If anyone can relate to Jason Collins, it’s Golden State Warriors President Rick Welts, a former National Basketball Association chief marketing officer who says the first openly gay male athlete in a major U.S. team sport can cash in by coming out.
Provided Collins wants to.
“People are going to take a step back and take in what happens over the next few days,” said Welts, 60, who two years ago told the world he was gay in a front-page story in The New York Times. “They’re going to see an amazing rallying around Jason and what he chose to do. From that will flow opportunities. I’m not sure what Jason wants. It may or may not fit in with what he wants to accomplish.”
Collins, a 34-year-old veteran of 12 NBA seasons, made his announcement last Monday in a Sports Illustrated cover story.
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“I didn’t set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport,” Collins said in the story. “But since I am, I’m happy to start the conversation.”
While his name might not be familiar to casual sports fans, being the first openly homosexual player in a major professional league is enough to garner attention from progressive companies seeking to use an athlete endorser, says Bob Witeck, a gay-marketing strategist and corporate consultant whose clients include American Airlines.
Witeck said Collins, a free agent who spent this season with the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards, stands to reap millions of dollars from speaking engagements and endorsements from companies seeking to capture more of a U.S. lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender adult population whose annual buying power he pegs at almost $800 million.
“Every young, black male who has nothing but a street, hoop and ball wants to be a Jason Collins,” Witeck said. “Some of those kids who are gay don’t have to deny themselves that chance.”
A product of Stanford University, Collins said he began thinking about coming out during the 2011 NBA lockout and was further motivated by the bombings at the Boston Marathon.
Collins already has a sponsorship contract with Nike, the world’s largest sporting-goods company, whose founder, Phil Knight, said he’d welcome a gay athlete endorser.
“We admire Jason’s courage and are proud that he is a Nike athlete,” said Brian Strong, a spokesman for Beaverton, Ore.-based Nike. “Nike believes in a level playing field where an athlete’s sexual orientation is not a consideration.”
When it comes to Nike and marketing, Welts said, the only predictable element is the company’s unpredictability. The Warriors’ president said he doesn’t know what the endorsement will be, but he can guess what it won’t.
“This is not just somebody holding up a product and saying, ‘Buy this,’ ” Welts said. “The company will be making a statement about their brand and he will choose them because it’s a message he wants to deliver.”
Welts said his advice to Collins as a marketer is to be selective.
“Choose something that resonated with what I was trying to accomplish,” he said.
Arn Tellem, Collins’ agent, didn’t immediately respond messages seeking comment.
Among other athletes who have said they are gay are U.S. women’s national soccer team midfielder Megan Rapinoe and Brittney Griner, the first pick in the Women’s NBA draft last month.
Mark Elderkin, chief executive of the Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Gay Ad Network, said that sponsors probably are already lined up for Collins.
“If there’s a cover of Sports Illustrated, it didn’t just happen by chance,” he said. “It’s a controlled event. I imagine the sponsors are in the wings being prepared and those deals are in the works.”
Tennis player Billie Jean King said Collins would pick up sponsorships from his announcement. She said her own endorsements “disappeared overnight” when she was identified as gay in a 1981 lawsuit filed by a former girlfriend.
“It was a cost I can’t equate in money,” said King, winner of 39 Grand Slam titles in singles, doubles and mixed doubles. “But the most important thing is to be free and live your truth.”
Witeck said a gay athlete makes most sense as an endorser for a company in the beverage, automotive, financial or technology fields. They might all be calling.
“He seems to be a very levelheaded, smart, well-educated, full person,” said Jim Andrews, senior vice president of content strategy at IEG, a Chicago-based sponsorship consultant. “I’m sure his representatives are fielding a lot of calls, and will be fielding a lot of calls and emails in the next few weeks.”