If he gets drafted by an NFL team, Michael Sam’s abilities on the gridiron may not be the only thing that attracts sponsors to the defensive lineman. The first openly gay pro football player would be a hot commodity for brands trying to connect with the LGBT community or to burnish their diversity creds.
Marketing experts say he could tackle a lucrative, seven-figure-a-year career as a pitchman, as long as he performs on the field.
“It’s best for Sam to be known as ‘the really good football player who happens to be gay,’ rather than ‘the gay guy who plays football,’” said Larry DeGaris, sports marketing professor at the University of Indianapolis.
Sam said he told his teammates and coaches last year that he was gay, according to reports. And a statement from the NFL said: "We admire Michael Sam's honesty and courage. Michael is a football player. Any player with ability and determination can succeed in the NFL. We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014."
Whether the NFL is ready now for an openly gay player is a different question. From a marketing standpoint, being first gives Sam an edge. Although he’s a college football star, the big endorsement opportunities in the NFL tend to go to more well-known offensive players such as quarterbacks, said Bob Dorfman, executive creative director at Baker Street Advertising.
“It takes something a little out of the ordinary for a defensive player… to be a million-dollar endorser,” he said.
“He’s instantly become a household name,” said Dorfman, who thinks Sam could be worth seven figures a year in off-the-field opportunities, profitable speaking gigs or a book deal.
By coming out openly, he's getting a lot of brand visibility, said Rick Burton, a professor of sports management at Syracuse University. “He has something that sponsors value, which is a brand, and he didn’t have that brand yesterday.”
Branding experts generally see Sam’s announcement as a plus for his career, especially if the 6-foot-2, 260-pound defensive player of the year in the Southeastern Conference is a star on the field.
“If he produces as a player, nothing else will matter,” Burton said. “My sense is that sponsors or companies looking for endorsements are probably going to take a wait-and-see approach,” he said.
Of course, some advertisers might shy away from him, especially if they or their consumers tend to be conservative. But experts also said the U.S. is changing; more than half of Americans support marriage for same-sex couples, according to a recent Quinnipiac University poll.
“Lately there have been some commercials, even Super Bowl commercials, where you saw gay couples… the tide is turning,” Dorfman said.
While brands that have a history of being gay-friendly would certainly be interested in working with Sam, Dorfman said companies that have not typically gotten involved in gay-rights issues also might come calling.
“It even could be companies like Apple or one of the tech companies,” he said. “It could be fashion, where there’s already a little more gay acceptance, possibly grooming products. It could be soft drink commercials, it could be fast food… It’s pretty wide open.”
When NBA player Jason Collins said he was gay last year, sponsor Nike issued a statement in support of Collins, and Dorfman said it wouldn’t be surprising if the company was interested in Sam, as well. “Nike has always been a kind of trendsetter and cutting edge,” he said. “I think a company like Nike would likely be an ideal company to sign him.”
Bob Dilenschneider, founder and principal of PR and branding firm The Dilenschneider Group, predicted Sam’s coming-out could open the door to other gay athletes. “I think this is going to bring out more gay players in the NFL,” he said.