Michael Sam is the face of next week’s Sports Illustrated magazine. Will he soon be the face of the gay community?
Sam has said his focus is on football, but others might not listen, says Scott Seitz, CEO of SPI Marketing, which focuses on gay and lesbian marketing.
“The world has just thrown him into a place where he’s an inspiration to a lot of people,” Seitz said. “Some people take a look at that and say, ‘He’s an inspiration,’ and other people are going to take a look at that and say, ‘He’s an activist.’”
Nonprofit organizations that support the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community will try to use Sam’s fame to help their cause, Seitz said. Seitz has already received one such press release from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.
“Michael’s announcement also offers a time for reflection,” the statement read. “Are K-12 locker rooms and coaches in the United States as inclusive of LGBT people as the University of Missouri’s (locker room)?”
It’s not a bad thing, Seitz said. It’s just their job.
“All of those people, because he’s an inspiration, are going to want to attract him to an event or give him an award or do something,” he said. “Even without trying, he’s going to be thrust into a very visible role.”
In addition, Missouri state Sen. Scott Sifton used Sam’s announcement as inspiration to promote anti-discrimination legislation in Missouri.
But Sam’s biggest contributions can come on the field, said Bob Witeck, a business consultant and marketing strategist with Witeck Communications, which also has an emphasis in the LGBT market.
“He doesn’t have to be a civil rights leader,” Witeck said. “He doesn’t have to speak. He doesn’t have to endorse. He doesn’t have to do any of that. If he shows up and succeeds, he will have done far more for civil rights for gay people than almost everybody else in his generation at the moment.”
That said, Witeck believes Sam will profit from endorsements following his announcement because of younger generations’ acceptance of the LGBT community.
“He’s at the moment in time when the brands that support major league sports recognize that it’s not so much their current loyal fans that they’re wooing, they have to talk to the next-generation fans,” Witeck said. “And it’s Michael’s generation and the younger ones who’ll follow who are gonna determine the success of the brands in the future.”
Witeck cites former tennis player Martina Navratilova as an example of the generation shift. Navratilova was a dominant tennis player but didn’t reap the benefits in marketing because of her status as an openly gay woman, Witeck said.
Seitz sees Sam’s identity as a marketing plus.
“There’s so many different communities of people that he has the ability to go out and attract,” he said. “I think that’s really terrific. He’s diverse in so many different aspects of his life that I would hope that smart marketing people see that as an opportunity to really touch on a very personal level some key people.”
Mainstream corporations have become more interested in marketing to the gay community in recent years, Seitz said. The alcohol and soda industries, in particular, have embraced this change because of the marketing opportunities at gay bars.
Much to the benefit of Sam, who could become the first openly gay player in the NFL, one type of gay bar in particular has thrived in the last 15 years.
“What started out as a phenomenon in the gay community as the gay video bar is now morphing into the gay sports bar,” said Seitz, whose company works with about 300 gay bars in 12 cities across the country.
Other brands have gotten into the mix as well. Marriott Hotels and Resorts is sponsoring the 2014 Gay Games in Cleveland. Seitz said this is a crucial example of a traditional corporation with more than 50 years of history supporting an event that welcomes athletes of all sexualities from around the world.
Gay and lesbian sports leagues have also grown in popularity, Seitz said. The North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance consists of 800 teams in 45 leagues across the continent.
Professional sports leagues already showed support for the LGBT community before Sam’s announcement. The NFL teamed with the You Can Play Project for the High Five initiative, which gave players the opportunity to work with LGBT youth, and the NBA worked with GLAAD and Athlete Ally to train players how to be allies to the gay community.
Sam’s projected entrance into the NFL could take advantage of the improved relations between these two communities, but first, he must succeed on Sundays.
“If he doesn’t perform,” Witeck said, “he’s a footnote.”