Getting in on the Gay: Sports Marketing to LGBTs

by Antoinette Weil

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday July 8, 2013

Two of the biggest media sensations on the sports circuit right now, 22 year-old Brittney Griner and 34 year-old Jason Collins, have become household names and LGBT heroes. Their popularity has extended beyond the court and both are looking at the sweet benefits of being marketable.

Griner made history last month becoming the first openly gay athlete to be signed for an endorsement deal with Nike. The six-foot-eight 2013 first overall draft pick for the Women's National Basketball Association was making waves for her game long before coming out as lesbian. The athleticism and star potential that seem innate in Griner made her an obvious choice for major endorsement deals. But it's what is in her contract with Nike that is undeniably groundbreaking. Griner will be wearing and modeling clothing branded for men in ads.

Traditionally, women signed to major endorsement deals have worn, well, women's clothing. But donning a sports bra and spandex hotpants doesn't suit Griner -- it's just not her style. And that's fine with Nike. Griner will be modeling men's sportswear and the skateboarding line, Nike SB, and she'll be as cool and comfortable as Maria Sharpova in a tennis skirt.

It's this break from the norm that has tongues wagging and LGBTs and their allies thrilled.

"It signals a shift in attitudes in general," said Brian Kitts, co-founder of the You Can Play Project (an LGBT group that aims to end homophobia in sports) and adjunct professor of Sports Marketing for the University of Denver. "Sports marketing and retail marketing are aware that inclusivity and diversity have value. Things that make fans feel good about a product is something they want."

Apparently a great many fans feel good about the coupling of individuality and inexplicable talent found in Griner.

"Any visibility is great," said Avery Stone, a student leader for the inclusivity-fostering organizations GO! Athletes and the You Can Play Project. "I think this sponsorship deal is amazing. It normalizes the fact that you can present however you want."

Griner, cool-as-a-cucumber in her own skin and her own style, presents who she is on the inside with an unwavering confidence that makes her magnetic.

"LGBTQ phobia exists everywhere all around the world," said Kye Allums, GO! Athletes Director and first openly transgender Division One basketball player. "Having confidence shuts that down."

"She can change the way people think," Lindsey Kawaga Colas, Griner's agent at Wasserman Media Group told ESPN, "And her success will mean society is working a little better for everyone."

Collins, already sponsored by Nike, is thought to be in line for some new sponsorship deals as well, after his groundbreaking coming out story. Although that will probably depend on what happens with his free agency, says Kitts. Even without big companies throwing endorsements at him, however, Collins will surely be in high demand on the speaking circuit from here on out, and he still has that Nike contract.

Collins sported a tee from the conglomerate’s new #BeTrue collection at the Boston Pride Parade last month, giving Nike exactly the type of buzz that a sponsored athlete should provide. The line was created to raise awareness and support for LGBT issues and the proceeds will benefit The LGBT Sports Coalition.

"Nike for the first time with their Be True campaign made it cool to support this message and movement," said Stone.

"It’s only going to create more visibility," said Allums. "I would not be surprised if more companies started jumping on board."

Kitts agrees that more companies will get on board, but says in terms of outreach to LGBT fans, the sports marketing world is fairly far behind. Gay couples and individuals are now a staple of mainstream media and marketers for various products and retailers have taken notice. From Amazon Kindle to J.C. Penny to Covergirl, gay spokespeople and gay lifestyles are being presented in a light that is so accepted that it seems completely ordinary. Yet, here we are crying hoorah for the first major sports company to sign their first gay athlete.

"Anyone over the next couple years who has the courage to come out and a great personality are going to be marketable," said Kitts. "But, athleticism is the most important thing in sponsorship. The novelty of being gay and the novelty of sponsoring gay athletes will wear off and eventually we’ll see sexual orientation fall by the wayside and recognize people for their great athleticism."

The question now, with the emergence of trans athletes like Allums and Mixed Martial Arts fighter Fallon Fox, is when the T segment of the LGBT community will start to be represented in athletics and in marketing and media.

GO! Athletes created the #Fight4Fallon campaign to support Fox, who Aagenes calls "a heroic female athlete."

"It will be the same process we’ve had to go through with black athletes and gay athletes and all other minorities," said Kitts. "Education is the thing that is going to put these athletes on an equal playing field."

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