Lesbian Athletes Finally Get Their Own Deals

Amelie MauresmoWhile the amount of money that gay athletes can command in comparison to straight or closeted athletes is not equal, it is slowly catching up, and being a lesbian is no longer certain death like it once was.

Corporations are slowly becoming more open to gays and lesbians, so the “I can’t come out because I won’t get endorsements” argument seems weaker and weaker. How could a company support gay employees, but not sponsor a gay athlete? In July 2005, Nike was willing to take heat from conservatives for endorsing a bill supporting same-sex marriage in Oregon, its home state.

Athletes no longer need to rely only on mainstream companies for corporate sponsorships; gay companies are also now emerging to take advantage of the estimated $250 billion gay and lesbian market in the United States, and to sponsor athletes and events. The company that has been the clear leader in this area is Olivia, the lesbian-owned company best known for its lesbian cruises.

Olivia’s first sponsorship was for LPGA player Rosie Jones, who came out in March 2004. For the first time, a company supported an athlete coming out rather than dropping them or avoiding them altogether. Although Jones did not have the fame of Navratilova and Swoopes, whom Olivia sponsored after her, she was a good fit for Olivia’s social mission. “She would let the people that took an Olivia trip know that you can be gay, a pro athlete and get endorsements,” said Amy Errett, Olivia’s CEO.

“Our mission is to transform the lives of lesbians and women,” Errett explained. “Sheryl and Rosie were both going through transitions in their lives, and both have inspiring stories. [Jones] is a very accomplished pro golfer, was a lesbian, and was willing to wear the logo of the gay company.”

Olivia is used to being groundbreaking, and CEO Errett sees herself as a social mission advocate first. “Olivia started as a recording company, when women weren’t being recorded or being taken seriously as musicians,” said Errett. “When the Olivia cruises started, we had to go to a cruise line and convince them to rent a boat to a bunch of lesbians.”

Signing with Olivia didn’t hurt Jones; it helped her. Since joining the company, she has added more sponsorships, including Titelist, which manufactures balls and other golf equipment, and Yes, a brand of putter.

Jones also commentated for several golf tournaments for the Golf Channel this year, a deal the channel offered her after she came out. In an interview with the Advocate, Jones said that she could not have come out publicly 22 years ago when she started playing on tour, because she felt like the administration or the sponsors wouldn’t be as accepting of it as they are now.

It was a little more than 10 years ago that Ben Wright, a CBS broadcaster, told a reporter from the Delaware News Journal: “Let’s face facts here. Lesbians in the sport hurt women’s golf. … They’re going to a butch game and that furthers the bad image of the game.” Now, fans can download a desktop wallpaper from LPGA.com with Jones wearing Olivia gear from head to toe.

Kate Bednarski, vice president of brand marketing for Olivia, was previously the global director of Nike’s women’s division, and has worked in the athletic footwear and apparel industry for 18 years. She has seen how corporate attitudes towards gay and women athletes have changed.

“We had a significant increase in people booking tours after we signed Rosie Jones,” Bednarski said. Jones did not come out in a sports publication, but in an op-ed piece in the New York Times, a paper that is read by all kinds of people, not just golf fans.

Errett said, “When we signed up to endorse Sheryl, she had just been named MVP of the league two weeks before. Sheryl came out because of the endorsement, because she would have to explain her affiliation.” Swoopes was married to Eric Jackson and was pregnant with their child at the time of the Women/Sport cover, but they divorced after she gave birth. In 1998, she met Houston Comets assistant coach Alisa Scott, with whom she is now in a relationship.

Both Swoopes and Jones expressed fears they would be dumped by their other sponsors when they signed with Olivia. After Swoopes’ coming-out, Olivia developed the See Red campaign to enable fans to show their support for the basketball star. Street teams of lesbians in a dozen WNBA cities handed out red buttons printed with Swoopes’ jersey number, 22, and Olivia’s tagline, “Feel Free.”

“We started the campaign about four months ago,” Bednarski said. “The idea was to — as Sheryl started her first WNBA season after coming out last October — to find a way for fans to show support for Sheryl, and for ending homophobia in sports.”

Proceeds from the buttons go to the National Center for Lesbian Rights, a nonprofit legal resource organization that has a sports project headed up by Helen Carroll, a former college athletic director and basketball coach. NCLR supports athletes who come out, but is also willing to fight legal battles, if necessary, for athletes who are being harassed due to sexual orientation.

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