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Could MLB nationalize its media rights? Why some clubs are pushing to end local TV deals

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Could MLB nationalize its media rights? Why some clubs are pushing to end local TV deals

Sixty years ago, baseball commissioner Ford Frick received a telegram from a Wisconsin congressman. Rep. Henry Reuss was worried the Milwaukee Braves would defect to Atlanta for the promise of a richer television contract, and proposed a fix: if all the Major League Baseball teams would share their television money, then the Braves might stay.

According to the Associated Press, Frick replied in that summer of 1964 that “… a plan to pool all television receipts would not be feasible or acceptable at this time,” but would be “worthy of future consideration.”

Now, in 2024, that conversation has arrived. Commissioner Rob Manfred and some of the sport’s owners are more seriously talking about nationalizing baseball’s TV rights than ever before. Not because of relocation, but because of cord-cutting, the failure of some traditional regional sports networks, and the simultaneous battle for streaming supremacy waged by Netflix, Amazon and other streamers that has left sports leagues and rights holders in a chaotic reformation.

Some baseball owners and executives, mostly in smaller markets, believe the best way to grow media revenues over the long haul is to centralize the deal-making, and from there, to potentially sell all 30 teams’ regular-season broadcasts as one streaming package. Others in the game, particularly those whose teams make the most money, are vehemently opposed to surrendering their power over their rights.

The hurdles to such a change are massive, but that it is even being contemplated is remarkable. The end of local media rights in baseball would be one of the most radical alterations imaginable in the tumultuous world of sports television. Unsurprisingly, the possibility is also controversial.

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“As the local media situation evolves, we will continue to evaluate the best model for us moving forward,” Manfred said in a statement to The Athletic. “Our course of action will be determined by the clubs, who are the ultimate decision makers under our constitution.”

While MLB has long arranged various national media deals — including for the postseason, with networks such as FOX and TBS, and for Sunday night games during the regular season, with ESPN — individual teams have always controlled most of their regular-season inventory, as well as the choice of television stations they partner with inside their home markets. (The central office already controls each team’s “out-of-market” rights, which is why fans in New York can sign up for MLB.tv and watch any game besides the Mets’ or Yankees’.)

Doing away with local rights could eliminate many of the blackout restrictions that frustrate fans. But not all clubs believe Manfred’s office could utilize the rights better than they do individually.

The most divisive matter, though, is the dollars. Regardless of how a commissioner deployed the rights, the question would be: How is the revenue distributed, by equal split or otherwise? The New York Yankees received an estimated $143 million as a rights fee in 2022, much greater than a team like the Colorado Rockies, which received $57 million that same year, according to Forbes. It is ultimately, then, a rekindling of baseball’s classic drama, big market vs. small.

“Everything is on the table for the future, because it’s so unknown,” Sam Kennedy, president of the big-market Boston Red Sox, said during spring training. “Look, there’s always issues that come up where large-market teams have a different view than the small-market teams. In the end, the greater good of the industry is what we have to also focus on.”

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A new era is just beginning in sports broadcasting, and the changes are happening quickly. On Wednesday, Netflix and the NFL announced that the streamer would newly carry Christmas Day games. Netflix is paying in the neighborhood of $75 million per game.

Elsewhere Wednesday, the other three major men’s sports leagues in the U.S., MLB, the NBA and the NHL, were in court arguing that one of their most significant broadcast partners, Diamond Sports Group, was bumbling its way through bankruptcy and a carriage dispute with a prominent cable company, Comcast. This month, a dozen MLB teams carried on Diamond’s Bally-branded channels cannot be viewed by Comcast’s roughly 13.6 million television customers.


The Diamond Sports Group bankruptcy has been an ongoing problem for MLB. (David Berding / Getty Images)

Then on Thursday, FOX, Warner Bros. Discovery and Hulu announced the name of their upcoming sports package: “venu.”

The prospect of a big payout from a streaming company is naturally alluring in baseball circles. Regional sports networks have traditionally committed a lot of money to teams upfront. Streamers might act differently, preferring a risk-reward model — the more people who flock to the content, the more money that is paid. But in the long run, as the streamers jockey for position, Manfred could bet that Amazon and its ilk will pay more in aggregate than the traditional RSNs do today for fragmented content.

The heart of the discussion, then, is really whether baseball could thrive as a “national” sport. Ironically, the national pastime is often regarded as a local game.

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“Like almost everything in American life, it’s all about money,” former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent said in a phone interview. “The money is so enormously tilted locally. You know, trying to get yourself, if you’re living in New York, interested in a game where Seattle is flying to San Diego or something — it just doesn’t work.”

MLB just sold a package of Sunday-morning games to Roku, which The Athletic reported Thursday was for $10 million per year. Previously, Peacock had paid $30 million per season for the same package. Roku, unlike Peacock, does not require a paid subscription, but MLB’s lessened fee was nonetheless discouraging to some officials.

“It just goes to show, there’s no national package,” said an executive in the sport granted anonymity to speak candidly. “People want to pay only for the premium teams.”

One sport has long thrived on a national rights model: the National Football League. At the time that Frick made his comments in 1964, the NFL was already negotiating deals as one entity.

But the sports were in different places then, as they are now. The once-a-week NFL schedule has always delivered a much smaller number of games compared to baseball’s nightly cadence.

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“The local television contract in football simply never had that much value in the early days, because of the small inventory,” said James Walker, professor emeritus of communication at Saint Xavier University in Chicago, who has authored books about baseball’s broadcasting history. “What that meant is that the (football) teams, when they established their television policy, were much closer in parity. The notion of big-market team versus small-market team simply didn’t have the same meaning in the NFL, as it always did in Major League Baseball.”

Football’s move to nationalize rights is an achievement often credited to a titan among sports commissioners, Pete Rozelle, who took over in 1960. Walker said that a predecessor of Rozelle’s, Bert Bell, actually deserves attention to that end as well.

Whether Manfred wants to be remembered as the Rozelle of baseball, or the Bell, is one of the more interesting questions as Manfred marches toward his planned retirement in 2029.

Manfred’s mission is likely simple: make the most money with the most certainty possible, be it by going into the local media business headlong or outsourcing it, as has long been the norm. But any substantive change is going to require him to corral his 30 bosses, and a rights-structure change might be a bridge too far.

“In baseball, it’s very difficult for a commissioner to get owners to work for the collective good,” Walker said. “The idea that at this stage, the Yankees would suddenly agree to pool their local rights, in some kind of shared configuration — it’s not impossible that that could happen.

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“But it would basically mean you’d have to figure out a way that the Yankees receive what they consider to be their fair compensation. And you’d be going against the grain. If you go back to the radio era, you’re really talking about 90 years of history.”

Existing contracts between teams and regional sports networks are a huge predicament. Some teams have deals with RSNs that run into the 2030s. These deals have often promised exclusivity to the RSN, such that MLB couldn’t just turn around and bundle the games as it saw fit with a simulcast.

Hence, even if the teams agreed to nationalize local rights tomorrow, and assigned their current deals over to the league office, MLB would have to wait until some expire to use the rights in new ways — or it would have to otherwise negotiate an early end to those deals. The Dodgers’ TV contract, for example, goes through 2038.

The league also might have to negotiate changes with the players’ union, because revenue sharing between teams is collectively bargained. That means the next CBA negotiations, in 2026, could bring these issues to a head. The MLBPA declined comment.

Alternative theories exist as to the direction baseball or any sport should go. Perhaps greater revenue exists in developing packages grouped together by market, rather than by sport: a New York bundle across various leagues, and so forth.

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A three-quarters vote typically allows the owners to modify the sport’s constitution. But support anywhere short of 100 percent for a shift in the rights setup could leave MLB in perilous territory. If any owner felt the league was improperly assuming something of value, lawsuits could fly.

In a nuanced distinction: MLB could launch some sort of smaller national streaming package, one with perhaps half the teams, without changing its actual rights system. Some teams today are not in exclusive deals with RSNs, freeing them up for the league to roll up into a bundle immediately. Manfred has expressed interest in doing this as soon as 2025, but he doesn’t have enough teams he could pool together at this point for a viable product. That could change later this year, however, if Diamond Sports Group fails to emerge from bankruptcy.

Asked in February if the idea of moving away from local rights would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, Kennedy said, “The world is changing fast.”

“Consumers need to have the ability to access our product, our games, whenever they want, wherever they want, quickly,” Kennedy said. “We can’t make it difficult.”

(Top photo of Manfred: Mike Carlson / MLB Photos via Getty Images)

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MLB world reacts to Willie Mays' death

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MLB world reacts to Willie Mays' death

Major League Baseball and San Francisco Giants legend Willie Mays died Tuesday at age 93.

The “Say Hey Kid” performed with a showman’s flair, making basket catches in center field, taking daring chances on the base paths, winning four home run crowns, 12 Gold Glove Awards and laughing with a gleeful high-pitched voice.

Mays spent 21 of his 23 major-league seasons with the Giants organization in New York and San Francisco. He batted .301 with 660 home runs, 339 stolen bases and 3,293 hits and won two National League MVP awards.

Mays left an indelible mark on baseball, sparking many members of the MLB community to pay tribute to him at Tuesday night’s games and on social media.

Quotes and anecdotes around MLB:

Ken Griffey Jr.: “My heart is on the floor,” the Hall of Famer told MLB Network. “I’m just grateful and thankful that I was able to spend the time I had with (Mays) because he is a true giant, on and off the field.”

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Aaron Judge: The New York Yankees star outfielder and a California native reflected on meeting Mays.

“I have a family friend that is pretty close with his family,” Judge said. “I got a chance to meet him. He showed me a couple of things about throwing the baseball from the outfield, which I still remember. I have a couple of cool things that are signed in my childhood room still.”

Judge added: “Terrible, terrible news (of his death). I was a big Willie Mays fan. What he meant to the game, California, all of the Giants fans out there, especially me growing up, you wanted to play like Willie and make those catches that he did.

“The numbers he put up on the field and what he did are impressive, but him as a person and human being was even bigger. It was bigger than baseball. He was something special. The baseball world is definitely gonna be missing a great one.”

Mike Yastrzemski: “The things that he did, we’ll never see again,” the Giants outfielder said of Mays’ career. “He was such a talented player and he played the game as purely as anybody could. To be able to watch that on film — I’m glad there was film for it — because it’s something that’s going to be watched and studied for the rest of time.”

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Giants react to the death of Willie Mays: ‘The things he did we’ll never see again’

Sergio Romo: “Every day he was very willing to give his time, to give his expertise, to give his advice,” Romo, a three-time World Series champion with the Giants, told NBC Sports Bay Area about Mays visiting the club. “He made you feel visible.”

Bruce Bochy: This game allows you to meet some tremendous players and people, and I got to spend a lot of time with Willie during my tenure (in San Francisco) and it’s a sad day,” the former Giants manager and current Texas Rangers manager said. “What a legend he is.”

Billy Owens: The Oakland A’s assistant general manager and a Bay Area native paid tribute to Mays in a text message to The Athletic’s Melissa Lockard.

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“Say Hey was EVERYTHING…….Right there with Muhammad Ali as the Greatest,” Owens said. “The Excellence was Documented. The Style can never be duplicated. His power, speed and grace forever unique. The catch still captured the imagination almost a century later. Willie was New York(Polo Grounds) and San Francisco(Candlestick Park). I’ll watch Rickwood Field(Birmingham) this week and imagine Willie doing basket catches in Center Field and hitting homers into the Stratosphere. RIP Say Hey Willie Mays.”

Steven Kwan: The Cleveland Guardians outfielder and a Bay Area native said, “(Mays) was the face of the Giants. It was him and Barry Bonds and they would always be together. You’d see them talking. You wished you could be a fly on the wall for those conversations.”

Stephen Vogt: Cleveland Guardians manager Stephen Vogt’s grandfather lived in Oklahoma, and there were no MLB teams nearby. He chose the New York Giants as his team, mostly because he hated the Yankees and Dodgers. He loved watching Mays, and he’d prattle on and on about the center fielder to his son, Randy.

The Giants relocated to San Francisco in 1958 when Randy was three years old. The Giants became his team, and Mays was Randy’s hero. The family visited Candlestick Park every year.

Stephen grew up a Giants fan, too. The Vogts had season tickets in the upper deck down the left-field line. Stephen signed with San Francisco for the 2019 season. That spring, he met Mays. The two chatted in the clubhouse and took a picture together. Randy framed that photo, which sits on a shelf in his office.

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“One of the people who was a god to you,” Vogt said of Mays. “It was just this unfathomable figure. You never really saw him on TV, (just) highlights. It was really cool to meet him and then get a chance to chat with him.”

Harold Reynolds: “Willie was like a father to all of us,” the former Seattle Mariners second baseman told MLB Network. “He was from that generation that was passing it on. … He had advice for you on every aspect of your life.”

Craig Counsell: “I’m saddened by the news about Willie Mays,” the Chicago Cubs manager said. “This is one of the Mt. Rushmore of baseball players in my opinion. A legend in our game. I got to meet him a couple times. He was the kind of person, along with Hank Aaron, that made you nervous because of how great they were. It was sad news to hear during the game today.”

Cody Bellinger: “I saw the news (of Mays’ death) in the seventh inning and was pretty saddened by it. Wearing the number 24 is special. He’s one of the best players in our game. Just seeing him around a few times on the field was a true blessing. An unbelievable guy and best wishes to his family right now.”

Bellinger wears No. 24 with the Cubs, the same jersey number Mays wore with the Giants and the New York Mets.

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The Athletic’s Chris Kirschner, Melissa Lockard, Zack Meisel and Sahadev Sharma contributed to this story.

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(Photo: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)

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Lydia Jacoby, after surprise Tokyo Olympic gold, misses out on Paris

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Lydia Jacoby, after surprise Tokyo Olympic gold, misses out on Paris

INDIANAPOLIS — Lydia Jacoby looked up, stunned. Only 27 hundredths of a second separated her from Emma Weber’s second-place finish in the women’s 100-meter breaststroke final, but the two might as well have been two continents apart.

Veteran swimmers often describe U.S. Olympic trials as the hardest swim meet in the world — tougher than the Olympics themselves. In some events, the third-fastest American might be the third-best swimmer in the world. But only the top two make Team USA.

That razor-thin margin sets up the greatest of stakes; it’s make-or-break, all-or-nothing.

And Jacoby ended up with nothing, just three years removed from shocking herself and the world by winning gold in Tokyo in the same event. On Tuesday morning, she announced that she’d scratched the 200-meter breaststroke, which meant her meet was over. The 20-year-old won’t be going to Paris.

“I feel weirdly fine,” Jacoby said Tuesday. “I think it hasn’t quite hit me yet. I definitely had a little cry last night, but I’ve been doing pretty well today. I’m sure there’ll be a lot of time to process emotions in the next couple of weeks and I’ll … try to line up some fun things to look forward to this summer.”

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Two-time gold medalist Lilly King, who took gold in the event in Rio de Janeiro, touched first Monday night in 1:05.43. Weber’s second-place finish was a shocker, one of the true upsets of the meet thus far. After King congratulated Weber, she swam over to hug Jacoby.

“My heart absolutely breaks for her,” King said. “But on the flip side, what a performance from Emma Weber — and that’s just kind of how this meet rolls. It will make your career and break your career in a minute. It’s the hardest meet in the world. It’s a lot harder than the Olympics, in my opinion.

“I hope she can move forward from this, and I’m rooting for her always.”

In recent months, Jacoby has opened up about the severe depression she experienced after winning that gold medal in Tokyo. She felt like everyone wanted a piece of her, and she couldn’t say no. She couldn’t tell which people around her genuinely cared about her well-being and which just wanted to be associated with a gold medalist. There were days and weeks she didn’t want to get out of bed back home in Alaska.

“I was feeling like my identity was locked up in sports,” Jacoby said Tuesday. “The biggest thing for me lately is (remembering) that being a swimmer is something I do. It’s not something I am. I have so many interests and passions. I have amazing friends and family outside of the sport. Remembering those things is a big thing for me.

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“A lot of people outside of sports see this and think this is everything. It’s important that people realize, yes, this is something I do, and I’m very invested in it. Obviously, I put a lot of emotion into this, and it is pretty devastating. But at the end of the road, it’s not going to change my life.”


Lydia Jacoby and Lilly King embrace after the 100-meter breaststroke final at the U.S. Olympic trials. Jacoby, the Tokyo gold medalist, did not qualify for Paris. (Maddie Meyer / Getty Images)

Jacoby said she seriously considered quitting swimming after Tokyo and even debated whether she wanted to swim at trials at times during the past year. She’s glad she stuck with the sport and swam here, despite the disappointing result.

Jacoby said she was frustrated with her performance here at Lucas Oil Stadium. Her time of 1:06.37 was more than a full second slower than her Olympic qualifying time at trials in 2021. She’d been training well, and she’s disappointed that her output Monday didn’t match what she’d been putting into the event. Jacoby said she had focused all of her training on the 100-meter breaststroke and was planning to scratch the 200 regardless.

“I don’t feel like I put up a swim that was a good representation of what I can do, which is the most frustrating part to me,” Jacoby said.

She said she plans to take a break from swimming to “get in a better place with where I am in my life outside of swimming and then reapproach the sport in a healthy way for myself.” She doesn’t think she’s done with the sport entirely, nor does she think the sport is done with her.

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But that’s in the long term. Right now, Jacoby isn’t sure if she’ll watch the event on television next month. She’s not sure she can bear it, sitting at home on the wrong continent while her friends and former teammates wear red, white and blue.

“I feel like I haven’t really processed the fact that I won’t be swimming there,” Jacoby said. “I’m honestly not really sure if I want to watch my event. It’s something I haven’t really put a lot of thought into. But the people that are making the team — like, I’ve been crying like the past week, tears of joy for all my friends making the team … so, I am absolutely looking forward to seeing everybody do amazing things in Paris.

“My not being there is definitely going to be tough, but I wish them all the absolute best.”

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Regan Smith reclaims WR in women’s 100m backstroke at Olympic trials

(Top photo: Maddie Meyer / Getty Images)

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Tears, pre-announcements, vanishing into thin air: The new rules of tennis retirement

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Tears, pre-announcements, vanishing into thin air: The new rules of tennis retirement

“There’s no wrong, only right,” Roger Federer says.

He is speaking with The Athletic about one of tennis’s defining issues this year, and possibly the defining issue right now: how best to retire.

As Wimbledon approaches, two fellow ‘Big Four’ members, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray, are entering the endgame. Both are involved in valedictory tours — which, in Nadal’s case, could yet extend to next year — and in April and May, a flurry of retirement announcements and pre-warnings included former Grand Slam champions Garbine Muguruza and Dominic Thiem, both 30. They did it in very different ways and for very different reasons, just as Nadal and Murray are doing it their way, for their reasons.

In the new rules of tennis retirement, there are different methods of saying goodbye.

This is totally fine, according to Federer, who was 41 when he retired. “With Andy, Rafa and Novak (Djokovic), I could not tell you what I would now suggest and advise them,” he says. “I don’t know. It’s super deeply personal.”

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Federer was speaking at the premiere of his new film Federer: Twelve Final Days, which will be released on Prime Video tomorrow (Thursday). It documents the period between him announcing his retirement because of a knee injury in September 2022 and his final appearance on a tennis court, at the Laver Cup, playing doubles with his old rival and friend Nadal.

One of the themes that runs through the film is also central to tennis in 2024: the agonising difficulty of picking the right moment to step away from the thing that has defined you for almost your entire life. Serena Williams even avoided using the word “retirement” when she said farewell two years ago. “Evolving away from tennis,” was her preferred expression.

Federer’s view? Don’t stress about the how of it.

“Everyone does it differently,” he says. “There’s no script. And very often we don’t remember how people retired. You just have to take the best decision in the moment. And sometimes you run out of options too, depending on what your body does.”


Serena Williams said goodbye at her home Grand Slam (Tim Clayton / Corbis via Getty Images)

Save for a few exceptions, that’s probably true. Pete Sampras went out in a slightly misremembered blaze of glory; Williams brought late-night thrillers to Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York, but the story of her retirement was her redefinition of tennis in America and around the world.

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It’s not how players go, but what came before, that defines them.

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Serena Williams’ incomparable legacy is only growing in her U.S. Open farewell


In late April, the former French Open and Wimbledon champion Muguruza announced that she was formally retiring — calling a press conference and explaining that she wanted a new challenge. The news was unsurprising, given she hadn’t played in 15 months. The following week, Alize Cornet, 34 and a former world No 11, announced in a social media video that she would retire after the French Open.

A couple of weeks after that and within a few days of each other, former U.S. Open winner Thiem and one-time top-10 player Diego Schwartzman, 31, announced on social media that they would be retiring soon. The former at the Vienna Open in his native Austria in October, the latter in his home country at the Argentina Open next February. This is a pretty standard retirement route these days — setting a hard deadline and giving yourself a few months to say goodbye.

“The decision came some weeks before I made it public, and at first I told my family and closest friends,” Thiem told The Athletic in a video call a couple of weeks ago about a decision that was largely brought about because of a debilitating wrist injury.

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“So the decision to make it public was a small step but it was a relief and it meant that all the fans and everyone were clear about it.”

He explained that it wasn’t a particularly difficult decision because, although he is only 30, he has no interest in carrying on in such a diminished form. “I played some great matches (after the injury) but that was more because of my fighting spirit than my game,” he said. “It wasn’t because of my actual playing level — and that was always unsatisfying. That helped with the decision in the end.”


Dominic Thiem’s injury took away what were expected to be his prime years (Marcelo Endelli / Getty Images)

Thiem was so decisive that some players, such as his good friend Alexander Zverev, even thought he was being too hasty. Zverev explained to reporters at the Italian Open in May that he wondered if Thiem could have opted for wrist surgery — like Zverev’s brother, Mischa — in a last-ditch attempt to save his career. Thiem says that, in consultation with medical experts, they concluded this wouldn’t provide the answer.

This is in stark contrast to Nadal and Murray, who have battled through this year with no confirmed end dates, just indications that this will be their final season, which speaks to how hard it is to let go. Especially when they both still love competing.

“In lots of careers, retirement is something you celebrate and people really look forward to that day — that’s not something I feel,” Murray said on Sunday, as he strongly hinted that he was unlikely to go on beyond the Olympics. “I love playing tennis.”

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Nadal said something similar in January 2023, after suffering an injury in defeat to Mackenzie McDonald at the Australian Open — his last match for almost a year.“It’s a very simple thing: I like what I do. I like playing tennis.”

This is a recurring theme among players who are close to the end. Vera Zvonareva, the former world No 2 and Wimbledon finalist, turns 40 in September and is still competing, primarily in doubles. She is fresh from partnering the 17-year-old sensation Mirra Andreeva to the French Open quarterfinals and puts it simply: “I enjoy playing tennis. It’s my job but also my passion. I enjoy it or I would not be here. Mirra has great energy on the court, which also helps, and I try to support her.

“I like to play.”


How Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic reconfigured tennis


Retirement doesn’t just happen to players. For a player of Nadal and Murray’s stature, and for players who choose to retire on home turf, it brings a huge amount of ceremony, occasion, and logistics. Few players find all that comfortable — even ones as venerated as them or Federer.

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“You know inevitably that we’re all going to stop working at some point — and for us, it’s the same,” Federer said.

“The only problem for us is that maybe we can’t just send a quick text and say, ‘OK, goodbye everyone’. I have had too many incredible fans and incredible people who have helped me along the way — you need to get out there and do it the hard way. Face your demons, even though it’s a nice thing to do.”

That last line is very revealing. It’s little wonder that Nadal and Murray are desperate to pick the right moment after two decades on the tour, conscious that they’ll never be able to find something quite like professional sport. Tennis is also unlike many other sports, where a manager or someone from a club tells the player their time is up. It’s all down to the individual.


Camila Giorgi at the 2024 Miami Open, which proved to be her final tournament (Brennan Asplen / Getty Images)

Some players do take Federer’s “quick text” route, or even go to another extreme.

Camila Giorgi, a former world No 26 with a colourful past, won the award for the most low-key farewell when her departure was revealed by her status being changed to retired one morning on the International Tennis Integrity Agency (ITIA) website. It was another few days before she announced her retirement, following reports of investigations by Italian tax authorities into her affairs. A few weeks after that flurry of retirements, Dutch player Botic van de Zandschulp, 28, said at the French Open that he was “thinking about” quitting because he no longer enjoyed playing. A couple of days later, he told The Athletic that he had been mistranslated and that he was carrying on.

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Swedish 23-year-old Mikael Ymer, who is serving a drugs ban for missing three anti-doping tests in a year, announced in April that he would not be retiring but would attempt a comeback once his suspension was over in 2025. “Retirement was boring,” Ymer wrote on X. “See u in 8 months.”

When more ceremony is required, tournaments have to make several contingency plans depending on what players decide. At this year’s Wimbledon, the All England Club has numerous options in place depending on what Murray announces over the next few weeks. They feel they have prepared for every eventuality, which is a logistical challenge. How you pitch these sorts of farewells is not easy.

In 2019, the Australian Open put on a big farewell celebration for Murray after he revealed on the eve of the tournament that he needed hip surgery and that the end could be nigh. After watching various luminaries of the sport wish him well on a video montage, Murray had to say that, er, he wasn’t definitely retiring.

This year, Nadal’s victory lap at various clay-court events meant that tournaments in Barcelona, Madrid and Rome had to have ceremonies ready for every match in case he lost. This occasioned the awkward sight of Nadal walking off as the Italian Open prepared its celebration; the Spaniard was in no mood for adulation after a heavy loss to Hubert Hurkacz. At Roland Garros a couple of weeks later, the French Tennis Federation planned a farewell ceremony for Nadal, only to shelve it once he said it might not be his last French Open after all.


Rafael Nadal’s ceremony at the Madrid Open commemorated his five titles there (Clive Brunskill / Getty Images)

One of the problems Nadal and Murray have found is the media’s obsession with when they are going to retire (sorry, guys). They are at the extreme end of that interest because of their huge fame, but even for less high-profile players, there is an awareness that once you start talking about retirement it adds to the media interest.

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Cornet took a different approach. She decided she would retire last year but didn’t announce her plans until April, a month before her final tournament at the French Open because she “didn’t want the media to talk to me about it too often”.

Cornet found she was liberated by making the announcement, and went on her best run since realising it was time to go some months earlier. She reached the semis and quarters of a couple of Challenger events and then bowed out at Roland Garros. “It was a lot of ups and downs,” she says. “Emotionally, it was not easy. Some days, I was excited about retirement and other days, I was scared and uncertain.”

Danielle Collins, who is also in some of the best form of her career in her last season on tour, has been unequivocal about how endometriosis and arthritis have contributed to her decision to retire, and the fact that tennis is something she does, not who she is. In March, at Indian Wells, she told The Athletic, “I’ve loved what I’ve done and the opportunity and the doors it’s opened, but it’s not easy.”


More often for players who retire, tennis is all they have known, and they are acutely conscious that they will never get the same high again. “It’s super difficult because that’s the only way you know to live since you were a kid,” Thiem says. “And every tennis player who is probably even in the world rankings will never be able to do something as good as playing tennis.”

Cornet adds: “It means turning a page of 20 years of my life, 20 years of full commitment. When you have to turn that page and realise it’s over, yeah, it’s a void, in a way. And you have to fill it in another way and find stuff that makes you happy.

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“Psychologically, it’s one of the most difficult things to handle, and I’m very happy that I have a very good entourage to help me with that.”


Alize Cornet waved goodbye at this year’s French Open (Dan Istitene / Getty Images)

Then there is the search for the perfect ending. It’s a tantalising proposition that can convince players they should go on that little bit longer. Whether that’s the perfect venue, or achieving one last goal — Murray has been desperate for another second-week run at a Grand Slam tournament — it’s an elusive promise that is nearly impossible to grasp. When Serena Williams retired at the U.S. Open 2022, she had her ceremony after her first-round win, instead of bookending her career with a final defeat enmeshed with reflective celebration.

Federer feels that the way he went out, surrounded by his closest friends and rivals on the tour — including Nadal, Murray and Djokovic, who were all his Team Europe team-mates at the Laver Cup — was ideal for him. “It ended up being so beautiful,” he says. “Because in an individual sport, being surrounded by your contemporaries is rare. There were a lot of special moments.”

During the film, Murray comments on how appropriate it is that Federer’s last match should be playing doubles with Nadal, the rival who most defined his career. But before that Laver Cup farewell, Federer’s final singles match was a hugely dispiriting defeat to Hurkacz in the Wimbledon quarterfinal more than a year earlier — which included the only 6-0 set he ever lost in the tournament. Federer desperately wanted one last Wimbledon title, but his knee had other ideas.

Did the loss in any way damage his Wimbledon legacy of eight titles? Absolutely not.

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Federer’s celebration defined the end of his career. (Li Ying / Xinhua via Getty Images)

Sampras remains the gold standard for bowing out at the top. His last match was the 2002 U.S. Open final where he beat his biggest rival Andre Agassi to win his 14th Grand Slam, aged 31. But even that was preceded by two years without a tournament win and months of calls for his retirement (especially after an embarrassing second-round loss at Wimbledon to George Bastl a few months before that U.S. Open swansong). Sampras also then deliberated for almost a year over whether to retire, before eventually deciding it was the right thing to do.

And might he now wonder whether he went too soon? This is another fiendishly difficult element to all this and is something mentioned by John McEnroe, who returned to the sport to play doubles on a couple of occasions after his retirement in 1992. “Even Pete probably looks back and thinks, ‘I had 14 majors, had the all-time record, maybe I should have played past 31’,” McEnroe says. “So no matter what, you have regrets in a way and things you wish you’d done differently.”


As for the rest of the locker room, has the rash of retirements made them think about how they would like to go?

“I don’t have pressure,” says Zvonareva. “I’m not saying I’m going to play this and this and then I’m retiring. No, if I want to play more tournaments, I will play. If I don’t feel like playing, I won’t. It’s really open.”

Angelique Kerber, a three-time Grand Slam champion who is 36 and returned from maternity leave this year, says: “I really don’t think about this yet. I’ve always said I will play as long as my body allows me, and while the fire is still there.”

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Victoria Azarenka, 34 and another multiple major winner, wants to have a low-key exit when she leaves. “I’m not going to have a farewell tour,” she says. “It’s going to be simple. I’ll just say bye. To me, it will be at the point when I’m not learning something anymore.”


Azarenka’s last Grand Slam title came in Australia in 2013. (Manan Vatsyayana / AFP via Getty Images)

She also explains why playing is so addictive and why a lot of players eschew their earlier retirement plans. “When I was 20, I thought I’d never play past 27. Then I thought, ‘OK, 30 will probably be enough’. Now I’m nearly 35 and I think, ‘Why not keep playing?’. I’m still playing well, competing at the biggest events, and feel like I can beat anybody. I’m very competitive.”

Adrian Mannarino, the 35-year-old Frenchman, says that “when it’s time to stop, you feel it”.

Madison Keys, the American world No 12 who, at 29, is a way off from thinking about this, jokes that she’ll go down the Giorgi route. “I saw on Twitter a link to the ITIA site that said Giorgi had gone and I was like May 7, that’s yesterday. So I was like, ‘That’s how I’m going to do it’.

“I’m just going to disappear. You just won’t see me again. You’ll be like, ‘Where is she? We haven’t seen her forever’. I’ll just slowly fade away.”

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Keys laughs at the absurdity of what she’s saying, but as Federer alluded to, this probably is a route a lot of players feel they would like to go down if they could.

Perhaps it helps to have an outsider’s perspective. Asif Kapadia is one of Britain’s most respected filmmakers, and his credits include Senna, Amy, and Diego Maradona. He is the co-director of the new Federer film and is more of a football than a tennis fan. He says that one of the themes that most attracted him to the film was the idea that “athletes die twice” — a saying referred to in the movie.

“I was interested in this idea that even if you’ve won it all, and you’re really successful, with a loving family and everything’s great, for him it’s still like a death,” Kapadia says. “’Athletes die twice’. I had never heard that said so succinctly, and it’s right. That’s what they have to deal with.

“He’s crying and the people around him who haven’t retired are crying because they know it’s not that far off for them. And that’s what is really interesting.

“It doesn’t matter how successful you are when your body won’t let you do it anymore. If you’re a sportsperson who’s ever played or had an injury, you know what that’s like.

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“That feeling of: what do I do next?”

(Top photos: Jean Catuffe; Tom Jenkins / Getty Images; Design: Dan Goldfarb for The Athletic)

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