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Monday, February 10, 2014
The marketing of Michael Sam

By Darren Rovell
ESPN.com

While NFL insiders publicly and privately debate whether Michael Sam will be fully accepted in an NFL locker room, sports marketers are watching how corporate America reacts.

For years, companies have looked for an entry into the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community, seeking to tap into what has been an undermarketed area. Roughly 6 percent of 18- to 34-year-old Americans identify themselves as members of the LGBT community, with just as much disposable income as members of the straight population, according to a recent report by Experian.

"Marketers used to think that doing something with this community was all risk and little reward," said Bob Witeck, a gay sports marketing strategist whose Witeck Communications has worked with corporate brands to ease into the marketplace for the past 20 years. "Now it's the other way around."

While many brands, especially upstarts looking for attention, might be quick to offer Sam a deal, Witeck said the best partnerships will be with companies that have already done their work in this area.

"The brands that succeed in this space already have authenticity in the community," Witeck said. "They actually speak the language to their workforce and outwardly to the marketplace. If they don't do this, it will be seen as exploitive."

Joe Barkett, whose firm Empire Athletes will represent Sam, said he has already discussed with his client how they will approach opportunities.

"We told him that there is going to be a storm of people and companies that are going to want to get a piece," Barkett said. "He has a willingness to do deals, but that's obviously not what drove this."

While Barkett said he expects the offers to be vast, he said his firm will limit what Sam will do.

"He's not going to sign 12 deals," Barkett said. "We'll likely do a shoe and apparel deal and maybe another one over the next couple weeks, and then it's all about getting ready for his combine and pro day."

One company with an automatic edge will be Nike. The world's largest athletic shoe and apparel producer, with an official NFL deal, has a positive record in the LGBT community. Its endorsement roster includes NBA player Jason Collins, who came out last year but hasn't found a team to play on, and Brittney Griner, an openly gay WNBA player who was the first overall pick in last year's draft. Last year, Nike made a $200,000 donation to the LGBT Sports Coalition, which aims to end discrimination of sexual orientation in sports. The company, for two years, has also had a #BETRUE line of products, with the proceeds going to the coalition.

Michael Sam
Which company will be the first to offer Michael Sam an endorsement deal?

No matter what people think, they certainly want to hear what Sam says. In his first 14 hours on Twitter, which began with a tweet at 8:02 p.m. ET Sunday night, Sam gained 48,821 followers.

"Given his pride and his bravery, every corporation should fight to sign Michael Sam," said David Canter, an 18-year veteran NFL agent who says he represented a player who was gay but never came out. "The fact that Michael Sam came out when he did, when he had no financial security, makes this story even more remarkable."

While there has always been a question as to whether the sports world would accept gay athletes, gay sports marketer Scott Seitz said the gay community has not only accepted sports, but it has also become an important part of their lives.

"The sports bar has been the 'Baptist church' of the gay community since it's where we all started coming out," said Seitz, founder of SPI Marketing, a New York-based gay marketing firm that has been working with corporations since 1996. "Fifteen years ago, gay sports bars in Manhattan were an utter failure. Now they are franchising."

Seitz said companies like Pepsi, an NFL sponsor that he has worked with, have done a significant amount of work with the LGBT community.

"The amount of people that now approve of the ability of the GBLT community to get married is really the new barometer of acceptance," Seitz said. "And the truth is, the U.S. hurdle is much less dramatic than the international hurdle. In more than 70 countries, it's illegal to be gay."

While there is plenty of excitement in the marketing community about Sam's potential, some argue that it's just that -- potential. After all, Collins, without a team and without a big platform, hasn't gotten huge deals. Neither has Griner.

"It's amazing and courageous what he's done, but I don't think it's necessarily going to shoot him to marketing stardom," said Ryan Williams, director of marketing for Athletes First, which represents the likes of Clay Matthews, Wes Welker and Von Miller. "He'll get more speaking opportunities and maybe an eventual book deal, but the real money will most likely come only if he plays well on the field."

Witeck agrees.

"Michael Sam still has to perform," he said. "Jackie Robinson isn't Jackie Robinson just because he was black and he played."