Time To Break Down Barriers When It Comes To Marketing For LGBT Athletes

DANA POINT, Calif. -- In one of the first conversations Brittney Griner ever had with Lindsay Colas, now her agent, the WNBA star talked about how being open about her sexuality might impact her ability to land sponsorship deals.

The bottom line, right from the beginning: She didn't care.

And neither did Colas.

The two wanted to work together, not to reinforce a model that already existed for female athletes, but to create an entirely new one.

On Thursday afternoon at the espnW Women + Sports Summit, Griner and Colas joined me and University of Massachusetts professor Nefertiti Walker on a panel called "Breaking Barriers." ESPN reporter Jeremy Schaap moderated the panel.

We touched on a number of topics, but focused on the current market climate for LGBT-identified athletes. In the past two years, in addition to Griner coming out publicly, we've seen NFL player Michael Sam share his truth, along with NBA center Jason Collins and soccer stars Robbie Rogers and Abby Wambach.

In years past, closeted athletes often worried -- and rightfully so -- about how coming out publicly might affect their market value. (This was among other concerns, of course.) But the consensus among our panel members was that this specific worry was mostly outdated. Colas pointed to estimates that LGBT-identified people had an $800 billion spending power. In addition, she said those folks were also willing to change brands at a rate of 70-plus percent if a brand was explicit about supporting the LGBT population. (On the flip side, this group, often along with their family and friends, were also usually willing to leave a brand if it wasn't supportive of diversity and inclusion.)

Put simply: a huge market exists for brands that want to partner with gay athletes.

Of course, we've already seen gay male athletes partner with brands, such as Marriott Hotels, which a few months ago activated a campaign of inclusion fronted by Collins.

But where do lesbian athletes fit into this space?

One thing we talked about was the traditional notion of "sex sells," which has often been the only successful model for marketing female athletes. And that marketing is usually executed in a traditional way, appealing mostly to heterosexual men. But research exists that supports the idea that young girls and boys respond more to advertising and imagery that shows female athletes sweating and playing -- that shows female athletes living and playing as their authentic selves.

The next step is getting brands to activate around this research, to break the mold and partner with more female athletes, and to show them in an authentic way. Certainly Griner is a representation of that kind of marketing; she works with Nike, which has also done a strong job of portraying Wambach as her real self, rather than forcing either of these athletes into a space that is different from the one they naturally occupy.

Walker and Colas talked about how some brands' nervousness to jump into the space might stem from lack of a model to follow. They can't point to a successful partnership, one that has come full circle, to convince everyone to sign off on such a commitment.

Of course, the data that do exist suggest that an incredible amount of upside exists for brands willing to blaze the trail. For example, this past season the WNBA became the first sports league (men or women) to launch an LGBT pride initiative. The T-shirt that was created for this event became the league's best-selling item. The NFL and NBA experienced a similar phenomenon with the jersey sales of Sam and Collins.

Because of this data, one question the panel asked was: What might it look like if a brand built a campaign around Griner?

Griner sounds like she's ready for that opportunity.

"We shouldn't pat ourselves on the back just yet," Griner said during the panel. "There are still a lot of stereotypes out there that, 'Oh, basketball, she must be gay -- she's too good, she's probably not straight.' In basketball, softball, whatever the sport, there are still a lot of issues going on with the stereotypes on us."

Added Griner: "But being a professional athlete, I'm able to be who I am. I'm able to show the world who I am; I'm not having to put a cover over who I am."

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