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Out of the Closet and Into the Locker Room: The Business of Coming Out in the Pros

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According to Gallup, there could be 178 gay pro athletes currently playing. Any agent or manager could represent the one player about to make history. Any GM could be sitting on the biggest and best sports headlines in generations. From the Manti T'eo rumors to the gay storyline on USA's Necessary Roughness to the recent controversy at the NFL Combine, gays have never had so much attention from sports radio personalities, including Dan Patrick and The Loose Cannons' Pat O'Brien and Steve Hartman. This week we are hearing whispers that the NHL has a current player who is ready to come out.

As I've previously written, America and pro sports are ready. Yes, an ideal player in the right environment will have it easier. But the NFL and the NFLPA continue to reinforce how supportive the institutions will be. Last week, upon hearing that Nick Kasa was asked about his sexual orientation at the combine, the league launched an investigation. The NFLPA president wrote an op-ed articulating his support for diversity in sports. Despite what naysayers argue -- that a gay player won't get drafted or risks getting cut -- no pro team would knowingly invite the PR nightmare that would result from releasing a player upon his coming out. Beyond the political impact, in many markets a gay player will be a welcomed headline. From Anderson Cooper and Ellen DeGeneres to sports personalities like Jared Max or allies like Erin Andrews, the press will gush. What front-office staff doesn't like good press? The locker room may be awkward, for a week or two. Former pitcher Mark Knudson and former quarterback Jim Miller say a team can't handle it, but at 52 and 42 years old, respectively, could it be that they are decades out of touch?

The question is not how management or the team will handle it. The struggle belongs to the player, who must be personally ready and confident in this life-changing decision. He needs a strong support system to help absorb the reverberations that will come from an announcement this big. It will be emotionally jarring, even when everything goes perfectly. He must maintain a positive attitude. Just as Jackie Robinson moved forward with grace as he integrated Major League Baseball, the first openly gay pro athlete will need strength of character to rise above the insults. He'll need to focus on the good that he is bringing to society and the inspiration that he's providing to LGBT youth.

A strong "family" or personal board of advisors is critical. This includes his business team: a manager who is progressive and sees opportunities outside the box, a publicist who has expertise with the LGBT market, and friends from the LGBT community. This kitchen cabinet can offer advice, provide a shoulder to lean on and be a sounding board. By writing this, I am volunteering to field any phone call in confidence, anytime, for a player looking for friendly counsel. The paths to success, from the narrative to the timeline, will depend on the player, but he must be prepared and strategic now. Things are happening fast, and beyond social impact, real money is at stake.

"Show Me the Money": The Power of the Pink Dollar

The Super Bowl's first commercial break included an ad staring Glee's Naya Rivera, who plays a lesbian character on the show; an ad for Budweiser, one of the largest LGBT advertisers; and an ad for Audi with the tag line "Bravery. It's What Defines Us." The advertisers are ready for a gay pro athlete!

The ideal candidate may be an attractive and well-spoken player from a major market, with a few seasons under his belt and a Pro Bowl reputation. Though this player may have it easier, any seasoned professional with respect in the league, or any rookie who is energizing his team, would still make history and possibly make cash with the announcement. Chris Kluwe's popularity exploded because of his LGBT advocacy. How many times has a punter been honored on Ellen? When the first openly gay player comes out, jerseys will sell out as new fans adopt this hero. The player will be the darling of the media, with book deals and an ESPN documentary. It will be the biggest sports story in decades. The player will be bigger than any gay celebrity America has seen. How does it break down financially?

Social Media

Communications genius Marshall McLuhan said that "the medium is the message." There is no one way to come out, but in the digital era, a social media strategy is key for revenue realization. This player will immediately and dramatically build a social media brand. This correlates to endorsement value. Social media buzz itself can be monetized. A player with a strong brand could build a mailing list upon coming out with a "Show Your Support" petition to capture supporters for future marketing. Ellen, the leading LGBT social media personality, has 17.3 million Twitter followers; fellow LGBT heros Neil Patrick Harris and Anderson Cooper have 5.4 million and 3.8 million, respectively. The biggest pro athletes on Facebook, both soccer players with huge gay fan-bases, are Cristiano Ronaldo and David Beckham, with 55.0 million and 25.2 million Facebook fans, respectively. Chris Kluwe, a punter who made national headlines with his LGBT advocacy this year, has over 161,000 Twitter followers, and upon coming out last month, pro soccer player Robbie Rogers' follower count lept to nearly 100,000. We'd expect this hypothetical player to quickly and easily meet Tim Tebow or Michael Vick numbers, both of whom have around 2 million Twitter followers.

Speaking

Speaking engagements offer financial stability. Every LGBT organization will honor this player, and other progressive organizations will tap his publicity. Universities will hire him. And with a well-crafted business strategy, he will speak on the corporate circuit at $30,000 to $50,000 per speech. Doing that once a month for 10 years amounts to over $3 million. But he must be the first.

Thought Leadership

This player could be a go-to public intellectual for networks, including ESPN, CNN and MSNBC, commenting on politics, sports, corporate diversity issues and gay human-interest stories. News commentators make $50,000 to $100,000 per year, but sports commentators earn upwards of $1 million a season.

Television

From documentary shows to competition shows, television has value. Dancing With the Stars reportedly pays $125,000 for the first two episodes and $20,000 to $50,000 thereafter. Retired quarterback Kurt Warner has a reality show, The Moment. A smart team could build television properties for this player.

Books

The first book will be the memoire. With a good writing partner, the book will appeal to the 9 million self-identified LGBT Americans, as well as allies and sports fans. That is a six-figure deal. Future thought leadership might position him as a public intellectual on teamwork, leadership and diversity for future books. This expands the possibilities for corporate publishing and speaking.

Media Exploitation

The memoire, with the right screenwriter and in the right agent's hands, is only the beginning. Americans love sports films and have welcomed LGBT-themed biopics. This player would enjoy back-end profit sharing points from his blockbuster film.

Benefits to the Team and the League

With declines in NFL ticket sales over the past five years, teams and the league are ready for a disruptive change. Professional sports teams are enjoying the fruits of equality by hosting LGBT Fan Days. And as professional teams participated in "It Gets Better" videos, the gay community celebrated each new ally. A team that embraces diversity and promotes the LGBT population and allies will excite Americans.

Endorsements

The market for endorsement deals is competitive; every player needs a differentiator. The first out gay athlete has a true differentiator. "Pink" money is a marketer's dream. LGBT buying power reportedly exceeds $835 billion, with many LGBT Americans falling into the "holy grail" category called "DINKS" (double income, no kids). These consumers have discretionary spending power, travel more, own more homes and cars, spend more on electronics and have the largest amount of disposable income of any niche market. LGBT consumers are also more loyal; they're 75-percent more likely to consider brands that support causes that are important to them politically. That loyalty also translates to friends and families who support gay-friendly brands as well.

Beyond the pink dollar, big advertisers are pro-diversity and pro-gay. Ellen's deal with JCPenney was reported to have earned her $20 million for two years. The agent, manager and business team will be able to create an innovative portfolio of brand and business partners. Major verticals with crossover in sports and LGBT marketing include beverage, travel, CPG, financial services, insurance, automotive, apparel and health. Within each are companies eager to ink a deal with this player.

The first out gay professional athlete, assuming that he comes out on his own and not by virtue of a scandal, will symbolize bravery, courage, diversity and overcoming challenge -- brand values that advertisers love. A truly innovative player could come out alongside a brand sponsor. Nike, actively working for LGBT representation in sports, could be an "official sponsor of the real you."

The Opportunity to Define a Legacy

Only a handful of athletes capture the public's attention. Fewer are remembered after their careers have ended. The first player who conquers this mountain will be part of a lasting story. The agent, manager, coach and team will face challenge, but together they will all enter the history books. This is not for the faint of heart; this collective must view themselves as conductors in the orchestra of social change. We have very few opportunities to build a legacy. Most of us go about our days hoping just to make it through. But this player and his team will be game changers. The moment the statement is made, there will be an immediate and transformative cultural impact on American society and sports. There will be no turning back. The time is now.

This blog post was co-authored by Amy Jones and Genia Kaplan Quinn.