It is rare for a seventh round National Football League (NFL) draft pick to be at the center of the sports world. Then again, Michael Sam is not an average draft pick. Sam is trying to become the first openly gay player to compete for a NFL team.
While it is not clear that Sam will make the St. Louis Rams’ final roster, what is certain is the impact that Sam has already had without playing a down in the NFL. Sam’s story and the conversation it has sparked on sexuality in the NFL has been well documented. What has received less attention is the economic impact Sam could have in helping the NFL reach out to an often non-targeted customer demographic.
Organizations should more heavily seek out lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) sports audiences as customers. Not only do LGBT demographics have estimated annual buying power of $790 billion, but they are often highly engaged sports fans who are looking to become more involved with leagues and teams. Yet, sports organizations rarely target LGBT audiences in effort to grow revenues. Even as leagues and teams increasingly target new demographics such as women, Latin, African American, and international audiences among other groups, LGBT fans often do not receive the same amount of attention.
Sam’s jersey sales are one example of why this could be a mistake. As Outsports’ Cyd Zeigler first reported, Sam’s jerseys sales were the second highest among the NFL’s most recent draft class. His jersey has outsold number one overall pick Jadeveon Clowney and number three pick Blake Bortles, the first quarterback taken in the draft. Only Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel has more jersey sales than Sam.
Sam’s jersey success is similar to that of NBA Brooklyn Nets center Jason Collins. When he announced he was gay after completing his season playing for the Washington Wizards, Collins jersey became the highest selling jersey for the team. In addition, thousands of orders were placed for Collins jersey when he signed his first 10-day contract with the Nets.
We recognize that not every jersey sale for Sam and Collins was purchased by an LGBT audience member nor is it required to have an openly gay player to target these fans. Yet, Sam and Collins show there is an appetite for products marketed to and by LGBT audiences. For example, sports sponsors have already made significant efforts to pursue the LGBT demographic. During the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Chevrolet produced two commercials featuring gay couples. In addition, Nike has launched the Be True Campaign with products, advertising, and events specifically targeting LGBT demographics throughout the United States.
To the credit many sports organization across the world, there have been significant efforts to encourage equality and tolerance for LGBT athletes, fans, media, and sponsors. The NHL’s combined efforts with the You Can Play Project are a particularly notable example of how sports leagues are trying to take a leadership role in ending homophobia with internal and external audiences.
However, Sam and others demonstrate that sports organizations now have an opportunity to include LGBT audiences as their customers. By targeting LGBT fans, media, sponsors, and supporters now, sports organizations can grow their customer base and gain a competitive advantage.