SBJ/July 30 - August 5, 2001/Marketingsponsorship

Ripken keeps another streak going with low-key move to retirement

On June 18, Cal Ripken sat down with Dave Sheinin, a Washington Post writer he had come to trust during his 21-year career. Sheinin posed a question that Ripken had been asked hundreds of times: "Is this your last season?" Ripken paused and in a somewhat nonchalant response said, "Yes." Ripken realized his response would create a buzz in the sports world. He also knew it was time to call two people: his agent, Ira Rainess, and his PR guy, John Maroon, both of Tufton Sports & Management of Lutherville, Md.

Although Rainess and Maroon had a hunch this would be Ripken's last season, they were not sure when he would go public, so there was no PR plan in place. In PR, that is risky, but Maroon was confident he had time to implement a strategy. After all, he had at least a day before the news hit.

Wrong! The Post put the news on its Web site that evening. By 11:30 p.m., Maroon was being flooded with calls, including one from Bill Stetka, PR director of the Baltimore Orioles. The two organized a 3:30 p.m. news conference for the next day.

For days, Tufton Sports and the Orioles received hundreds of calls. Maroon and Rainess coordinated a massive media tour that put Ripken on all major morning shows. Maroon and Stetka coordinated interviews with most major baseball beat writers, as well as CNNSI, ESPN and others.

The initial media tour lasted about a week, but the All-Star Game was around the corner. Maroon and the Orioles' PR department devised a plan that kept pregame interviews to a minimum, with only selected top media outlets granted one-on-one interviews.

The All-Star Game began and, for a moment, Maroon and Rainess could relax. But in the third inning, Ripken hit a home run. He was named MVP, and the frenzy was turned up a notch.

As Ripken and the Orioles travel to different cities in the second half of the season, Maroon and Stetka have decided to use the same PR plan as in 1995, when Ripken broke Lou Gehrig's record for consecutive games played. That includes having group media interviews during the first day of the Orioles' arrival in each city and granting one-on-one interviews only to the home teams' radio and television rights holders.

From the Orioles' side, the PR plan is to show video of Ripken's career during each home game. In mid-August, when there are just 21 home games left, each game will include video from one of Ripken's 21 seasons. During the last home series, the team will add elements throughout each game to honor Ripken's career. A more elaborate celebration will take place at Camden Yards during Ripken's last game Sept. 23.

There are several interesting PR elements to take from this campaign.

 Ripken trusted Sheinin. The time felt right and he trusted the writer to treat him with respect.

  Maroon did not scoop Sheinin. Once Maroon knew Ripken let the cat out of the bag, he did not go to another media outlet with the story.

  Remember the power of the Internet. Today's PR professional must be very aware of the speed and power of the Internet. Like most other PR people, Maroon believed he had additional time to plan for the media onslaught surrounding Ripken's announcement, because the newspaper wouldn't hit the streets until the next morning. The Washington Post's editorial decision to place the story on its Web site completely changed Maroon's strategy.

Wayne Henninger (wayne@wavepr.com) is co-founder of Sports Wave, a division of WAVE PR in Washington, D.C.

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