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NFL scores points with gay business owners

With Michael Sam stuck in football limbo, many are wondering where that leaves the movement for LGBT equality in professional sports. While the situation on the field remains murky, the National Football League has decided to use its heft as a business powerhouse to help the cause outside the arena.

The NFL announced Monday it would reach out to lesbian-, gay-, bisexual- and transgender-owned businesses for the first time as part of its Business Connect program ahead of the Super Bowl in 2016, to be held in San Francisco. The program works in conjunction with a city’s host committee to court small businesses owned by women, minorities and disabled veterans for potential contracts for the various parties and events in the week leading up to the big game.

The value of the contracts isn’t known, and the program doesn’t necessarily give these businesses an advantage. It does, however, provide educational and networking opportunities for these business owners, who are often overlooked for such contracts. According to the Business Connect website, the NFL will hold two informational workshops next week for potential vendors, with representatives from the league and its corporate sponsors scheduled to attend.

The program’s expansion is being hailed as “history-making” by such business leaders as Paul Pendergast, owner of Pendergast Consulting Group and head of the Golden Gate Business Association, the country’s first LGBT Chamber of Commerce. The GGBA counts almost 350 businesses, organizations and individuals among its members, and it was a founding member of the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce back in 2003. In September, the NGLCC helped push through a bill requiring companies with at least $25 million in annual revenue and are regulated by California’s Public Utilities Commission to consider contracts with LGBT-owned businesses, as they are required to do for enterprises owned by women, minorities and veterans.

With San Francisco and California historically at the forefront of LGBT rights, the NFL has found the perfect host city as a partner for its diversity efforts. It’s a stark contrast to the situation it faced earlier this year in Phoenix, site of the next Super Bowl. In February, the Arizona legislature passed the disingenuously named Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the primary goal of which was to uphold the “freedom” of small-business owners to refuse to serve LGBT patrons. Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed the bill after significant public pressure from officials and businesses who argued both that it sanctioned discrimination under the guise of religious freedom and that it would ultimately damage the state’s reputation and tourism industry.

While the bill’s surprising critics included former presidential nominee Mitt Romney and Florida Governor Rick Scott, perhaps the most unlikely opponent also happened to be the most powerful: the NFL. Before Brewer made her decision, the league issued a statement emphasizing the “tolerance and inclusiveness” of its policies and condemning “discrimination based on age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or any other improper standard.” In addition, the Arizona Super Bowl Host Committee hinted that the NFL could pull the game out of Phoenix, stating that adoption of the bill would “run contrary” to the league’s goal of promoting the local economy.

What the failure of the Arizona bill proved is that the NFL can be a force for good when it puts its mind to it. It’s an important reminder, especially as the league has increased efforts to address “social responsibility” in light of recent domestic violence cases involving its players. Of course, we’re still waiting for the first openly gay player to make a roster, and the league still has to address problems in its own hiring practices: According to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, the NFL continues to lag behind the other major sports leagues in gender hiring, particularly on the team level.

It might be good PR, and it’s definitely good business, but we can still appreciate the NFL’s efforts to reach out to the LGBT community. Perhaps the league is taking a cue from the WNBA, which has recently made its gay and lesbian fans a major priority. Or maybe the NFL got word from its corporate marketing partners that the LGBT community represents nearly $830 billion in buying power, or that same-sex households make 16 percent more shopping trips than the average and account for about 25 percent more spending, or that gay men have the highest discretionary income per capita.

Whatever the reason, it’s encouraging to see the league using its immense power and economic weight to enable progress rather than inhibit it.

© 2014, Bloomberg News