ATLANTA (CBS Atlanta/AP) – In coming out, Jason Collins may have inadvertently made the best business move of his otherwise pedestrian NBA career.
After having, in his words, “endured years of misery and gone to enormous lengths to live a lie,” the veteran became the first active player in one of the four major U.S. pro sports leagues to publicly disclose his homosexuality.
“I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay,” he wrote in a first-person article posted Monday to the website of Sports Illustrated.
Most recently, Collins spent time as a little-used reserve center for the Washington Wizards after a midseason trade from the Boston Celtics. Before that, he suited up for the Atlanta Hawks from 2009 through 2012. Now the 7-foot Collins is a free agent who can sign with any team.
He wants to keep playing in the NBA. And if his career continues on another team, the new opportunity – combined with his now-heightened popularity – could potentially lead to lucrative new endorsement deals previously not on the table for a player of Collins’ past prominence.
Bryan Bracey, an assistant professor at the University of South Dakota who teaches a course on diversity in sports, told CBS Atlanta that Collins’ decision to come out will likely benefit his chances of getting endorsement deals.
After being a first-round draft pick in 2001, Collins has averaged 3.6 points and 3.8 rebounds for the New Jersey Nets, Memphis Grizzlies, Minnesota Timberwolves, Atlanta Hawks, Celtics and Wizards. He’s known more for personal fouls — he led the league in that category one season — than other stats.
Bracey mentioned that a select few may have remembered Collins before Monday’s announcement as half of the set of 7-foot twins who emerged out of Stanford University, or perhaps from his performance in the NBA finals years ago.
“Aside from those select professional contributions that only hardcore fans would recall, Collins is a pretty generic NBA journeyman,” he added. “So, in regards to his personal marketability, he made himself significantly more distinctive and famous by coming out of the closet. Those characteristics are going to be important to any sponsor.”
J. Ronald Oswalt, CEO of Sports Marketing Experts, agreed.
“If anything, he may have more of a chance at picking up endorsements now,” he said while speaking with CBS Atlanta. “He may have had some small endorsements, but the only major one I’m aware of is Nike. Coincidentally, earlier this month, Phil Knight of Nike said he’d welcome a gay athlete endorser.”
Eric Smallwood, senior vice president of Front Row Marketing Services and Front Row Analytics, also pointed out that Collins’ free agent status could play a role in the sort of business opportunities he’s offered, a factor independent of his coming out of the closet.
In regards to his emergence as the first openly homosexual player in major sports, Smallwood added that “[h]e’ll also receive endorsements that have nothing to do with the NBA – that have to do with lifestyle, and different marketing initiatives [based on that].”
But while experts agree that Collins will likely see more business because of his public admission, opinions varied regarding the sort and size of deals he would be offered.
“Most likely, niche firms that preach openness and inclusiveness would be very interested in Collins and probably would not have been prior to his announcement,” Bracey said. “Larger firms, however, have broader target demographics and therefore shy away from those athletes who make any sort of political statement.”
Oswalt saw things a different way, citing major companies such as JCPenney, Ikea and Target that have implemented high-profile marketing campaigns showing corporate support of marriage equality and targeting people who believe in equal rights for the LGBT community.
According to a survey conducted by Community Marketing that involved more than 45,000 LGBT consumers from 148 countries, homosexuals pay attention to such trends, as indicated by their reported solicitation of brands that support the LGBT community, which are also said to include Apple, Starbucks and Macy’s.
“There are also several gay-targeted ad firms and marketing companies,” he noted. “Coming out during his career will open up some doors to new opportunities for Collins through endorsements and speaking engagements.”
Smallwood additionally noted that Collins could be offered sponsorship opportunities outside of the realm of his sport of choice.
“What’s going to happen is that this will open up opportunities not only for Collins but for the NBA. What we’ve seen … is an expansive increase in marketing initiatives with the LGBT community,” he said.
Oswalt noted the ever-progressing views and political standpoints of Americans while asserting that Collins would benefit from the steadily changing tide in the country’s sentiment toward homosexuality.
“Whereas in the past, the common knowledge was that athletes would lose endorsement deals for coming out, it’s a new world and business is different,” he reasoned. “Businesses are more concerned about targeting their product towards a new, perhaps before untapped market than they are about worrying about how having a gay athlete endorsing their product could harm their image.”
Perhaps Oswalt is right – after all, support for Collins has poured out from big players within the major sports community, a number of high-profile celebrities in the entertainment industry and from the nation at large – support that has been, as he termed it to Sports Illustrated, “humbling and kind of overwhelming.”
Even President Barack Obama commended Collins for his courage, taking time to call the basketball player himself and stating during a press conference Tuesday that he “couldn’t be prouder” of his decision to come out.
Obama says Collins showed the progress the United States has made in recognizing that gays and lesbians deserve full equality. He said they deserve “not just tolerance but recognition that they’re fully a part of the American family.”
However, not everyone has rallied behind Collins. ESPN analyst Chris Broussard made headlines when he stood by his beliefs that homosexuality did not adhere to Christian beliefs. It’s an argument many ardent Christians believe when it comes to homosexuality, and many have agreed Broussard’s explanation was certainly not meant as a bigoted opinion, just his own personal standpoint.
“Despite the expected public outpouring of support, one does not have to look very far to see conservative views on homosexuality which obviously would represent a portion of the buying public,” he observed.
Business strategy was likely far from the mind of Collins as he penned his confessional, however.
Collins wrote self-effacingly about his journeyman NBA career and a parlor game he calls “Three Degrees of Jason Collins,” explaining: “If you’re in the league, and I haven’t been your teammate, I surely have been one of your teammates’ teammates. Or one of your teammates’ teammates’ teammates.”
That joking, though, leads to a larger point.
“Some people insist they’ve never met a gay person. But ‘Three Degrees of Jason Collins’ dictates that no NBA player can claim that anymore. Pro basketball is a family. And pretty much every family I know has a brother, sister or cousin who’s gay,” Collins concludes. “In the brotherhood of the NBA, I just happen to be the one who’s out.”
His words speak to a lack of concern with any beneficial fiscal outcome for Collins’ public disclosure on his business prospects.
Bracey agreed with the notion, stating, “… I do not think that Collins was particularly worried about finances when he made the decision to come out.”
(TM and © Copyright 2013 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2013 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)