Taking Pride: Teams embrace outreach
When Bill Gubrud started working for the gay newsweekly Chicago Free Press in 2000, the first sales call he made was to the Chicago Cubs. He was a huge fan of the team and wanted to break the stereotype that the gay community did not like sports. Because of his efforts, the Cubs, according to Gubrud, became the first sports team in the world to advertise in a gay paper.
A year later, Gubrud made another call to the Cubs — this time with the idea of an event for the gay community in mind. He asked how many group tickets were offered at Wrigley Field. He was told 2,000. To that he replied, “I’ll take them all.”
And so in 2001, Gubrud organized Out at the Ballgame — now called Out at Wrigley — which bills itself as “the nation’s original MLB Gay Day.”
“People always asked me why I wanted to do this,” Gubrud said. “One day, I want it to be where every sports team does this — every sports team reaches out to the gay community, every team makes you feel welcome.”
Seventeen years later, sports teams and their sponsors are reaching out to the LGBTQ community in greater numbers, and Pride nights are often the vehicle for increased inclusivity.
This season, 24 of the 30 MLB teams are hosting a Pride night for LGBTQ fans, which is a testament to the changing relationship between sports and the LGBTQ community. Gubrud said he has fielded calls from other MLB teams over the years, such as the Rangers, Brewers and Blue Jays, looking for guidance on how to host their own Pride night.
MLB teams combined have sold nearly 37,000 Pride-related ticket packages so far this season. The Cubs, who hosted their first team-sponsored Pride night on June 10 in addition to next month’s annual Out at Wrigley, sold 1,600 ticket packages, and the San Francisco Giants sold roughly 2,500 ticket packages. Besides a game ticket, the packages often include a specialized item and a pregame or postgame event.
“We began by allocating 5,000 tickets for the LGBT Night ticket pack, and sold out earlier than we ever have,” said Erik Braverman, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ senior vice president of marketing, broadcasting and communications. “In response, we added another 1,500 and sold out several days before the night. The first year (2013), we sold just over 1,000 ticket packs for this event.”
The Giants held their first Pride night in 2004, but it started as more of a social mixer than anything, said Faham Zakariaei, senior director of promotions and special events marketing. Since, it has grown to be a “loud statement of validation.”
“We realized this is bigger than just a social gathering. This is highlighting the community and celebrating the individuals that make up San Francisco,” Zakariaei said. “It grew from an 800-person social event to really I feel like a 2,500-person statement.”
The Giants team up with multiple community partners for Pride night every year, which Zakariaei said makes the event more successful. For each of the 2,500 tickets sold, $5 goes into a collective fundraising pot that is then donated back to those partners.
The Tampa Bay Rays’ 2016 Pride night came five days after the tragic mass shooting at an Orlando nightclub. The team donated 100 percent of the proceeds from the night to its community partner, Equality Florida. Tickets for the game were only $5 and more than $300,000 was raised for Equality Florida’s Pulse Victims Fund. More than 40,000 attended the game, making it the largest crowd at Tropicana Field since Opening Day in 2006, and Rays President Brian Auld said they “had to take the tarps off every seat in the house.”
TEAM, LEAGUE INVOLVEMENT IN LGBTQ EVENTS
• Last summer, the Los Angeles Rams and Chargers each sponsored a letter in the iconic rainbow-lit Venice, Calif., sign that is part of the city’s annual Pride celebration.
• Five Boston teams — the Celtics, Red Sox, Bruins, Patriots and Revolution — along with Bain Capital, sponsored Gay Bowl XVII, the National Gay Flag Football League’s championship tournament, which was played last Oct. 6-8 at Progin Park in Lancaster, Mass.
• 18 of the 23 MLS teams have Pride nights on their 2018 schedule and the league has an online Pride store offering apparel for each club.
• NBA executives, including Commissioner Adam Silver, Deputy Commissioner and COO Mark Tatum and WNBA President Lisa Borders, marched in NYC Pride for the third consecutive year, accompanying the league’s float. Employees of the Knicks and Nets joined.
• MLB also placed a float in the march for the first time. Dan Halem, deputy commissioner of baseball administration and chief legal officer, led a group of more than 175 MLB employees marching. Former umpire Dale Scott and Billy Bean, VP and special assistant to the commissioner, also marched.
— DAVID BROUGHTON
All 12 WNBA teams have LGBTQ Pride nights, and the entire league celebrates Pride month in June with activities and initiatives. The Minnesota Lynx has hosted a Pride night all 20 seasons of its existence.
This year, the Seattle Storm’s Pride night was supported by PwC and the team worked with Equal Rights Washington as a community partner.
“This is a community that has supported the WNBA from the very beginning, and so the idea of having pride platforms was very natural,” said Alisha Valavanis, Seattle Storm president and general manager.
Oftentimes, conversations with corporate partners revolve around mission-based, cause-based initiatives in addition to the entertainment and sport, Valavanis said.
“I’m finding more and more conversations with partners are around inclusion, diversity and equality — and the pride platform is certainly illustrating that,” she said.
The New York Knicks’ first Pride night took place this year and was presented by Adidas, which has connected with the LGBTQ community in other ways. Adidas partners with several LGBTQ athletes around the world, including former U.S. soccer player Robbie Rogers, world champion diver Tom Daley and five-time Olympic gold-medal swimmer Ian Thorpe, said Amir Kabel, Adidas’ global director of diversity and work-life integration.
“While we’ve always stood side by side with our athletes, in 2016 we formally added a clause to our athlete contracts underscoring our commitment to our partners regardless of gender identity and sexual orientation,” Kabel said. “We wanted to go the extra mile and show our athletes we value their partnership.”
Valavanis said that there has been a significant shift in inclusivity in sports over the last five to 10 years, but added, “I think we’ve got a lot of work to still do.”
While more can always be done to foster inclusive environments everywhere, the sports world has made progress toward achieving Gubrud’s dream of all sports teams reaching out to the LGBTQ community — and to think it started with a sales call to the Cubs.
“Everyone knows where the first one [LGBTQ night] was and easily trace it back,” Gubrud said. “I don’t need an abundance of credit, it just makes me extremely happy that all these teams are now doing this.”
Staff writer David Broughton contributed to this report.
Key sports business LGBTQ moments
1968:The International Olympic Committee institutes required sex testing for all women athletes; naked athletes are inspected by a panel of medical doctors. Two Russian women athletes, sisters Tamara and Irina Press , whose “masculine” appearance and gold-medal performances in track and field prompt concern about male athletes “masquerading” as women competitors, never compete again after the sex tests are instituted. The IOC policy ended in 1999.
1981: Billie Jean King is outed by her ex-lover. She has said many times since then that she lost all her endorsement deals “within 24 hours.”
1982: Former Olympic decathlon athlete Tom Waddell founds the first Gay Games in San Francisco. The quadrennial event begins this weekend in Paris.
1998: ESPN airs “World of the Gay Athlete” special, garnering a 0.5 rating and an average of 676,000 viewers. 2003: ESPN The Magazine hires openly gay reporter LZ Granderson as a freelance writer, and in 2004 he becomes an NBA editor.
2005: Martina Navratilova announces that she will be a spokeswoman for Olivia, a lesbian travel and vacation company. She remarks that it is the first time she got an endorsement because she is a lesbian.
2011: NBA fines Kobe Bryant $100,000 for using homophobic language toward an official. It later fines Joakim Noah $50,000 for using the same slur.
NBA, MLB, NHL and NFL adopt nondiscrimination policies that include sexual orientation.
NCAA adopts a transgender athlete inclusion policy.
2016: NBA announces that it is moving the 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte because of the league’s objection to the North Carolina’s House Bill 2, which limits anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people in the state. The NCAA also pulled the seven championships scheduled for the state that were planned for that academic year. Two months after HB2’s repeal in March 2017, the NBA awarded the 2019 All-Star Game to Charlotte.
— DAVID BROUGHTON