In a Sports Illustrated interview this past April, NBA player Jason Collins made history by becoming the first professional male athlete in the four big US pro sports leagues to declare—while still an active player—that he is gay. Brands have anticipated for some time that someone would one day break this barrier. Now that Collins has, what happens next? What’s changed and why?
Not that long ago, most of us in the brand marketing industry would have predicted that any athlete who came out would be throwing away opportunities for endorsement contracts with all major brands. But recently, news leaked that brands as big as Nike have quietly let it be known they are interested in talking to any major name athlete who is contemplating coming forward to declare he (or she) is gay. If this is true, then being gay may actually be an asset when it comes to lucrative endorsement deals.
The biggest factor leading to this change is the dramatically increased acceptance of gay sexual orientation in this country, a change that happened faster than even some gay rights advocates predicted. Importantly, the professional sports industry was especially ready for this change because of the way the image of sports has been tarnished in recent years. Performance-enhancing drug scandals, players’ bad boy behavior, and outrageously high contract demands are among the factors that have disenchanted fans. Many feel that the days of athletes with true character—icons that we can all look up to—are long gone. Other fans simply want these distractions gone and to get back to the pure athleticism of the game. With so much negative news each day about the economy, terrorism, natural disasters, etc., we want our heroes back now more than ever.
That’s why Jason Collins, or perhaps a more well-known player still to be revealed, is exactly what pro sports needs. And that makes him— and others if the Ravens’ Brendon Ayanbadejo’s claim is true regarding a number of players who are poised to emerge from the closet—just what brands are looking for as well. Collins’ announcement has not only received positive comments from much of America, it’s brought out some of the best qualities in the world of professional sports. Sports reporters and team owners have almost unanimously spoken out in support of Jason, along with highly supportive comments from Collins’ fellow players. In truth, the few voices in the sports culture that said anything to the contrary have been heavily criticized by their peers. Collins has been labeled a hero when true sports heroes (especially off the field) are in short supply.
Thus, in a very unpredictable way, the issue of gay players has brought out the best in the culture of professional sports: teamwork, a focus on character, and positive stories. Negative coverage of pro sports has largely disappeared from the country’s front pages.
Smart marketers realize that the movement being created isn’t about Jason Collins, or even gay players. It’s about sports stepping up again to the expectations we all have of professional competition, embodying some of the best qualities we as human beings have to offer: integrity, honor, and the nobility of the competitive spirit.
That may sound a bit over-the-top when we’re talking about a ballplayer hawking a sports drink or a pair of sneakers, but we’ve always put sports in a special place in our culture. We celebrate when athletes prevail, and suffer when they fall, on and off the court.
After watching the mistakes of other pro sports, the NHL proactively created a partnership called the “You Can Play” Project to fight homophobia in professional sports. In a video, the players spoke the words that say it best: “If you can skate, you can skate. If you can score, you can score. If you can play, you can play.” Brands are realizing that’s true, or that it should be. And smart brands are realizing that the best move is to play in this new game.
Brad Fuller is US managing director at full-service marketing agency RIVET Global. A 20+ year marketing industry veteran, he has worked at numerous agencies, including Momentum, Glennon, and Zipatoni. His client experience covers a broad spectrum of accounts in categories from CPG to QSR, including financial services, soft drinks, hardware, beer, and baby products.