Study: Consumers likely to view Collins as effective endorser

Good news for NBA player Jason Collins, the first male athlete in a major U.S. sports league to declare his homosexuality: If a company signs him to a sponsorship deal, consumers will likely view him just as effective a product endorser as a straight athlete.

That’s because a study by two professors only six months ago concluded an athlete’s sexual orientation will not decrease a person’s intentions to buy the product being endorsed by that athlete if he or she is gay.

The Sports Marketing Quarterly published the study by Heidi Parker, a University of Southern Maine sport management assistant professor, and Janet Fink, a University of Connecticut associate professor. UNLV education professor Nancy Lough, president-elect of the Sports Marketing Association, served as editor of the article, which was published in November 2012.

Parker and Fink gathered information from more than 200 college students who responded to two fictional athletes in the sport of skeleton — one athlete was gay, while the other was straight.

“Our results indicated that identifying as a gay athlete did not negatively impact participants perceptions of the athlete’s endorser characteristics,” they wrote. “These results were unexpected, and … appear to be contrary to public perception.”

Fink said Collins, 34, who most recently played center off the bench for the Washington Wizards, would have been an excellent subject for her study because he was a relatively unknown player and casual fans likely had no pre-conceived opinions about him that would have altered their responses.

Collins, a 7-foot Northridge, Calif., native, has played for six NBA teams during 12 seasons after an All-American college career at Stanford. His contract with the Wizards expires July 1, when he becomes a free agent. Collins wants to continue his NBA career next season.

Fink and Lough agreed the study’s results showing sexual orientation was not a factor in an athlete’s endorsement appeal reflected the more accepting views of gay and lesbian athletes by the younger generation of college-age people.

Collins wrote about his decision to come out as a gay NBA player in a recent Sports Illustrated essay, triggering several stories this week about his potential marketing opportunities.

Fink said she discussed that topic with her students this week. “I asked students if you worked for an agency representing Jason Collins, who would be a good fit?”

That could be a tricky question.

Lough pointed out that Collins’ identity is now bigger than being an NBA player or even a gay athlete because now he is perceived as a role model for diversity and tolerance. Indeed, even President Barack Obama publicly supported Collins’ decision to come out.

That’s why a company that targets the gay community as a demographic might not necessarily be the ideal match for Collins, who now has across-the-board appeal, Lough said.

She said a company such as Levis, which has an edgy, hip campaign that pushes the envelope, could be a good fit to hire Collins as an endorser.

“He doesn’t necessarily have to be the poster boy for a gay brand. There are bigger brands that would align with him because he has appeal to a cross-section of people,” Lough said.

Fink said Collins’ coming out has been embraced as a positive, barrier-breaking move and theorized companies would welcome marrying their brand to the qualities related to his announcement.

“A company will ask, “What do we embody?’ He has been fearless, he’s very courageous, forward-thinking, embracing his own diversity, wanting to live life to all its fullest,” Fink said.

South Florida’s Scott Becher, who has worked on sports sponsorship deals for decades, agreed that Collins’ sponsorship appeal transcends the fact he is gay.

“Jason has the potential to be an extremely effective endorser, but not because he’s gay or speaks to the gay community. It’s because of the character he showed when coming out. His “brand” is real, authentic and confident. Those are attributes most brands covet,” said Becher, executive vice president of Z Sports & Entertainment, a division of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Zimmerman Advertising.

“In today’s world of overcommercialization, Jason stands out as a stand-up leader and role model that can cut through the clutter,” Becher said. “If Jason is selective in associating with products that he legitimately uses, those products stand to gain big time. Less is more.”

Fink said in light of the positive response to Collins’ decision to come out, she would be surprised if a company would drop a professional player because he said he was gay.

“I would be shocked if a company cut a player because he said he was homosexual,” Fink said. “That would be a terrible business deal.”

Contact reporter Alan Snel at asnel@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5273.

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