The marketing potential of Jason Collins

In the past couple of days, Jason Collins has gone from an NBA afterthought to a person who might be quite marketable if he signs with a team and becomes the first openly gay man to play in a major professional team sport in the U.S.

When I first heard of Collins going public Monday, there was only one guy I wanted to talk to, and that was Golden State Warriors president Rick Welts. First of all, Rick is one of the smartest marketers in the game. Secondly, Rick is the most high-profile current sports executive to have publicly revealed that he is gay; he came out in an article in The New York Times less than two years ago.

Before Tuesday night's game against the Nuggets, I asked Rick some questions about Collins' marketing potential.

Rovell: How much more marketable is Jason Collins now versus last week?

Welts: Well, I think it’s a different kind of marketability. I think what will be his experience; there is going to be a lot of thought both by companies that might be looking at him as well as Jason himself because anybody who is going to get involved with him at this point, their message is going to be message-oriented instead of product-oriented. It is not just a player selling a product, this is going to be a message that will go behind that that will make a statement behind this company and making a statement that Jason wants to make.

Rovell: How much should marketers care about the fact that he is not a prominent player?

Welts: Clearly anyone who is going to align with him right now is jumping on board to one of the great social changes of our time. It is going to be a company that sees that it fits with what they are trying to accomplish and the market they are trying to reach. It will be a very different kind of sell than you see from most athlete endorsements. In reading his story, it really resonated with me. A lot of the same things that he had to go through and the thought process is what I had to go through and deal with myself. The fact that no one had gone before him in his job as a player so he could stand by the sidelines and see how people would react, he had to do this really not knowing what the reaction would be, and that is a powerful hurdle to decide to cross.

Rovell: How important is it from a marketing perspective for him to now sign with a team?

Welts: I think whatever chance he had at being on an NBA roster two mornings ago is probably the same as waking up today. Maybe a little bit better because he was 7 feet tall and now, with the weight coming off his shoulders, I'm guessing he is about 7-foot-2. There is something I know to be true about NBA teams: If there is a general manager and a coach that thinks Jason is going to get their team a better chance to win, he will be on a roster next year. But I don't think it's critical. I think there are a lot of other roles he could play in sports, whether that's in the league office or as a broadcaster. There are a lot of things that could keep him very visible in addition to being on a roster. At this moment in time, he is a really prominent player, so whether that is sustainable over the long time, we have to see how this story plays out. We have to see what happens next in the world of sports. Is this the first of many, or is this the only one? We really don’t know. I think this is a story that will continue on forward.

Rovell: What do you think Jason could help a brand accomplish?

Welts: I think good marketers have already figured that out there is a big economic opportunity that can be tapped into with the right message and the right spokesperson. I think that Jason is going to have some decisions to make in what he sees his role being with a company that might approach him. He is a smart guy, and I think that Stanford degree is going to come in handy and I think he will make really good decisions.

Rovell: His Twitter following (@jasoncollins34) went from 3,700 to 100,000 followers. What does that say to marketers?

Welts: It tells us that he has really struck a responsive chord in what is happening in our society today. I think our industry, especially in male sports, has trailed society in this area, and they took a big step forward and closed that gap a little bit with Jason's announcement.