Mike Sam is about to have a very large fan base, and it won’t just be Mizzou alums doing the cheering. After shocking the sports world by coming out as gay on Sunday, Sam began to tweet under the handle @MikeSamFootball. Four hours and three tweets later, Sam had more than 41,000 followers. Cultivating a brand name might seem arrogant for someone who has yet to be drafted. But for the 2013 SEC Defensive Player of the Year, his brand will carry some of football’s most avid fans with him.
Yes, the NFL franchise that chooses to draft Sam will immediately bolster its defense, but it may also see a significant surge in jersey sales after May’s deadline. Why? Contrary to the age-old “gays hate sports” stereotype, the LGBTQ community is currently embracing sports. And it’s not just the homoerotic spectacle of uniformed men grinding it out on the gridiron. The gay sports world has never been more profitable. Hundreds of LGBTQ sports leagues have sprouted up across the United States, competing against each other in everything from kickball to freestyle swimming. (Atlanta’s Rainbow Trout win best name.) More than 10,000 athletes will participate in the 2014 Gay Games, bringing millions of dollars to Cleveland’s economy.
Gay sports bars are packed in cities across the country. In San Francisco, Hi Tops is doing brisk business—the recent success of Bay Area teams can’t hurt—and in Washington, D.C., it’s hard to find a seat at Nellie’s on game day. There isn’t one team that everyone watches, though D.C.-area clubs do pull more fans. Unlike typical sports bars, which have a stated alliance with specific fan bases, Nellie’s represents a hodgepodge of transplanted fans shouting at multiple games simultaneously. Nobody leaves their hometown team behind, right?
Pay attention, NFL owners—this is where you make a bunch of money: Mike Sam will unite legions of gay sports fans behind one player like never before. (David Beckham doesn’t count.) Aside from bringing more LGBTQ fans to stadiums across the country, Sam’s drafting will signal a sea change for fans who previously feared the testosterone-laden beer pits of the past. While some homophobic fans will avoid your merchandise, Sam won’t be the only player to come out in the next few years. But he will always be the first.
When Sam retires a nine-time Pro Bowler with two Super Bowl rings, he’ll continue to represent your brand as a public speaker. Endorsement deals won’t lag, despite the eventual slump season. Jersey sales will continue to go strong long after retirement. Mike Sam is the new face of change in professional sports. He will inspire generations of young athletes and fans to come out to the park. NFL owners, 40 years from now, when an award-winning film is made about his inspiring career, your franchise could be the face of dignity and tolerance.
I hate to make this all about money, but that’s the force that governs professional sports. Mike Sam represents a one-time opportunity for the lucky franchise who drafts him. As Slate’s Josh Levin explained eloquently on Sunday, that’s based on his athletic talent alone. While Sam will inevitably face discrimination and struggles along the way, even the most thick-skulled fans will eventually realize that solid statistics and pure athleticism have nothing to do with sexual orientation. By the time the 100th gay player comes out of the closet, the question won’t be whether he will be drafted, but only whether he can score. Mike Sam, on the other hand, was a hero even before he made his first tackle.
Correction, Feb. 18, 2014: This post originally included a photo of Missouri football player Marvin Norman, who was misidentified as Michael Sam. The photo has been replaced.