Before he became the first active athlete from one of North America's four major professional leagues to come out as openly gay on Monday, most non-NBA fans had probably never heard of Jason Collins -- a role player now in the twilight of his professional basketball career. His bravery in breaking down that barrier instantly made him a famous name with the sport of powerful personal story that marketers crave. But Bob Dorfman, the creative director at Baker Street Advertising and a nationally recognized sports analyst and author of The Sports Marketers' Scouting Report, says companies will have to tred lightly when trying to capitalize on Collins' story.
What are your general thoughts on how companies/advertisers will react to Collins?
Companies will respond very positively. It would have helped if he was a bigger star. He's not exactly a household name or a household face. It's not like LeBron James is coming out, or someone is a more well-known athlete. Still, the LGBT market they say is close to a $1 trillion market in buying power. There is a lot of opportunity there. There are a lot-of gay-friendly companies that would want to use him in a positive, uplifting sort of message. But there could be a little backlash, where people could say 'that company is just using this gay athlete to take advantage, to make a quick buck off of him.' A company would have to be very careful about how they talk about him as not to be perceived as just taking advantage of him and of the moment.
What companies or categories of sponsors would be interested in him?
There are companies who are more gay-friendly than others. Think of Target, Levis, Apple – some companies have done advertising to that market or at least shown affinity for the market. Then there are conservative markets like Chik-Fil-A and Walmart who would not likely be attracted to that market.
What about opportunities beyond endorsements?
Then I would expect there would be lots of offers for book deals and speaking engagements. People will be very eager to hear his story, how he has dealt with this, why he decided now to come out. He could do very well financially with the "extra" stuff. A lot of people will reach out to him and will want to meet him. He'll be very well-received. I believe it could be worth some seven figures to him. He may be a marginal basketball player, not a star, but it could be worth that much to him in marketing opportunities.
Will the traditional sports brands – like apparel, sports drinks, soft drinks – be drawn to him?
Traditional jock products like Nike and Gatorade are performance-based products. I think Nike would certainly do something with him, perhaps a political statement or message that indicates they are behind him and what he stands for, without being to hucksterish about it. Nike usually has a tasteful way of handling things like this, although they had a faux pas with Tiger Woods (the 'winning takes care of everything ad'). But I would think they will have a very uplifting sort of message to build around him. I could see him becoming part of the Gatorade stable. I can't see him being the lead or sole athlete in a campaign, but a part of a campaign and a great way for a performance-based company to expand their demographic and reach the large gay and lesbian market.
Any other kinds of companies you could see having interest in working with Collins?
I could perhaps see fashion or grooming product companies being drawn to working with him, without being too stereotypical.
What sort of tone or presentation would you expect from campaigns that might include Collins?
It has to be an uplifting market or it has to be subtle. No company is going to want to hit you over the head with this. This should be an accepted standard, and we are way beyond hearing the hard-core, 'hey, there should be gay athletes, and we're behind them.' We are beyond that, and it was only a matter of time before a gay athlete came out in a big-4 sport. It must be handled matter-of-factly. You might see him in an ad with little or very subtle mention of his name. If you try too hard with this, it can back-fire and look like you are taking advantage. I think he will become a very popular face.