Is Coming Out for Soccer Stars Commercial Suicide?

Rainbow-striped caps. Football v. Homophobia sweatshirts. A team made up exclusively of queer men. Despite efforts to foster a friendlier environment for closeted soccer players, today’s inclusive discourse has yet to tackle the elephant in the (locker) room: commercial viability.

In a time when Cristiano Ronaldo amasses a whopping 47 million dollars in product endorsements yearly, soccer stars now sweat over finals and followers, goals and galas. Sexual fluidity deemed out-of-character for our collective imaginary of the rigid male athlete, could this chase for cultural capital explain the absence of a single openly-gay player across the 92 teams of English football?

In the US, former LA Galaxy winger Robbie Rogers has fared well with his commercial viability after coming out as gay in 2013. Despite fears over his future prospects, the American athlete closed a deal in 2014 with ABC to air Men in Shorts, a comedy based on his professional career. Recently, he has been involved with CW’s high school drama, All American.

As commercial partnerships become increasingly tied to a diverse set of cross-media platforms, an alliance between the traditionally isolated, testosterone-driven sports industry and entertainment may unlock new audiences for closeted soccer stars who fear for their queer identities to be, in soccer lingo, potentially offside.

In 2019, The Late Late Show with James Corden hosted a Live Tinder game with Major League Soccer star Collin Martin, who came out as gay on Twitter the previous year. Besides recently featuring on NBC’s Monday Refresh segment, the American soccer star was also in the news for giving his own endorsement to then-presidential-hopeful Mayor Pete Buttgieg.

But we are witnessing a more general shift in the aesthetics and meaning of masculinity within the commercial stable of soccer stars; straight, gay, or in between. Former Barcelona FC star Andres Iniesta has endorsed Mikakus, a brand of shoes more tailored for casual events than grimy football pitches. Similarly, Belgian frontrunner Romelu Lukaku did a recent advertisement for Abercrombie & Fitch.

Real Madrid prodigy Eden Hazard also partnered with colorful and funky brand Ice Watch, rather than its more traditionally-masculine, silver-plated counterparts. The campaign’s catch line, in fact, is Time Has Changed.

Commercial placements in the age of metrosexuals reflect a cultural and generational change within the demographics of soccer fanbases. The recent deal between Adidas and Beyoncé betrays the sports industry’s growing desire to cater to a more athleisure-wearing Generation Z that looks beyond archetype figures in sports.

Gay celebrities with a better grasp of media literacy, such as Neil Patrick Harris or Anderson Cooper, offer some positive lessons learned on the issue of reconciling masculinity with sexuality in their commercial and cultural advancements.

Harris’ public announcement in 2006 did not stop the release, nor switch the pronouns, of How I Met Your Mother pocketbook series The Bro Code in 2008 and The Play Book: Suit Up. Score Chicks. Be Awesome. in 2010.

Television anchor Cooper’s quiet coming out did not jeopardize his ability to mediate the presidential debate between Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump. Mayor Pete Buttgieg’s impressive run for president of the United States is testament to the public malleability of masculinity too.

Is there a successful model within soccer that closeted stars can look up to? David Beckham is one. “He openly courted his gay fan base, saying he loved being a gay icon,” author and journalist Chas Newkey-Burden told CNN a few years ago.

In 2015, Manchester United defender Luke Shaw received media backlash for his defensive rebuke of gay rumors surrounding him at the time; rumors that David Beckham may have opted to coolly flirt with on social media.

Having profited as much from Real Madrid as Calvin Klein, jersey sales as underwear, the Englishman has left the door open for soccer stars to express their personal vision of masculinity.

But the myth of commercial disaster associated with LGBTQ inclusion in sports can be best debunked by openly-gay athletes themselves, not their allies. Ex-NBA star Jason Collins led pundits to worry about the prospects of his future commercial endorsements when he came out as gay in 2013. In the same week, to everyone’s surprise, he landed a sponsorship deal with Nike.

There is therefore no strict formula for coming out as a soccer star. In 2020, it might indeed be time for soccer players, queer or not, to learn to not only keep better control of the ball, but of their own narrative as well.

Rayyan Dabbous is a Lebanese author. His recent books include DIY Creative Activism: A Handbook (2019) and Psychoanalysis of a Teenage Novelist (2020).