The most memorable farewell in sports occurred in 1939, when a dying Lou Gehrig, his amplified words echoing around Yankee Stadium like a muezzin’s call to prayer, proclaimed he was “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”
Eighty years later, when elite athletes retire or leave via trade or free agency, they no longer transmit thank yous and goodbyes over public-address systems. Some schedule news conferences. Some take to The Players Tribune. Still others choose a filter-free social-media platform such as Twitter or Instagram.
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But, curiously, it’s a relatively new means of communicating via a decidedly old-school medium that in 2019 is the most popular way for departing stars to say goodbye: the full-page newspaper ad.
“They still resonate with a fan base,” said Joe Favorito, a marketing veteran who teaches sports business communications and public relations at Columbia University. “The fastest-growing demographic in this country is people 50 and over. They’re the people with the most disposable income. And they read newspapers.”
While print is seen by many in this digital-first era as a dinosaur, players increasingly turn to it for public valedictions. Not only do the full-page ads allow for thoughtful, personal messaging, but they serve as tangible keepsakes for supporters, as reminders of the charities or websites affiliated with the players, and, maybe most important, as a way to ensure future revenue.
On Sunday, Dirk Nowitzki, the Dallas Mavericks forward who is retiring after 21 seasons, used a page in that city’s Morning News for his valediction.
“This is THANK YOU Mavs fans, from the bottom of my heart, for taking in a kid from Wurzburg and making me one of your own,” Nowitzki wrote in a typewritten note that appeared over a silhouette of the German-born star.
Such ads have been popular in Philadelphia, too. The Phillies’ Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels, Chase Utley, Shane Victorino, Pat Burrell, and Roy Halladay all used goodbye ads in The Inquirer and/or Daily News upon their departures. So did football coach Matt Rhule when he left Temple for Baylor in 2016.
Dubbed “tear-stained letters” by the cynical sports website Deadspin, these ads have been used elsewhere by coaches (Billy Donovan, Mike McCarthy, Manchester City’s Roberto Mancini) and stars from baseball (Albert Pujols, Jon Lester, Paul Goldschmidt), football (Ed Reed, Reggie Wayne, Andre Johnson), and basketball (Dwight Howard, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce).
Athletic director Chris Del Conte bought one when he departed TCU for Texas. The Yankees used one to congratulate the Mets’ David Wright on his retirement.
Sports marketers say the ads are popular because they work. Whatever the motivation, they’re almost universally viewed as “classy” or “heartfelt.” And they help suddenly inactive athletes keep their brands alive.
“They can cement emotional relationships,” said David Meltzer, former CEO of Leigh Steinberg Sports & Entertainment and co-founder of Sports 1 Marketing. “People say, `Oh my God, I love, say, Steve Young. What a grateful guy. What a humble person. Can you believe he took a whole-page ad to thank his fans?' Meanwhile, those fans are the ones who are going to hire him and buy his stuff for the next 30 years.”
The trend is believed to have started with agents at about the same time as the new millennium.
In 2000 and 2001, three big-name NFL QBs who were clients of Leigh Steinberg’s Houston-based agency hung up their helmets: Steve Young, Warren Moon, and Troy Aikman.
In each case, a newspaper ad — paid for by a sponsoring shoe company — coincided with the retirement. The retiring player thanked fans, teammates, and others.
The ads were not only nice gestures but, as Meltzer noted, good business. All three ex-QBs quickly signed lucrative broadcasting deals and, two decades later, remain in demand for speaking engagements and public events.
“Gratitude is a high emotion,” Meltzer said. “I think when you can brand yourself as grateful and connect emotionally to the people who will be hiring you, it’s extremely valuable, much more valuable than what that ad costs. These ads help transition the brand away from the team they played for, the number they wore, a persona that’s linked to that team.”
Their hope is that when a charity needs a spokesperson or a product needs an endorser, the same CEOs who were moved by the goodbye ads will remember them.
“If you capture it correctly, it’s more than an ad in the paper. People frame it or take a picture or video of it and post it online. You can reach millions of people," Meltzer said. "We knew these ads, whether we placed them in the L.A. Times, Parade magazine, or wherever, would be read by fans and CEOs. And we knew that would help us in 20 years, when we had to go back to these same people to get $30,000 to $50,000 for keynote speeches or signings.”
As powerful as the financial incentives might be, though, the ads often fulfill some basic emotional need for athlete and fan, especially when the departure might be messy and unpopular.
When defensive end Trace Armstrong reluctantly left the Dolphins as a free agent in 2001, he was asked what prompted his Miami Herald farewell ad.
“You’ve poured yourself wholeheartedly into an organization and a community, and the next minute you’re cleaning out your locker,” he said. “I wanted to make sure people knew I was grateful for my time here.”
That reciprocity — the fan being acknowledged by the person he or she supported — resonates for athletes eager to keep capitalizing on their sports reputation, said Bill Sutton, director of the Sport & Entertainment Management MBA program at the University of South Florida.
“The fan wants the player to recognize their support,” Sutton said. "That’s why we’re seeing lots of players who do. The ads portray you as a good human being, someone who’s grateful, someone who gets it.”
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The ads are expensive — a full-page in the Sunday Inquirer, for example, costs $15,000 to $20,000 — but often it’s a sponsor and not the player footing the bill. In fact, some departing stars actually make money off them.
“We tried to work it so they didn’t have to pay for the ad,” Meltzer said. “They’re great branding opportunities for corporate sponsors. So, we might work a deal with Nike where Nike not only pays for the ad but pays our athlete for being in it.”
A theme in many is a reference to charitable work that agencies such as Steinberg’s require of clients. Utley’s August 2015 ad, for example, mentioned his ties to the Pennsylvania SPCA, a reminder that he and the organization hoped would spur ongoing support.
In the end, these ads work because the people who most avidly supported the players and followed their sports tend to read the newspapers in which they appear.