Marketing execs: Let Sam's play speak for him

Published on NewsOK Modified: February 11, 2014 at 1:04 pm •  Published: February 11, 2014
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Any NFL team that drafts Michael Sam will be taking on much more than a rookie pass-rusher.

But experts say the smart approach for a team that signs the league's first openly gay athlete — from a marketing and public relations standpoint — is to simply let Sam's on-field play speak for him and his team.

"While this is a significant announcement given the sport, the general hope is that he's just accepted as one of the other men on the roster, and therefore his marketability is still simply tied to his ability to play well on the field and ultimately make the team," said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon.

Sam declared Sunday that he is gay in interviews with ESPN, The New York Times and Outsports. The Missouri All-American had already come out last August to his coaches and teammates, who respected his privacy.

Now Sam is entering uncharted territory as he prepares for the NFL draft. The SEC's co-defensive player of the year was projected to be a mid-round selection. At 6-foot-2, 255 pounds, Sam will likely have to transition to outside linebacker, which could impact where he's drafted.

But announcing he's gay could also have an impact on his draft status.

"I'm not naive to think there aren't potentially some owners or executives out there who will say, 'Eh, I'm not so sure now.'" said Golden State Warriors President and Chief of Operations Rick Welts, who came out publicly in 2011. "But also, I hope, there are a lot who would say, 'There's an opportunity to do something that I think our fans would actually embrace. And if we're supposed to win football games, if this guy helps us win football games, that's somebody we should have on our roster.'"

Sam, 24, joins a growing list of active athletes to publicly come out, including Robbie Rogers, a winger for Major League Soccer's Los Angeles Galaxy, and Brittney Griner, who plays for the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury. Conner Mertens, a kicker for Division III Willamette University, came out as bisexual late last month, and is believed to have been the first active college football player to publicly announce his sexuality.

Griner, as one of the WNBA's brightest stars, was the centerpiece of the Mercury's marketing campaign. She also made a point of supporting causes that are important to her.

"There was nothing about her that was difficult in marketing. We supported what she wanted to do with bullying and the LGBT community. We made those connecting points," said Amber Cox, president of the Mercury before leaving to go to the Big East last fall.