St. Louis Rams' Michael Sam: Experts Analyze Endorsement Potential of NFL's First Openly Gay Player

 Illustration by: Daniel Bejar

This story first appeared in the July 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

When Michael Sam puts on his pads at training camp beginning July 21 in an effort to make the St. Louis Rams roster, he will have plenty of people watching -- including those scouting to see whether the first openly gay pro football player has what it takes to be a Corporate America pitchman.

Just days before Sam, 24, made history on May 10 with his selection in the seventh round of the NFL Draft, the former University of Missouri standout inked his first major endorsement deal with Visa. After the draft, sales of Sam's jersey outpaced everyone but fellow rookie Johnny "Football" Manziel. Since then, after a reality show for the Oprah Winfrey Network was postponed, advertisers have taken a much more cautious approach to signing Sam as the face of their brands.

Burns Entertainment CEO Bob Williams, whose marketing consultancy has worked with Sprint, Unilever and other corporations, believes there's no doubt about Sam's attractiveness to marketers. "He is obviously very unique in the marketplace," he says. However, Williams quickly cautions, "Sam needs to make his football team, and that's not a lock. Advertisers need certainty."

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Easier said than done. At the defensive end position that Sam plays, the Rams have one of the best and deepest rosters in the league. But if Sam makes it, corporations might wish to use him to tap an LGBT consumer demographic that has an estimated $800 billion in spending power. Even better, one recent marketing survey shows that 78 percent of LGBT consumers say they would switch allegiances to companies that support their rights. In the pro basketball world, Marriott signed Jason Collins while Nike turned to the WNBA's Brittney Griner. Says Griner's agent Lindsay Colas: "In seeking deals for our athletes, we target partners who want to inspire and embrace a trailblazer persona."

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Outsports.com co-founder Cyd Zeigler says few companies worry these days about outright boycotts from gay-intolerant consumer segments. But that doesn't mean that gay athletes don't suffer from stigma. Zeigler understands that "while Sam is not just any seventh-round pick, he's a seventh-round pick, and what attention he gets is a delicate issue."

The perception that Sam might benefit from special treatment is a potential concern to those doing business with him. Some football fans protest that his sexuality does not matter. Fair or not, endorsements could be lumped into the category of distractions that a low draft pick hasn't yet earned. It's not a coincidence that Sam's first spot for Visa featured him in a gym lifting weights and telling audiences in a voiceover, "Judge me for what I do on the field."

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