The New York Yankees game against the Baltimore Orioles on Thursday will mark a series of endpoints in Derek Jeter’s storied playing career: his last home game at Yankee Stadium, his last night in pinstripes, his last at-bat. It will also mean the end of Jeter’s relentlessly marketed, unquestionably lucrative retirement tour.
“It’s one of the biggest campaigns I’ve seen. [Jeter] is almost like the Michael Jordan of his sport,” Ben Sturner, founder and CEO of marketing firm Leverage Agency, said. “He transcends the sport. The New York Yankees are the biggest global brand [in sports], and Derek Jeter is their star player.”
Jeter’s announcement in February that he would retire after the 2014 MLB season prompted a monthslong deluge of commemorative Yankees memorabilia, sponsor ad campaigns and pregame ceremonies. Among many retailers who got in on the game, Steiner Sports, specializing in Jeter collectibles and memorabilia, is selling everything from autographed lineup cards to the star shortstop’s game-worn socks.
As expected, the Yankees have also cashed in on Jeter’s impending exit. The team announced on Sept. 2 that each of its players would wear a Jeter patch on their uniforms for the final weeks of the season. Legendary Yankees closer Mariano Rivera received similar treatment ahead of his retirement in 2013. The Bronx Bombers also held “Derek Jeter Day” on Sept. 7, complete with a pregame ceremony to honor the 20-year career of “The Captain.”
New memorabilia featuring the Jeter patch -- including game-worn jerseys -- are available for public purchase, but it merely represents a part of the haul. Sports apparel site fanatics.com lists 296 separate Jeter-related products for sale, with profits up 2,700 percent compared to this time last year, Time.com reports.
As Jeter’s final season progressed, top sponsors produced ad campaigns in his honor. Released a day before Jeter’s All-Star Game appearance in July, Nike’s “Re2pect” commercial featured a moving tribute to the esteem in which Jeter is universally held by fans. The ad went viral, receiving more than 8 million views on YouTube.
Gatorade followed suit in September with its “Made in New York” commercial, in which Jeter greeted fans during a walk to Yankee Stadium. Again, the ad was an overwhelming success, garnering more than 5 million views in less than a week.
Attention from a retiring player’s team and major endorsers is commonplace in the sports world, but other aspects of Jeter’s farewell tour were mostly unprecedented. Many MLB teams opted to hold pregame ceremonies of their own, honoring a player who never wore their uniform. Throughout the season, Jeter received gifts ranging from donations to his charity to a pair of personalized cowboy boots.
Jeter’s decision to announce his retirement before, rather than after, his last season could signal a new trend for athletes as well as a new opportunity for sponsors, asserts Khalid Ballouli, a former minor league baseball player and assistant professor for the Department of Sports and Entertainment Management at the University of South Carolina.
“This is a really new phenomenon we’re seeing in that players are no longer retiring after the last game, making an announcement two or three weeks after the season is over,” Ballouli said. “In that respect, this is huge for sponsors and brands and the Yankees in general, because you get a 162-game season where you get to highlight and attach yourself to this sentimental goodbye. This is the 'feel-good' type of story that brands really pay for when they go into these types of deals.”
Conversely, the sheer relentlessness of the marketing of Jeter’s retirement has generated some criticism. Earlier this month, former NFL quarterback and New York sports radio personality Boomer Esiason blasted the Yankees for their attempts to monetize the end of Jeter’s career.
“It’s such bad taste. I don’t give a damn what Yankee fans think, it’s just awful,” Esiason, who took particular umbrage at the sale of memorabilia featuring the Jeter patch, said. “It kind of goes against everything [that] Derek Jeter has been.”
Despite some backlash, the public demand for Jeter gear has remained high. His No. 2 Yankees jersey is the best-selling baseball jersey of all time, while 23 percent of official hat-maker New Era’s MLB business this season is Yankees-related, ESPN reports.
“In today’s social media climate, you’re going to have backlash on anything you do. There’s always naysayers and cynics,” Ballouli adds. “But for every Boomer Esiason critic -- and even if Boomer is correct in saying ‘this is excessive, it’s too much, it’s heavy-handed -- there’s probably 10 to 50 that buy into this type of [campaign].”
Outrage from critics hasn't stopped ticket prices for Jeter’s final home game at Yankee Stadium from reaching prohibitive heights. As of Wednesday morning, the average sale price per ticket stood at $601.73, while the average listed price was $834.36 -- a number that dwarfs figures for a typical Yankees home game, according to Chris Matcovich, vice president of communications at ticket resale aggregator TiqIQ.
“[The Yankees’] current average for all home games is $116.60,” he said. “[Jeter’s last home game is] about seven times higher.”
Throughout his 20-plus years in the public eye, Jeter was never targeted by the allegations of steroid use that dogged so many other MLB players, nor was he the subject of any other scandal. Amid the bad publicity and poor behavior associated with many of today’s top athletes and sports leagues, Jeter’s humble approach to life on and off the field is part of what makes him so marketable.
“The masses that rally around, and the marketing built around his retirement speaks volumes about what society as a whole values more,” Ballouli said. “It might not be the fact that he’s No. 1 or top three in any Yankees stat category from an offensive standpoint. He represents the Pinstripes in ways that people want their kids to grow up around. The players that did it right with no questions of steroids or performance-enhancing drugs... We’re running out of those types of players.”
But Jeter’s last home game won’t necessarily spell the end of his marketability. Don’t be surprised if he ends up in the Yankees’ broadcast booth, or even back in the dugout as a coach. “Jeter’s not going away,” Ballouli added. “He’s going to be a Yankee for life.”