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Collins’ Bold Move Could Spur 'First-Out' Boost

Jason Collins becomes the first openly gay athlete currently playing professional sports in the U.S.
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Jason Collins becomes the first openly gay athlete currently playing professional sports in the U.S.

When Jason Collins stepped out of the closet, he opened the door to marketing opportunities that go with the fame of doing something first, sports marketing experts said Tuesday.

And since the NBA journeyman was not a household name before Monday, he leaves room for more athletes to claim their own first-out marketing boost.

Collins is the first active pro player of a major U.S. sport to come out as gay, but there is still no openly gay player in the NFL, NHL or in MLB, said Robert Tuchman, president of sports and entertainment marketing company Goviva.

(Read More: Top Tweets: Reactions to NBA's Jason Collins)

"These folks will always have the first-mover status and that always helps when you have brands that want to get behind you," Tuchman said. In addition, he said, extra bonus points will go to the first All-Star athlete to come out.

It remains to be seen who comes out next in other sports. Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon, said the NBA front office has a good record for conveying best practices to its teams for reacting to real-time PR events, good or bad.

It will be interesting to learn if other teams feel a sense of urgency to develop a plan if their own players come out, Swangard said. "The NFL should be talking about it," he said.

Regardless how it's handled from the media and marketing side, a decision like the one Collins made is likely to be a personal one and not a contrived gimmick to sell something.

"I don't think this was ever about that," Swangard said.

Although Collins has played pro basketball for 12 years, his name-recognition was so low that marketing firms had not even bothered to include him in consumer surveys.

"Up until now, there wasn't a great deal of interest in him," said Henry Schafer, the executive vice president of Q Scores, which rates the consumer popularity of celebrities and brands. That changed Monday when Collins voluntarily disclosed he was gay in a "Sports Illustrated" cover story.

"As a brand right now, he's hot," said Rick Burton, the David B. Falk Professor of Sports Management at Syracuse University. "This has been incredibly well received."

Even though he is now well-known, Collins, who becomes a free agent this summer, will still need to connect with consumers, said Swangard.

(Read More: NBA's Collins Comes Out: Will Endorsements Follow?)

"It's not certain Jason's going to be the darling of Madison Avenue," Swangard said. "We're still talking about a back-up center without a job."

Brands looking at Collins right now are likely edgy, progressive companies that care less about his sexuality than about what people read into his action, Tuchman said. "It's about courage. It's about being who you are. Reputation," he said. "That's what a lot of brands pay millions and millions of dollars for, and here he's doing it naturally."

"Courage" indeed is one of the words Nike's public relations department used when acknowledging its long-term relationship with Collins. "

Jason has been a Nike athlete since he entered the league in 2001," Brian Strong, a spokesman for Nike said in an e-mail to NBC News. "We admire Jason's courage and are proud that he is a Nike athlete. Nike believes in a level playing field where an athlete's sexual orientation is not a consideration."

—By NBC's Amy Langfield

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