Just 16 years old, Johnny Weir was already one of the world’s top international figure skaters. The sport was a lucrative business and Weir’s talent amassed attention from agencies worldwide.
“The first agency that approached me said, ‘We really want you, but you can’t be gay if we represent you,'” Weir says. “I hadn’t even come out to my mother.”
Sports marketing is a $70-plus billion industry and one in which gay athletes are still finding their footing with balancing their personal brand and their sexuality. But it wasn’t long ago that being out wasn’t widely accepted by the sports community or its stakeholders.
“When we won the World Cup in 1999, the networks were very curious about where I was running to celebrate,” says recent National Soccer Hall of Fame inductee Briana Scurry. “The cameras followed me. But when they realized it was to my girlfriend, they cut away.”
Presentation and representation of an athlete dictates the career. In most cases the majority of an athlete’s lifetime earnings and social impacts come by way of sponsorships and marketing opportunities so branding is the most important game many athletes will ever play. But it’s not simple. And for gay athletes, finding an identity that appeals to teammates, fans and sponsors alike is an even more complex facet of the business.
Though agencies and corporations weren’t always open to partnering with gay athletes, augmented acceptance has alleviated constraints on their opportunities within the industry. “Demographics have changed,” says Hudson Taylor, founder of Athlete Ally. “Younger generations are very accepting. Sponsors and agencies have seen both internal backing and increased support from consumers.”
Now, 18 years since Briana Scurry and Johnny Weir were penalized for their sexual orientation, it’s one of the key aspects considered when developing an athlete’s personal brand.
Dan Levy, a senior vice president with sports marketing firm Wasserman suggests, “People get excited when athletes come out, so players feel pressure to present their orientation publicly. It’s a piece of the puzzle; it’s a variable you have to take into consideration when trying to create opportunities.”
But there’s still no clear-cut approach to branding for the gay athlete. As restraints faded with mounting cultural approval, new challenges emerged. No longer fixated on the industry’s consent, gay athletes must consider the degree to which they represent and champion their sexual orientation through their branding.
“Abby [Wambach] felt really strongly that true progress was not having to come out and talk about it publicly,” says Levy.
Wambach, whose first public confirmation of her sexual orientation was her 2013 marriage, told the Associated Press, “I never felt like I was in a closet. I’ve never been asked a question about my relationship — rightfully so, because it shouldn’t matter.”
Laina Cohn, partner at Cohn Torgan Management and representative for Johnny Weir suggests that not every athlete is equipped to lead the charge. “Johnny wasn’t an activist, he was an athlete. His whole world was about getting on the ice and winning. He never stepped onto the ice because he was gay.”
Some athletes view their branding as a responsibility. Joanna Lohman, one of the National Women’s Soccer League’s most outspoken advocates, embraces the position. “I am admired for being out and proud. I realize how special it is to be viewed that way — it’s why I take advocating so seriously. It’s important for me to use the platform and brand that I have as a professional athlete to elevate the community.”
Similarly, Megan Rapinoe utilized her visibility and personal brand to represent the LGBT community after inking a healthy deal with Nike. “Megan was the first athlete I really dug in with on a coming out,” Levy says. “She felt really strongly after the World Cup that she wanted people to see that there are a lot of gay athletes out there.” Rapinoe in 2014 served as guest editor of the Washington Blade’s Sports Issue.
But it’s a different world for men, a view shared by many.
“There’s a lot of social pressure on the male side,” Lohman submits. “It’s not a very supportive environment. There are labels and stigmas associated with being a gay man in sports, so you just don’t see that represented very often. On the women’s side it’s much more accepted, if not assumed.”
Scurry says that hesitation on the part of male athletes stems from existing in a different culture. “For female athletes now, it doesn’t seem to hinder them. But with male athletes, it’s different. There are a lot of male athletes that have chosen not to come out until after their career was over.”
Biases against gay males have been integrated into the actual structure of sports perpetuating stereotypes and suppressing awareness. “Sport is a gendered space, an institution that teaches masculinity and femininity and it does so in a very binary way,” Taylor says. “That masculinity is often wrongly reinforced with homophobic language.”
But representatives like Cohn are optimistic. “I hope things change. I hope that by having stories told, by sharing experiences through television and social media the culture will eventually be different.”
Levy recognizes the shift in the acceptability of promoting gay athletes. “It mirrors our culture and what has changed. The progress we’ve made as a society is showing up in the world of sports. Maybe it’s at a different pace, but progress has been made.”
Briana Scurry sees a new landscape for the gay athlete’s public persona.
“There’s a huge difference in athlete presentation now,” she says. “One of the most memorable moments of the 2015 World Cup was Abby running to her partner after the final match. Nobody looked away. Eighteen years since the camera swung away from me, it stayed right on them. It’s a clear differentiator between how gay athletes could present their brands and themselves then and now.”
For Weir, presenting himself authentically was empowering.
“I could’ve signed with that first agency at 16 years old and completely whitewashed myself. But I would have been boring. I would have never had the career I’ve had. I stuck to my guns and we created this brand and my agency, they support me as a human being. … Being the absolute truest brand of myself has been the greatest career asset I’ve had.”