When it comes to professional athletes announcing their retirements, the media planets are in the process of a major realignment.
Last week former Chicago Bears, Minnesota Vikings and Carolina defensive end Jared Allen announced that he was stepping away from professional football after playing 12 years in the NFL. He didn’t issue a press release through his team or agent. He didn’t sit on a dais and thank his teammates, coaches and corporate partners. He simply released a 20-second video on his Instagram account (synched with his Twitter page) on horseback and said that he was riding into the proverbial sunset.
Two weeks prior to Allen’s announcement, Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch announced his retirement on Twitter during the fourth quarter of Super Bowl 50. He posted a photo of his hanging cleats and in typical Lynch fashion, offered no words. By posting on Twitter, he grabbed the attention of thousands of multi-screeners that were already chatting about football, and he didn’t face media questions he’s avoided in recent years. The Seahawks and Lynch’s agent later confirmed his retirement, also via Twitter.
“We’re now in an era where an athlete can send a message that reflects his own image, and Jared Allen did just that as he literally and figuratively rode into the sunset,” FOX Sports and NFL Network football analyst Charles Davis, said. “His video announcement fit him and his brand. Athletes get savvier as we go along, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”
It wasn’t long ago that big-name athletes’ teams scheduled press conferences about 24-36 hours prior to the gathering to give national media time to travel. A few dozen reporters, photo journalists, players’ families and team personnel would gather in the team’s press briefing room where said player would offer his retirement statement. He would thank everyone from his organization and teammates to his Pop Warner coach and agent. He’d take questions from reporters in the room, and feel-good stories would be written and told that day and maybe the next. The video was typically interesting enough only to share on evening news shows and early the following season when national NFL broadcasters talked about that team’s changes.
Today, athletes create their own visuals and make statements via social media, and those individually posted nuggets live on in Internet infinity. Even if we move on to new stories the following day, creativity like Allen’s and Lynch’s skyrocket in the minutes and hours after their release, but remain online to share months and years forward.
“Even if it was crafted by an agent or a PR firm, Marshawn Lynch’s retirement announcement was brilliant because it perfectly suited his taciturn public personality,” said Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and 2015 NSSA Sportswriter of the Year, Lori Nickel. “I loved it. If he did it himself, or with the help of a friend, it’s even better.”
ESPN play-by-play announcer Adam Amin said that he appreciates athletes’ creativity, but as someone that uses background information to tell stories to frame game broadcasts, he would like more information.
“As a media member, I would just want access to an athlete to find out why they want to retire, rather than speculate on my own,” Amin said. “As long as that gets fulfilled at some point, I encourage athletes to continue to do things as creatively and efficiently as possible to reach as large an audience as they can.”
Nickel is not so sure that every question would be answered, even if there were press conferences.
“I can’t think of anything more useless than a sports press conference,” Nickel said. “They’re not set up for a genuine exchange between thoughtful questioning and honest answering. They’re awkward, they’re sterile and they’re distance creating and as a result, they’re boring and uninformative.
“It’s all for image and show – and heaven help us, hopefully not a beer or pizza endorsement – and as a journalist I couldn’t care less about any of that.”
Nickel said that she “fondly remembers” the days when traditional media – reporters and photo journalists once served useful roles in capturing retirement announcements and their emotions with powerful still images, rare camera close ups and candid conversations.
“It was almost a rite of passage for the star athlete to climb a dais, grab a mic and let the memories and the reflections flow,” she said. “I like the modern idea of the final goodbye coming straight from the sports star to the social media observer, or better yet, the sports idol to the devoted fan. I don’t feel like I’m being nudged out of a good story.
“If anything, I feel all the more challenged to make the chase and try to beat out everyone else for the killer follow up.”
Davis reflected from a fan’s point of view.
“We have the attention spans of gnats, so we quickly forget these announcements, especially if there isn’t any color to them,” he said. “I don’t think fans care that they don’t see a press conference and those of us in the media — we’re onto the next thing so quickly. The downside for television news is that they could cut and splice sound bytes from pressers and use them in different broadcasts forever, but the individual creativity certainly isn’t there.”
Social media has changed the way we disseminate and consume news; peek into public figures lives and now, the way athletes retire. Its uses will continue to evolve, especially in the sports arena.
©Gail Sideman; PUBLISIDE 2016