swangard thinks it is important that Collins play in the NBA next season to remain marketable. His coming-out “adds a dimension to his assets as a player that makes him more viable in the free agency market.”

Moreover, Swangard thinks the NBA “is the right league, with the right player, at the right moment.

It’s been viewed as a forward-thinking league on various fronts, what with female referees, its women’s league, its aggressive efforts internationally.”

What advice would Andrews give Collins?

“Be very judicious in accepting the right types of partnerships,” Andrews said.

“No. 1, you don’t want to be seen as exploiting the situation. You don’t want anyone to say, ‘Well, this is why he decided to come out, because he knew there was a big commercial opportunity to make millions of dollars.’ ”

The notion that his sexual orientation could net endorsements for Collins shows how much the world has changed since Martina Navratilova came out in 1981 and lost endorsement deals.

“If you think about the last 30 years, obviously as a society it has been a kind of incremental acceptance,” Andrews said, “and it has certainly accelerated in the last 15 years and more in the last five. But just because he has come out does not mean he will be universally accepted. There are still bound to be some people in the sports world who are uncomfortable with an out gay athlete.”

That includes some companies.

“There are certainly some brands, whether because they are privately owned or their ownership is more conservative,” Andrews said.

“I’m thinking of a company like Chick-fil-A. Obviously they are not going to embrace an openly gay spokesperson, sports-related or not. Certain brands have chosen not to market to the LGBT community and they will continue not to do that.”

The Chick-fil-A fast food chain made news last year when the company’s chief operating officer made public comments opposing same-sex marriage.

“But we have certainly seen many more mainstream brands who have said this is an important segment of our population,” Andrews said, “both from a social perspective as well as a bottom line, whatever the estimates are about how many hundreds of millions of dollars in buying power they represent.”