Gay NFL Prospect’s Appeal to Endorsers Will Depend on His Play

Michael Sam’s income from off-field activities will be determined by his on-field performance and not his sexual orientation.

Sam, who is eligible to be selected in May’s National Football League draft, in separate interviews with ESPN and the New York Times two days ago said he was gay, making public what he’d told University of Missouri teammates before last season.

“Long term, his play will have the biggest impact on his ability to maintain endorsements and sponsorships,” said Mark Elderkin, chief executive officer of the Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based Gay Ad Network. “He needs to prove himself as a person and professional athlete.”

The 6-foot-2, 255-pound defensive end last season was named the Co-Defensive Player of the Year after leading the Southeastern Conference with 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss, helping the Tigers to the conference championship game.

Most NFL draft evaluators, including ESPN’s Mel Kiper, Jr., peg Sam as a mid-round draft pick. A third-round pick is paid about $2.5 million to $3.5 million in salary and bonuses over four years.

New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick said in a statement that his franchise evaluates players, including Sam, “based on the totality of who they are and who can best contribute to our team and organization, regardless of the matters being discussed today.”

Golden State Warriors President Rick Welts, who three years ago told the world he was gay in a front-page story in the New York Times, in a telephone interview said Sam is “the perfect guy to play this part.”

“I just can’t imagine better casting for this role,” Welts said. “There’s no debate if he can play. Gosh, to see what a composed, articulate, confident guy that he is, all of those attributes are going to be important.”

NFL Praise

The NFL, the most-watched U.S. sports league that generated about $9.5 billion in revenue during the 2013 season, in a statement said it admired Sam’s courage and honesty.

“Any player with ability and determination can succeed in the NFL,” the statement said. “We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014.”

NFL Players Association President Domonique Foxworth, who is enrolled at Harvard Business School, in an e-mail said the NFL is more progressive than it gets credit for, citing as an example breast cancer awareness month, during which players and referees wear pink.

“If I put my b-school hat on I recognize that there was a huge marketing benefit to a demographic that is very important - - women,” he said. “This can do the same thing for the league, a team and Sam himself. Provided Michael’s assimilation into the league is as seamless as I expect, growth into a younger and presumably new market segment is available for the league and the right team.”

Limited Portfolio

One of Sam’s agents, Cameron Weiss of Empire Athletes, said his client will probably soon sign shoe and apparel contracts, and perhaps one other deal, in addition to the usual pre-draft contracts for memorabilia and trading cards.

“For now, we want to keep things tight,” Weiss said in an e-mail.

A likely partner would be Nike Inc., which has made no secret of its desire to include an active gay athlete in its stable of endorsers. Nike’s pitchmen include former National Basketball Association player Jason Collins, who last year said he was gay in a Sports Illustrated cover story. Collins, a 12-year veteran, wasn’t signed to a contract by any teams this season.

“Unlike Jason Collins, it’s good to see a pro athlete at the beginning of their career come out,” Elderkin said in a telephone interview. “It’ll be more impactful, absolutely.”

Ample Opportunity

Bob Witeck, a gay-marketing strategist and corporate consultant, has said the first openly gay team-sport athlete -- provided he’s a recognizable name -- would earn millions in endorsements and speaking engagements from companies seeking to capture more of the buying power of an adult U.S. lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender population that he pegged at $830 billion last year.

Comcast Corp.’s NBC during its telecast of the Winter Olympics opening ceremony aired two General Motors Co.’s Chevrolet brand commercials that featured same-sex couples.

Paul Swangard, the managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon, in a telephone interview said an athlete being gay isn’t enough to keep endorsers interested.

Next Generation

“As I run by a list of factors that would make someone marketable, this particular revelation doesn’t make the top five,” Swangard said.

Witeck said Sam will benefit from what he called a “post Sochi world,” referring to the Russian host city of the Olympics that has an anti-gay law. Witeck said companies took a beating on social media for not being more outspoken against the law and Sam represents a way for them to respond.

“What these companies want is to be a brand for the next generation,” he said. “That’s where a 24-year-old athlete is different than a thirty-something Jason Collins.”

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