Coming out as gay used to be the kiss of death for sponsorship deals in sport. But as a record number of openly LGBT+ athletes prepare to participate in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, marketing analysts say the opposite is now true: authenticity sells.
This week, Canadian ice hockey player Luke Prokop followed in the footsteps of American football star Carl Nassib in becoming the first openly gay athletes still active in their respective sports – and potential sponsors are circling, experts said.
“These athletes are exhibiting degrees of courage and authenticity, which are always good traits for a brand,” said Paul Hardart, a marketing professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business.
Prokop’s announcement sparked an outpouring of online support from fans, fellow players and sports groups, while Nassib’s Las Vegas Raiders jersey became the top seller days after he came out, sports channel ESPN reported.
Where fans go, brands are sure to follow, Hardart said.
“It’s the future. If you talk to a 14-year-old, LGBTQ rights are sort of the baseline,” he said.
“All of these leagues are focused on the next generation and this positions them well for that,” he added.
Yet that was not the case in the past.
Olympic gold medal-winning diver Greg Louganis told the Thomson Reuters Foundation last year he still questioned whether he missed out on lucrative sponsorship deals and top television jobs because he was gay and HIV-positive.
While corporate sponsors have become broadly welcoming to gay, lesbian and bisexual athletes, for trans sports people the situation is more complicated.
Many brands lack the knowledge or education to accurately tell trans stories, said Mike Hernandez, the director of creative strategy at The Mixx, a New York-based marketing agency that focuses on communicating to LGBT+ audiences.
But that could soon change as understanding of trans issues increases, he added.
“Anyone can identify that it has been the cisgender ‘LGB’ sponsorships that have come first and I think the ‘T’ and the transgender individuals will fall next in line,” Hernandez said.
More than 160 LGBT+ athletes will compete at the Tokyo Olympics, among them British diver Tom Daley, India’s first openly LGBT+ athlete, sprinter Dutee Chand, and the first ever transgender Olympian, New Zealand weightlifter Laura Hubbard.
By comparison, the previous Games in Brazil hosted a then-record 49, openly LGBT+ athletes, Reuters reported at the time.
“It’s always important to recognise how far we’ve come,” said British-Jamaican professional swimmer Michael Gunning, who came out as gay in 2018.
“(But) there is still so much room for more athletes to come out. There are definitely more (LGBT+ athletes) than the current figure,” he added.
As well as encouraging more people to be open about their sexuality or gender identity, greater LGBT+ representation in sport could also encourage pro-equality policies at a time of resistance to increased rights in some places, activists say.
More than 250 LGBT+ rights-related bills were introduced in US state legislatures this year, according to advocacy group Human Rights Campaign, with 18 “anti-LGBTQ” bills then signed into law, topping the previous record of 15 set in 2015.
Many of them seek to limit the participation of trans girls and women in school sports.
“The onus should never be on an LGBTQ athlete to come out,” said Joanna Hoffman, director of communications at LGBT+ advocacy group Athlete Ally.
“It should really be on their teammates, their coach, their league, the sport as a whole, to create an atmosphere where they can come out.
“Athletes are only going to come out if they feel safe and comfortable doing so.”
The presence of gay, trans and bisexual athletes at the highest level also serves to show LGBT+ children they have a place in athletic competition, Gunning said.
“Ultimately, that’s what sport is – it’s for everyone,” he said.
“No matter your race, no matter your sexuality, we’re all the same. It’s an equal playing field.”