For Jason Collins, coming out just might prove a winning career strategy.
Before this week, the NBA center seemed like just another second-tier professional athlete, slouching toward retirement while still in his 30s. But all that changed overnight when Collins acknowledged his homosexuality on Monday in an interview with Sports Illustrated magazine.
Now everyone from President Obama on down is talking about him and most of the words have been supportive. That kind of attention could well prove bankable, says Marc Ippolito, of Burns Entertainment, a firm that brings together Fortune 500 companies and celebrities for endorsement.
“It makes him recognizable and definitely puts him in a much more unique place for a marketer,” says Ippolito.
Bob Witeck, a gay-marketing strategist and corporate consultant was less cautious in his assessment, telling Newsday that Collins “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.”
Even so, openly gay is largely an “untested area” when it comes to sports endorsements, says Glenn Selig, chief strategist for The Publicity Agency. He thinks a lot depends on whether Collins, who becomes a free agent after this season, plays next year.
As USA Today‘s Jeff Zillgitt writes, “At 34, Collins’ career is nearing its conclusion. If this was his last season, will it be because there is no longer a spot for Collins because of his diminishing skills or sexual orientation?”
But Bob Dorfman, editor of Sports Marketers Scouting Report, told CNN that while he doesn’t think Collins is “going to be a major spokesman … he could certainly earn seven figures off this.”
Collins already has a sponsorship contract with Nike Inc., which was quick to praise Monday’s revealing announcement, saying it admires his “courage” and is “proud that he is a Nike athlete.”
“Nike believes in a level playing field where an athlete’s sexual orientation is not a consideration,” says Brian Strong, a spokesman for the Beaverton, Oregon-based footwear and clothing giant.
According to Adweek:
“On a pure advertising level, [Collins’] only known sponsor, Nike, seems like the perfect company to push the Washington Wizard center’s courageous public stance as an opportunity to further solidify the brand’s recent history of supporting gay rights. Last week, Nike signed WNBA rookie Brittney Griner to what’s reportedly a big contract only days after she stated her homosexuality. And 10 months ago, the sneakers giant held its first-ever Nike LGBT Sports Summit in its Portland, Ore., hometown.”
The Publicity Agency’s Selig thinks the big brands may want to sit things out until they have time to see how Collins is received on the court, assuming the center plays again.
“How will fans react? How will he be received? This might call for a daring brand to take a chance on him,” Selig says.
“It might be a smaller brand, a little edgy,” he says.
Witeck, the gay-marketing strategist told Newsday that while Collins may not be familiar to casual sports fans, “being the first openly homosexual playing is enough to garner attention from progressive companies seeking to use an athlete endorser.”
Take department store JCPenney. Last year, it featured a gay Fathers’ Day ad and has also signed on lesbian talk show host Ellen DeGeneres as a spokesperson.
“JCPenney wasn’t doing so well, they could afford to take a chance and they needed to draw attention to themselves,” he says.
But short of endorsement deals, Collins has almost certainly boosted his currency on the speaking circuit, Ippolito of Burns says.
The speaking circuit allows you to hone in on a specific audience that is receptive to the message, he says.
“For the right audience, just telling the story how he went from where he was to where he is now could be pretty interesting,” Ippolito says.
“Setting a price will be the difficult thing – he doesn’t want to go too high and kill off his momentum, but too low would not be good either,” he says.