NEW YORK — If anyone can relate to Jason Collins, it’s Golden State Warriors President Rick Welts, a former NBA chief marketing officer who says the first openly gay male athlete in a major U.S. team sport can cash in by coming out.
Provided Collins wants to.
“People are going to take a step back and take in what happens over the next few days,” said Welts, 60, who two years ago told the world he was gay in a front-page story in the New York Times. “They’re going to see an amazing rallying around Jason and what he chose to do. From that will flow opportunities. I’m not sure what Jason wants. It may or may not fit in with what he wants to accomplish.”
Collins, a 34-year-old veteran of 12 NBA seasons, made his announcement Monday in a Sports Illustrated cover story.
“I didn’t set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport,” Collins said in the story. “But since I am, I’m happy to start the conversation.”
While his name might not be familiar to casual sports fans, being the first openly homosexual player is enough to garner attention from progressive companies seeking to use an athlete endorser, says Bob Witeck, a gay-marketing strategist and corporate consultant whose clients include American Airlines.
Witeck said Collins, a free agent who spent this season with the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards, stands to reap millions of dollars from speaking engagements and endorsements from companies seeking to capture more of a U.S. lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender adult population whose annual buying power he pegs at almost $800 million.
“Every young, black male who has nothing but a street, hoop and ball wants to be a Jason Collins,” Witeck said in a telephone interview. “Some of those kids who are gay don’t have to deny themselves that chance.”
A product of Stanford University, Collins said he began thinking about coming out during the 2011 NBA lockout and was further motivated by the bombings at the Boston Marathon.
Collins already has a sponsorship contract with Nike, the world’s largest sporting-goods company, whose founder, Phil Knight, said this month that he’d welcome a gay athlete endorser.
“We admire Jason’s courage and are proud that he is a Nike athlete,” Brian Strong, a spokesman for Beaverton, Ore.-based Nike, said in an email. “Nike believes in a level playing field where an athlete’s sexual orientation is not a consideration.”
When it comes to Nike and marketing, Welts said, the only predictable element is the company’s unpredictability. The Warriors’ president said he doesn’t know what the endorsement will be, but he can guess what it won’t.
“This is not just somebody holding up a product and saying, ‘Buy this,’” Welts said in a telephone interview. “The company will be making a statement about their brand and he will choose them because it’s a message he wants to deliver.”
Welts said his advice to Collins as a marketer is to be selective.
“Choose something that resonated with what I was trying to accomplish,” he said. “It definitely won’t be a ‘Your-name- here’ deal.”
Arn Tellem, Collins’s agent, didn’t immediately respond to a text or message left on his mobile phone seeking comment on the marketing opportunities available to his client.
American Airlines, Macy’s, Ikea and Amazon.com are among the companies that have used gay-themed advertising. American created a gay-targeted sales group called the Rainbow Team in the mid-1990s.
The talk on Twitter backed Collins, who has averaged 3.6 points and 3.8 rebounds per game, twice playing in the NBA Finals with the New Jersey Nets.
Jason Kidd, one of his teammates in New Jersey and now a New York Knicks’ point guard; former NBA Most Valuable Players Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant; and the NBA players union executive committee voiced support for Collins via the social media site.
“Jason’s sexuality doesn’t change the fact that he is a great friend and was a great teammate,” Kidd wrote.
The announcement from Collins ends months of speculation over which major-league athlete would be the first to announce he’s gay. Former Baltimore Ravens player Brendon Ayanbadejo, a gay-rights advocate, said this month that he is in talks with football players who are contemplating coming out, and that a joint announcement had been discussed.
Collins said his “one small gesture of solidarity” toward the gay community before coming out was to wear the jersey number 98 with the Celtics and Wizards, in memory of the 1998 death of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard, who was kidnapped and tortured for his sexual orientation.
Collins said he revealed his sexuality last summer to his twin brother, Jarron, who played in the NBA until 2011.
“He was downright astounded,” said Jason Collins. “He never suspected. So much for twin telepathy.”
Among other athletes who have said they are gay are U.S. women’s national soccer team midfielder Megan Rapinoe and Brittney Griner, the first pick in the Women’s NBA draft this month.
Mark Elderkin, chief executive officer of the Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Gay Ad Network, said that sponsors probably are already lined up for Collins.
“If there’s a cover of Sports Illustrated, it didn’t just happen by chance,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s a controlled event. I imagine the sponsors are in the wings being prepared and those deals are in the works.”
Collins’ announcement drew praise from former U.S. President Bill Clinton and White House press secretary Jay Carney.
“We view that as another example of the progress that has been made,” Carney said, adding that he hadn’t spoken to President Barack Obama about his reaction.
Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest U.S. lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender political organization, said in an e-mailed statement that Collins had “forever changed the face of sports.”
“No longer will prejudice and fear force gay athletes to remain silent about a fundamental part of their lives,” Griffin said. “By coming out and living openly while still an active NBA player, Collins has courageously shown the world that one’s sexual orientation is no longer an impediment to achieving one’s goals, even at the highest levels of professional sports.”
NBA Commissioner David Stern said in a statement that the Collins brothers have been “exemplary members of the NBA family.”
“Jason has been a widely respected player and teammate throughout his career and we are proud he has assumed the leadership mantle on this very important issue,” Stern said.
The National Hockey League joined with a gay-rights organization this month to fight homophobia in sports.
Collins was chosen by the Houston Rockets with the 18th pick of the 2001 NBA draft and traded that day to the Nets. He played into his seventh season with New Jersey before being traded to the Memphis Grizzlies. He’s also had stints with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Atlanta Hawks.
Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld said his team is proud of Collins.
“He has been a leader on and off the court,” Grunfeld said in a statement. “Those qualities will continue to serve him both as a player and as a positive role model for others of all sexual orientation.”
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has said he’d be proud to have the first gay player on his team. The billionaire didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment on whether he’s interested in adding Collins.
Welts said whether Collins plays in the NBA next season will be decided on his statistics, not his sexual preference.
“If there’s a GM and coach that think he can help their team, he’ll be on a roster,” Welts said.
Witeck said Collins’ disclosure would probably attract more contract offers from clubs.
“There are teams out there that may view him as a higher value property and desire that he bring the fan base and interest to their team,” Witeck said.
Today’s athletes have opportunities that weren’t available to openly gay tennis players Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova, now a fitness ambassador for the American Association of Retired Persons who said coming out cost her at least $10 million in endorsements. Navratilova, winner of 18 Grand Slam tennis singles championships, revealed her sexual orientation at the height of her career.
“You are a brave man,” Navratilova said Monday about Collins in a Twitter post. “1981 was the year for me-2013 is the year for you:).”
Witeck said a gay athlete makes most sense as an endorser for a company in the beverage, automotive, financial or technology fields. They might all be calling.
“He seems to be a very level-headed, smart, well-educated, full person,” Jim Andrews, senior vice president of content strategy at IEG, a Chicago-based sponsorship consultant, said in an interview. “I’m sure his representatives are fielding a lot of calls, and will be fielding a lot of calls and e-mails in the next few weeks.”
_ With assistance from Mike Dorning and Jonathan Salant in Washington and Eben Novy-Williams in New York.