Analysis: Sponsorship dollars may follow gay NFL hopeful Sam

Mon Feb 10, 2014 8:02pm EST
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By Lisa Richwine and Ronald Grover

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - NFL-hopeful Michael Sam's disclosure that he is gay has propelled him into a media spotlight that is sure to grab the attention of football's biggest corporate sponsors, which will embrace the college star so long as he excels on the field.

Sam, a standout defensive lineman at the University of Missouri, could become the NFL's first openly gay player, testing both the sport's boundaries and the attitudes of the companies that pay athletes millions of dollars to endorse their shoes, apparel and brands.

Companies may have shied away from gay athletes in the past, but attitudes have shifted enough that Sam's sexual orientation shouldn't stop him from getting the auto, soda, soup and other endorsements that have come the way of other NFL players, branding experts say.

In fact, his bold decision to come out before NFL teams consider him in the May draft could boost his appeal to marketers. Sam said he was gay in a video posted on the New York Times' website.

"He has raised his visibility by this announcement, which can be a benefit," said Jack Bechta, an NFL agent and president and chief executive officer of NFL Advisors, which handles marketing for clients including ex-Green Bay Packers cornerback Al Harris and Falcons defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux.

"We're in uncharted territory as to what a brand might think," Bechta said. "I can see a brand like Nike taking him, absolutely. They could treat him as a part of their overall message."

Nike, one of the largest corporate sponsors in U.S. sports, has aggressively promoted a message of inclusiveness and earlier this year launched its #BETRUE shoe collection with rainbow colors in support of gay pride.

Last year, the athletic shoe and apparel brand sponsored National Basketball Association player Jason Collins and hailed his "courage" for being the first male athlete active in a major sport to come out.   Continued...

Missouri Tigers defensive lineman Michael Sam (52) reacts after the game at Memorial Stadium after Missouri defeated Indiana 45-28 in Bloomington, Indiana in this file photo from September 21, 2013. Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports