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By Lisa Richwine and Ronald Grover
LOS ANGELES, Feb 10 (Reuters) - NFL-hopeful Michael Sam's disclosure that he is gay has propelled him into a media spotlight that is sure to grab the attention of football's biggest corporate sponsors, which will embrace the college star so long as he excels on the field.
Sam, a standout defensive lineman at the University of Missouri, could become the NFL's first openly gay player, testing both the sport's boundaries and the attitudes of the companies that pay athletes millions of dollars to endorse their shoes, apparel and brands.
Companies may have shied away from gay athletes in the past, but attitudes have shifted enough that Sam's sexual orientation shouldn't stop him from getting the auto, soda, soup and other endorsements that have come the way of other NFL players, branding experts say.
In fact, his bold decision to come out before NFL teams consider him in the May draft could boost his appeal to marketers. Sam said he was gay in a video posted on the New York Times' website.
"He has raised his visibility by this announcement, which can be a benefit," said Jack Bechta, an NFL agent and president and chief executive officer of NFL Advisors, which handles marketing for clients including ex-Green Bay Packers cornerback Al Harris and Falcons defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux.
"We're in uncharted territory as to what a brand might think," Bechta said. "I can see a brand like Nike taking him, absolutely. They could treat him as a part of their overall message."
Nike, one of the largest corporate sponsors in U.S. sports, has aggressively promoted a message of inclusiveness and earlier this year launched its #BETRUE shoe collection with rainbow colors in support of gay pride.
Last year, the athletic shoe and apparel brand sponsored National Basketball Association player Jason Collins and hailed his "courage" for being the first male athlete active in a major sport to come out.
On Monday, Nike said it was "committed to diversity, inclusion and human rights."
"We believe in a level playing field where an athlete's sexual orientation is not a consideration," the company said, in response to a question on whether it might sponsor Sam.
Sam has not signed any sponsorship deals, his publicist, Howard Bragman, said. His team has turned down interview requests from major TV personalities as Sam prepares for the NFL Scouting Combine that starts Feb. 19, and the draft in May, Bragman said.
"The focus is on getting ready for the combine and the draft," Bragman said. "We are not talking to sponsors yet."
Few NFL players sign deals before they are drafted. Potential sponsors will watch to see which team signs him and consider how big an impact he makes on the football field, said Bob Witeck, a gay marketing strategist and corporate consultant.
"The judgment that any team is going to make, or any brand is going to make, is if he delivers," Witeck said. "His performance is the No. 1 thing."
Sponsorships can bring pro athletes millions of dollars each year. Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning earned $13 million from brands including shoe maker Reebok and Wheaties cereal, according to 2013 report from Sports Illustrated.
Major brands are interested in reaching gay consumers to tap into their buying power, said Witeck, who estimates the gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual community contributed $830 billion in spending to the U.S. economy in 2013.
One major company, hotel chain Marriott International, signed on as a sponsor for the Gay Games, an LGBT sporting event that will take place in August.
Despite the lack of precedent, few brands will avoid Sam simply because of his sexual orientation, marketing experts say.
His personality off the field will matter much more than his sexuality, said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon.
"His announcement is way down the list of things that a marketer will consider," Swangard said. "Does he have charisma? Is he of good character? Does he make himself visible on the team?" (Reporting by Lisa Richwine, editing by Ross Colvin and Cynthia Osterman)
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