Pat Forde’s got a good column up on the bizarre end to Lute Olson’s coaching career, and in it, he nails one of the more important concepts of the current sports landscape:
Call it the Brett Favre Effect — the more beloved a sports figure becomes, the harder it is to leave with grace.
Using that thesis, who’s going to follow Favre’s footsteps?
It really could be just about anyone: Michael Jordan did this, Barry Bonds is still doing it, Lance Armstrong has just done it. Larry Brown’s entire career is based on this. Dara Torres counts in this accounting, too.
To figure out the answer, we need to figure in the two criteria Forde cites, money and love, and my own, legacy.
For any of the athletes listed, a return usually means a burst of publicity, a contract, and a wave of new endorsements. It’s not coincidental that Torres fueled her comeback with endorsement dollars; that’s the way swimming has to work to be profitable. But Favre wasn’t doing Wrangler commercials until after he blew up in the last couple of years as a media manipulator.
Jordan could come back right now, and he’d go from Hanes to Gatorade and Nike in a matter of days. Be prepared to see a lot of Armstrong as he revs up for the Tour de France next summer.
So the guys and gals have to stand to make a profit from a comeback. But the key for that profitablility is public interest; the bedrock “love” is what marketers want to be able to tap. Favre isn’t as compelling without a long career; Bonds simply isn’t as compelling because he’s reviled, though I could see a few successful hate-based ad campaigns that would get some buzz.
And “legacy,” that elusive feeling of accomplishment, of doing all one needs to do, is the public reason Favre’s been around for the last four or five years; he’s “wanted” “that Super Bowl.” Likewise, Armstrong would love nothing more than to put cycling records out of reach; Bonds came back to best Hank Aaron.
So, some people who fit these parameters:
He’s the heart and soul of the Ravens, and I dare you to find a media report saying otherwise. Somehow, he survived a murder rap from his visit to the Super Bowl, and has turned into a sort of lion in winter for the NFL, which always needs a few photogenic and kitchen-table name recognition guys on defense. How Lewis gets to stay that person when Adam “My Ghosts Are Not Inky and Blinky” Jones is raked over the coals for lesser indiscretions than being charged with murder is beyond me, but the NFL is omniscient, right?
Lewis is 33, and has 13 years of NFL linebacking on his tires; those treads can’t take that much wear. But as the face of Under Armour, and as the leader of a resurgent Ravens defense and a squad that will get better as the old guard of the AFC declines and the offense congeals behind the talented Joe Flacco, he’s going to get more publicity in the coming year or two than he’s had since either the Super Bowl or his Madden cover; if the Ravens end up in the Super Bowl in the next three years, I guarantee we will know every detail of Ray Lewis’ life by then.
And that’s certainly going to help push him in this direction. It doesn’t hurt that linebackers like Zach Thomas and Tedy Bruschi, both less effective than Lewis, have stuck around forever.
The Williams Sisters
Clearly, they have the talent to play tennis until their tendons snap, and they’ll be Grand Slam contenders until they’re thirtysomethings. But these two are now the elders of a tennis tour that devours its teenagers and creates an Ana Ivanovic or Maria Sharapova on a yearly basis. Serena’s only a little more than a month younger than Roger Federer, for perspective, and the question asked about Fed in a year’s time has changed from “Is he the best player ever?” to “Does he have enough left with Nadal, Djokovic, and others on his heels?”
There’s a tipping point for athletes, and it’s usually easy to pinpoint. I thought we had already passed it with both of the Williams sisters, when they bailed on the daily grind of tennis to spend more time in their other professional endeavors. There’s no shortage of money or love here, as ESPN cranks up every time the only two American tennis players with both popularity and chances at majors (apologies to Lindsay Davenport, Andy Roddick, and James Blake) make moves during those fortnights, and just one win gives Nike or Reebok or whoever reason to run full-page ads.
Maybe, because they’re still not just competitive but best-in-the-world contenders, they’ll escape this effect for now. If Serena’s playing Indian Wells as a 31-year-old, though, you heard it here first.
This is, I’m sure, the Sarah Palin Special, a divisive choice that will break a bunch of people to one side or the other immediately, and, eventually, turn to one (correct) point of view.
Jeter’s value as an icon is unmatched in baseball. There’s no one player more adored than the Captain of the New York Yankees; he could play like David Eckstein for the next three or four years, and no one blinded by the Yankee blue would care one iota about the falloff. He’s the man’s man who puts together the black book to end black books and gets a rep as “gritty” instead of one as increasingly fragile over the last several years because, smartly, he’s been treating the media as kindly as anyone under New York’s scrutiny ever has for his whole career.
As Derek Jeter, though, with the Yankees entering a new era and a new stadium, with one of the greatest players to ever play already shuttled to a different position to accomodate you, with one of Hollywood’s prettiest young things on your arm, would you give that up for anything? It doesn’t matter that the usually reliable Jeter, who plays through most knicks and kinks, missed more time this year than since he got hurt on Opening Day in 2003, or that because of that, his age (he turns 35 next June), and the fact that he’s been losing power and range for a while and his other stats seem to be dropping a level or two, he’s not the player he used to be.
He makes $20 million or more a year. He dates very attractive women. He’s respected in baseball, revered in New York. And he’s got the deepest pockets in baseball backing his chances to get back to the World Series.
He has no reason to relinquish that; indeed, he would be fool to let any of that go before he absolutely has to. But though he’s been the portrait of grace, I doubt he will stay that way when his time comes; be ready for at least one year of Jeter batting .269 while Mike Lupica writes a book about Jeet’s “love of the game.”
Peyton Manning/Tom Brady
These guys are special cases; each has the sort of mental acuity an aging quarterback gets to offset his physical limitations, minus the crippling “gunslinger mentality” the effect’s namesake had, and the team and staff around each of them is about as good as it gets in professional sports.
Now, that said, each of them has discovered their power as endorsers. Manning has shilled for just about everything but Levitra, and Brady’s worked his pretty-boy looks into Stetson ads; Manning’s got about as much respect in media circles as Favre, and his sense of humor seems likely to help fend off retirement columns, and Brady’s stoicism and profile in the New England area will inure him from a lot of criticism.
Each one’s career is already well-proven: Brady’s three Super Bowls puts him with Bradshaw, Montana, and Starr, and Manning’s got statistical trends that suggest he will dwarf the biggest numbers Favre and Marino accumulated if he stays healthy.
And neither one has seemed like the attention would be enough to keep them around; the faux-humble act Favre’s perfected wouldn’t suit either one of these two.
So it’s legacy and riches, and both of those things are at stake. Peyton Manning, as soon as he loses a little zip, or as soon as he takes a wallop, will be less attractive as a pitchman; it’s in his wallet’s interest to stay atop the NFL for as long as possible, and another Super Bowl title would secure both things.
Brady’s young enough and has enough around him to make a few more runs at a championship; if he gets to two more Super Bowls and wins both, gets to two and wins one, or gets to one and wins it, I think he immediately vaults into the discussion about “the greatest quarterback of all-time.” That’s a powerful lure to stick around until the grays come in.
Bill Simmons writes in his NBA fantasy preview that Kobe’s played more than a thousand NBA games, regular season plus playoffs, as of this spring. That’s a long career for an NBA player, especially one who drives like Kobe; MJ, for all his postseason success, didn’t pass that number until the 1997-98 season, his last championship campaign, at age 34. Kobe’s just turned 30 this year.
So it’s logical to expect some decline in his game.
But Kobe’s survived much worse; the rape charges have turned into a distant memory, the feud with Shaq and the petulance of past summers have been replaced with a rep as a team leader that’s endeared him to Lakers fans all over again, and the problems of the “next Jordan” comparison have been tabled while he and LeBron vie for the title of best player in the world.
And yet, Kobe’s got to be one of the most media-savvy athletes to ever play a sport. He teamed up with Sprite and McDonald’s early in his career; he jumped from Adidas to Nike when Jordan left the game; he’s been a star of viral videos and a smiling face in the “Sunday Conversation”; he, in the best gambit of his career, changed his number to 24 and got fans to buy new jerseys, got pundits to play the Kobe-MJ game again, and got his name in a Kanye West line.
He’s not going away for a while; Kobe’s going to be one of the ten best NBA players for at least five years. But what if, as he senses he’s slipping, Kobe returns to Italy, where he was born, taking three king’s ransoms, four yachts, and all the property George Clooney owns to play in Rome? Can you imagine what kind of media reaction that would get?
Kobe’s got the potential to rename this effect.