Bigger Than Sports: The True Tall Tale of Bo Jackson
How Bo Jackson transcended sport, entered the realm of brand, and redefined the modern athlete.
Content by Hawley Martin
Here’s a memory: it’s 1985 and the Auburn Tigers are taking on the Florida State Seminoles on the gridiron.
Bo Jackson takes a sweep left and scampers around a defender in the backfield before turning on the jets. In three strides he picks up a full head of steam and cruises toward pay dirt. But then, to the chagrin of Auburn faithful, an eager young cornerback named Deion Sanders flies up in time to make a touchdown-saving tackle. Bo calmly reaches out his hand and places it on Sanders’ helmet, as if to ask for mercy on the young defender. Then he shoves Sanders into the turf. Touchdown Auburn.
You only needed half of your seat when Bo Jackson was on the field. And no matter who you cheered for, sports fans were united by their love for watching him play. Because we all knew that when the ball, bat, or glove was in his hands, anything was possible.
Although his career ended almost 25 years ago, the memory of Bo Jackson’s playing days pervades conversation today. His accomplishments catapulted him to a level beyond comparison. He’s a legend. A fairytale. A larger-than-life folklore hero reminiscent of Paul Bunyan—one you have to see to believe. And that fascinates us.
His accomplishments on and off the field demolished the barrier that once walled off sports from the rest of pop culture, and his actions built a foundation for today’s athletes to establish their own brands as well.
Every brand springs from the same place, whether we’re talking about a superstar athlete or a cup of coffee.
A brand is the stories you tell and the stories that get told about you.
Great brands endure because they tell better stories. Ones that inspire us, make us laugh or think, or form an emotional connection. Bo did all of those.
His first major league home run was a record-setting 475-foot blast. It’s still the farthest home run to leave Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City. An NFL scout clocked Bo’s 40-yard dash at 4.12-seconds. That’s just two-hundredths of a second behind Usain Bolt, based on splits from his 55-meter dash. And for his first professional home run with the Royals’ AA-affiliated Memphis Chicks, Bo cranked a towering shot over a Krispy Kreme sign past left field. Afterward the batboy ran out and gasped: “He broke his bat!”
That’s right. Bo Jackson broke his bat on his first professional home run. And it wouldn’t be the last time, either. A year later he did the same thing against the Detroit Tigers. Only it wasn’t exactly the same. This one was a grand slam.
Stories like these allow a brand to take shape, and like most things, consistent stories over time help brands grow stronger. Established brands wield tremendous power in our world. They create identities we use to define ourselves. Do you like drinking old-fashioned American beer? Drink Budweiser. Do you value precision engineering in a classically-inspired sports car? Drive a BMW. Do you want elegant design and technology that works for you? Buy an Apple computer.
We identify with these brands. Most brands, however, do not transcend their categories.
Bo Jackson is not most brands.
“A brand is the stories you tell and the stories that get told about you.”
According to ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary film, You Don’t Know Bo, the “Bo Knows” campaign increased Nike sales by 1000 percent and supplanted Reebok as the leader in the sports equipment category. As for Bo, the campaign helped him transcend sports and establish a permanent position in pop culture. Here’s how that happened.
Bo Jackson’s career took off at the dawn of the sophisticated era of sports marketing. Consumer brands had used athletes to promote their products throughout the 20th century, but in the 1980s Nike developed a strategy that looked nothing like Joe Namath hawking Noxzema or OJ Simpson sprinting through the airport toward a Hertz rental car. Rather than use an athlete to promote a product, Nike used a product to promote an athlete.
The first iteration came four years earlier. With the sound of a jet taking flight, Michael Jordan jumps from the free-throw line and slam dunks a basketball through the rim. The narrator says, “Who says man was not meant to fly? Air Jordan. Basketball by Nike.”
“Air Jordan” sent shoe sales through the roof. All of a sudden people didn’t just want to wear the shoes Michael Jordan wore. They wanted to be Michael Jordan. The ads made kids believe they really could play like Mike one day. The ads hooked adults, because they offered a glimpse into who Michael Jordan really was. The ads told us that Michael Jordan doesn’t just want to win basketball games; Michael Jordan believes anything is possible. We all want to believe that. So we became fans. After that the shoes were just table stakes.
This campaign endeared us to Michael Jordan, so four years later when Nike put its weight behind Bo to help create an identity for its line of cross training shoes, we couldn’t help but welcome him into our homes. Bo had already established his supremacy with monstrous home runs, acrobatic catches, and punishing touchdown runs. Nike simply validated it. They provided a platform for everyone, sports fans and beyond, to witness the magic of Bo Jackson. Before long he was on t-shirts in kids’ dressers and posters in college dorm rooms. In true Bo fashion, he hopped the wall that separated sports from the rest of pop culture.
But the Nike campaign wasn’t the only piece that helped tell Bo’s story. The same year as the “Bo Knows” campaign, another innovation hit shopping malls everywhere. Tecmo Bowl.
When Tecmo Bowl was released for the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1989, it became the first console game to feature real NFL players. Now, not only could kids watch their favorite players on TV, swap the “did you see” stories at lunch, and pretend to be them in the backyard, they could play with them in their living rooms, too. Want to relive the Bo Jackson/Brian Bosworth collision? Blow in the cartridge and have at it.
Except it wasn’t that easy. The game’s creators made Bo far-and-away the best player in the game. His virtual prowess reflected less of his true ability, and more of the Herculean power that his stories projected. He was unstoppable. It was unfair to play with the Raiders in Tecmo Bowl because an invincible Bo Jackson was waiting in the backfield.
Or did the game’s creators give Bo an ability that matched reality? Perhaps he really could score every single time he had the ball. We’ve all seen him do things that suggest he could. And that’s the power of a good story. It can blur the line between fact and fantasy. Each of us has seen Bo do things that defy logic, so when someone else tells us their Bo Jackson story, we have no choice but to believe it.
Watching Bo did often feel like watching Harry Houdini in lace-up spikes. But Bo Jackson was no magic act. He really did double-up hall of famer Carlton Fisk with a laser beam throw from left field all the way to first base. He really did outrun hall of fame safety Kenny Easley to break a 91-yard touchdown run on Monday Night Football. We know, because there’s video tape of him doing it.
In 1979 three men launched a TV network with a radical idea to broadcast nothing but sports, 24 hours a day. The name of their invention? ESPN.
ESPN got off to a bumpy start. The network didn’t have a real breakthrough until 1987, when it acquired partial rights to the NFL and began airing Sunday Night Football. This deal gave ESPN the clout necessary to establish their founding vision: a flagship program called SportsCenter. Bo Jackson also entered the NFL in 1987, and who better to fill highlight reels on a fledgling 24-hour sports broadcast than a hot young star on both the diamond and the gridiron?
Bo Jackson arrived in a perfect storm. The confluence of better marketing, a revitalized video game industry, and 24-hour sports coverage offered the perfect tools to tell Bo Jackson’s story.
But that’s all they are: tools. Bo’s merit cemented him as perhaps the greatest athlete of all time. If he hadn’t smacked three back-to-back homers out of Yankee Stadium, if he hadn’t hosed Harold Reynolds at the plate, if he hadn’t commanded the football field mere days after finishing baseball season—if he never generated those stories, none of the tools would have made a difference. Story matters.
Bo was the archetype of the modern athlete. In today’s sports world, it seems every athlete is a brand. We almost expect talented basketball players to sign a lucrative shoe deal upon turning pro. Lebron James, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Derrick Rose, Steph Curry. But it’s not just basketball. Derek Jeter, Roger Federer, Cam Newton, Tiger Woods, David Beckham, and Serena Williams espouse their own brands. And the list goes on.
Sure, culture and technology have helped spur this phenomenon. Athletes have mandatory press conferences. Fashion magazines report their wardrobe choices. Professional gamers make serious cash playing Madden NFL. And some ballplayers’ Twitter numbers are more impressive than their on-field stats.
But Bo Jackson helped to change the culture with his story. He made it possible for other athletes to seize today’s opportunities and reach legendary status.
Yet despite the immediacy of social media, and new media, and around-the-clock coverage of every detail of every athlete’s day, no athlete has ever reached the legendary status of Bo Jackson. Not one of today’s athletes captures our hearts and minds the way Bo did.
Or to put it another way, Bo Jackson played like Superman. Cam Newton wears Superman socks.
Pretty sure I saw that on Instagram. ♥