Any major athlete who comes out of the closet may have a starting position on Nike’s (NKE) team of sponsored athletes. According to Bloomberg News, before Rick Welts, the president of the Golden State Warriors, came out in 2011, “Nike asked Welts to deliver a message to anyone thinking about becoming the first openly gay athlete in major U.S. team sports—the company wants him as an endorser.”
“The player who does it, they’re going to be amazed at the additional opportunities that are put on the table, not the ones that are taken off,” Welts told Bloomberg.
The prospect of Nike producing a big, gay ad campaign should surprise exactly nobody who pays attention to sports or marketing. This is a company that has never shied away from controversy, even turning scandal to commercial advantage. It paid Charles Barkley to tell kids he’s not a role model and crafted a commercial around Tiger Woods’s fall from grace and the fallout of LeBron James’s Decision.
The company, which is locked into at least $856 million in endorsement payments this year, has never been afraid to go on offense when others are playing it safe. Those kinds of ads may resonate directly only with a small demographic (i.e. the tiny group of people who weren’t put off by LeBron’s PR stunt). Indirectly, they connect with a huge segment—consumers tired of carefully crafted corporate speak.
It might be hard to admire a fallen athlete, but it’s easy to like a company that has the boardroom bravado to back him.
And the ads themselves—love them or hate them—are memorable. They take off on social networks. An endorsement story that goes beyond a square jaw and superstats makes an emotional connection—a Holy Grail for marketers.
Matt Powell, a sports retail analyst at Sportsonesource, says a campaign built around a gay athlete would particularly be a hit with younger consumers, Nike’s target market. “In some ways,” he says, “people will wonder: ‘Why didn’t this happen sooner?’”
Indeed, gay rights are gaining momentum in the don’t-ask-don’t-tell world of sports. Just this week, the NHL and its corresponding union signed a pact with the You Can Play advocacy group, becoming the first major men’s league to make inclusion an official policy.
Meanwhile, in the NFL, several gay football players are mulling a joint announcement, according to former Baltimore Raven Brendon Ayanbadejo, a gay-rights advocate.
At the moment, this is all hypothetical. There’s a dearth of openly gay male players at the level that usually get Nike’s attention. At the moment, it doesn’t actually need one. Without spending a dime on sponsorship or advertising, Nike cashes in on a heap of social goodwill by simply letting athletes, and the public, know that sexual orientation isn’t an issue—“It doesn’t matter if the athlete is gay or not,” Nike Chairman Phil Knight told Bloomberg yesterday. The company is marketing its marketing … without marketing.