Coming out as an openly gay Olympic freestyle skier has been great for Gus Kenworthy as a person, since he can be his true self. It’s also been great for Kenworthy in terms of visibility and endorsements, as SportsBusiness Journal found.
As a good-looking, outgoing silver medalist who helped rescue stray dogs in Sochi, Kenworthy would have had plenty of calls from sponsors regardless. But when he told ESPN Magazine in 2015 he’s gay, he added the factor that makes all the difference to marketers: A distinctive personal story that highlights a diversity theme.
He’s already signed with Visa, Toyota, Ralph Lauren, Deloitte and 24 Hour Fitness, and his agent, Wasserman’s Michael Spencer, says at least two more Olympic deals are coming. Those are on top of his long-term relationships with Monster Energy, Atomic skis and Smith goggles. He’ll be featured in Visa’s marketing and extensively profiled on NBC broadcasts. Olympic insiders say nearly every USOC or IOC sponsor inquired about his availability.
“It’s absolutely true — I think I’m more marketable now as an out athlete,” Kenworthy said. “Every brand is looking for diversity, and it’s an important thing for brands to have diversity, more so than it’s ever been.”
For years, one reason we were told that pro gay athletes did not come out was that they would lose sponsors. While that was likely true at one time, Kenworthy has shown that times have changed. It also helps that Kenworthy won a medal at the 2014 Olympics and is gunning for more at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games.
A Visa rep told writer Ben Fischer that Kenworthy being out was a big selling point in their desire to work with him. “We certainly like individuals who stand for the concept of acceptance, and the concept of diversity,” said Chris Curtin, chief brand and innovation marketing officer. “And not just stand for it themselves, but embrace it in others as well.”
Kenworthy has also not shied away from discussing his sexual orientation, knowing that visibility can help other LGBT people struggling with their sexuality.
“I’m definitely ‘the gay skier’ now,” Kenworthy told the Team USA website. “In some ways I don’t care that that’s the label that sticks because I very much am the gay skier and I know that and I took the steps to come out publicly and decided to wear that badge proudly. I’m so glad that I did because my life has been so much better since that.”
He is aware of the power of being a brand spokesman because he’s gay (“I think that’s so friggin’ cool,” he said). And his story has been embraced by the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Assn., which asked him to do a Facebook live video on Wednesday for National Coming Out Day.
There are myriad reasons why LGBT athletes stay in the closet. But no longer can anyone claim that sponsors will flee if they come out. Kenworthy has demolished that idea.