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Nike Plans to Support 1st Gay Pro Team Athlete

by Jason St. Amand
National News Editor
Thursday Apr 18, 2013

After then-Phoenix Suns executive Rick Welts came out in 2011, Nike officials asked him to tell anyone who was considering becoming the first openly gay professional athlete in a major U.S. team sport, that Nike would like to endorse them.

"They made it clear to me Nike would embrace it," Welts, 60, who is now the president of the National Basketball Association's Golden State Warriors, told Bloomberg. "The player who does it, they're going to be amazed at the additional opportunities that are put on the table, not the ones that are taken off."

Bob Witeck, a gay-marketing strategist and corporate consultant, believes the first openly gay professional athlete on a team sport could earn millions in endorsements and speaking engagements from companies that want to capitalize on the LGBT community. Witeck has estimated LGBT annual buying power is nearly $800 billion.

"We've passed the tipping point to where national advertisers are no longer afraid of the gay market," added Mark Elderkin, chief executive officer of the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Gay Ad Network.

A number of companies have used pro-gay advertisements over the years, including American Airlines, Macy's, Ikea and Amazon. American Airlines, which has employed Witeck as a consultant for two decades, created a gay-targeted sales group in the mid-'90s.

Nike, the world's largest sporting-goods company, may be trying to appeal to the LGBT community to generate some buzz in order to stay relevant.

As the New York Times reports, critics and the public once embraced Nike's ads. In recent years, however, Nike "has had a harder time standing out amid the clutter, brining out fewer ads that are wildly deemed hot, or cool."

Nike's officials aren't the only ones on the lookout for an openly gay professional athlete. Last week, officials from the National Hockey League announced that they are working with the You Can Play Project, an LGBT organization that promotes equality in sports. The two groups want to train and counsel athletes on gay issues and participate in public service announcements.

"Our motto is Hockey Is for Everyone, and our partnership with You Can Play certifies that position in a clear and unequivocal way," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said a statement. "We are delighted to reaffirm through this joint venture with the NHL Players' Association that the official policy of the NHL is one of inclusion on the ice, in our locker rooms and in the stands."

Additionally, Yahoo News reports that UCLA coach Jim Mora is the first current major college football coach publicly to welcome gay athletes to play for his team. UCLA is also working with You Can Play and encouraged inclusiveness on its sports teams with a new video.

"At UCLA, we play with integrity and we honor diversity," Mora says in the video. "We respect all athletes and coaches. If you can play, you can play. And if you can coach, you can coach."

The sea change in the pro sports world has been obvious and startling in its speed and intensity. Still, homophobia still pops up from time to time, especially in social media.

On Tuesday, the Associated Press reported that California's Earthquake forward Alan Gordon apologized for hurling an anti-gay slur toward a rival soccer player, Will Johnson of the Portland Timbers.

"I would like to sincerely apologize to everyone who watched tonight's match on NBC Sports Network," Gordon said the somewhat predictable "mea culpa" statement after the fact. "The language I used came during a heated moment and does not reflect my feelings toward the gay and lesbian community. I made a mistake and I accept full responsibility for my actions."

Gordon will automatically receive a three-match suspension by the Major League Soccer.

Watch the UCLA and You Can Play's video below:


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