The talk of gay male athletes coming out continued this week as Jason Collins joined the Nets, Michael Sam went through the NFL Combine, and closer to home, Drew University catcher Matt Kaplon revealed to his team that he was gay. As someone who went to an all-boys Catholic high school and had classmates and teammates who were gay, went to a Jesuit University where two of my roommates at different times were gay, and have been in and around sports of all kinds where athletes admitted to the world they were gay (as was the case in tennis with Amelie Mauresmo) or there was no secret amongst people on teams or leagues that certain athletes were gay but they did not want to be public about it, this news neither shocks nor offends me in any way. What matters, and should matter from a business and social perspective, is that they are quality athletes, quality people and good brand ambassadors no matter what their private lives are. Period.
Now I realize this is not the case for some others, and maybe it’s because I was raised in an atmosphere that was a little more welcoming and understanding than some, but the fact that athletes reveal their private lives should hopefully become less and less of a factor in the coming months, not years. In all the instances that I have personally seen on every level going back over 30 years, most people cared more about what the character was of the person, male or female, than their choice of a partner. If they could play, that’s what was remembered in the heat of competition. If they couldn’t then you move on. Live and let live.
From a business perspective in sports today, there is a lot of talk about whether the inclusion of openly gay athletes by brands will help or hurt. Will religious groups and conservative groups stage quiet or possibly loud, protests that can hurt the bottom line of a brand, and damage the relationship, at least privately, with a team? Can teams market to an openly gay community with select nights, like they have with church groups or other organizations; will the money be enough to be that proactive? Will there be enough groups to make it important? The WNBA in some markets has tried to be more open about their marketing, and in some cases it has helped. Can or would male sports do the same? Can it be overt or subtle? Will an openly gay male superstar draw more eyeballs and interest from brands than he would if he were just a superstar? That still remains to be seen. For sure it is a more intriguing question and more of a possibility today than it was ever before. However with the marketing of ANY athlete, brands have to make sure that there is both sizzle and steak. You can’t just grab an athlete because he or she is gay and hope to make hay with consumers for long term brand success. They have to be all the things you would want in a brand; good person, smart spokesperson, reflective of your company mission, and a quality athlete who can continue to deliver for the long haul. The NBA made a point this week about how fast-selling Jason Collins jerseys were. The great positive about the sale of Collins jerseys is not about the quantity, it is about awareness. Awareness that a solid, smart thinking professional athlete chose to be first, and in solidarity people are supporting him through jersey sales. Now maybe those dollars could be better targeted to donations to LGBT charities or anti-bullying programs vs. buying a jersey, but that marketing step is next in the process. What’s important for now is that there is not just support but acceptance in a widening circle for any athlete, and in the sometimes byzantine world of team sports in the US, that is certainly a positive step.
Now the Collins popularity may or may not continue should the team keep him as an athlete who can contribute, and it should not reflect poorly on the Nets should they decide to cut him. While Brooklyn, much more than the Knicks in this area, have always been about the sizzle and the sale, it is ultimately about the chemistry and the on-court performance that ultimately determines brand success, not the sale of a few extra licensed products or a group or two. Short term is nice, long term is more important and in the case of sports branding, the healthier, more educated and more inclusive a brand is in society today, the better the culture and the better the business. What we can hope for at some point is that the issue of sexual preference becomes no issue at all, and is rarely covered by media or talked about by fans. If that is so, the steps that any host of athletes, from Martina Navratilova to Dave Kopay to John Amaeche to Greg Louganis to Michael Sam and Jason Collins on the global stage, or athletes like Kaplon at Drew should all be applauded and not forgotten. What we should applaud even more however is their overall success both on a personal and a competitive athlete level. The goal is to have complete, successful role models as smart, upstanding people regardless of color, creed, sexual orientation, ethnic background. We certainly aren’t there, but, hopefully this week was another step forward big and small, and will serve as the right example for brands to look to some pioneering new faces, should they match their courage with career success and most importantly, fit the goals the brand wants to achieve overall.
Winning people make for winning teams, and winning brands.