Iconic Sports Commercials: Bo Knows

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports illustration)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports illustration)

Sometimes the commercial breaks during a big game provide more entertainment than what happens between the lines. Iconic Sports Commercials is a Yahoo Sports series highlighting some of the most unforgettable spots, from how they were conceived, to behind-the-scenes tales from the set, to what made them so influential.

Mean Joe Greene’s ‘Hey kid, catch!’ | Michael vs. Larry | Chicks Dig the Long Ball | Lil’ Penny | Tiger Woods’ ‘Hacky Sack’ | Charles Barkley: ‘I am not a role model’ | Bo Knows | Mars Blackmon | Grandmama

How it came about

A few rounds of beer into a brainstorming session at a Portland bar, the advertising writer who dreamed up some of Nike’s most unforgettable campaigns stared into his glass and pondered an important question.

“Bo … Bo … Bo ... what?” Jim Riswold asked aloud.

Riswold had been among the first to recognize Bo Jackson’s unique potential as a pitchman for a new Nike innovation called cross-trainers. When Nike used Howie Long in early print ads showcasing the shoes, Riswold argued that there was a better option on the same Los Angeles Raiders roster, a player whose already mythic multisport prowess made him ideally suited to endorse a sneaker versatile enough for any activity.

By 1987, Bo was already a must-see attraction. His first big-league home run was a 475-foot blast that is still among the longest in Kansas City Royals history. In his Monday Night Football debut, he rushed for 221 yards, ripping off a 91-yard run for one touchdown and adding a second by lowering his shoulder at the goal line and plowing through a cocky, young linebacker named Brian Bosworth.

The first print ad that Bo did for Nike appeared not long after he described playing running back in the NFL as a “hobby.” Beneath the image of a bare-chested Bo wearing shoulder pads and wielding a baseball bat is a picture of a Nike cross-trainer and a message that says, “If Bo Jackson takes up anymore hobbies, we’re ready.”

Bo’s first set of Nike commercials also reinforced the idea that he’d excel at any sport he tried. One showed him cycling and asking, “When’s that Tour de France thing?” Another displayed him jogging with the tagline, “Another day, another hobby.” A third had him dunking a basketball and pondering how “Air Bo” would sound.

Between the popularity of those ads and the Bo’s increasingly frequent displays of supernatural speed and power on the football field and the baseball diamond, Nike decided to place a big bet on him. One afternoon in 1988, Nike vice president of marketing Tom Clarke told Riswold the company intended to risk a significant chunk of its total advertising budget on a cross-training campaign with Bo as its centerpiece.

It was only hours later that Riswold and a handful of other Nike and Wieden + Kennedy folks gathered at the Portland bar to toss around ideas for that campaign. Riswold was coming up empty until someone commented that Bo was an unusual first name and the rest of the table started blurting out the names of other famous Bo’s.

Bo Derek.

Beau Brummell.

Bo Schembechler.

Little Bo Peep.

Bo Diddley.

Hearing the rock and roll pioneer’s name was the inspiration Riswold needed. Before he left the bar, Riswold jotted down the line, “Bo, you don’t know Diddley.” By the next morning, he had formulated a blueprint for a 60-second commercial, including the simple two-word catchphrase that would soon become a pop culture staple.

For most of the spot, quick clips are shown of Bo doing everything from crushing a home run, to dunking a basketball, to racing his bicycle and Nike-sponsored athletes then attest that “Bo knows” the corresponding sport. In the last segment, Diddley watches Bo’s inept attempts at hacking at a guitar and brings him back down to earth with the jab Riswold crafted during the brainstorming session.

“I went home from the bar and actually dreamt that spot,” Riswold said. “I wrote it down and everyone loved it when I shared the idea the next morning.”

And with that, Bo was on his way to becoming one of the world’s most recognizable athletes.

How the campaign’s debut became a ‘marketing orgasm’ for Nike

Only a few days before the first spot of the campaign debuted during the Major League Baseball All-Star Game in July 1989, Nike’s Mark Thomashow walked into his boss’ office with an unusual request.

“You got $500?” Thomashow asked.

“Sure, for what?” Nike advertising director Scott Bedbury said.

“I’ve got a guy who’s going to fly one of those single-engine planes around the stadium with a sign trailing behind it,” Thomashow said. “In the first inning, it will say Bo knows football. In the second inning, Bo knows baseball. And it will rotate every inning.”

That banner was just one of many ways Nike attempted to build anticipation for the launch of its newest campaign. Thomashow also asked Nike field reps to hang “Bo knows baseball!” and “Bo knows football!” banners from the second deck at Anaheim Stadium and to pass out 500 hand pennants to fans occupying camera-friendly seats.

The morning of the game, Nike also purchased a full-page ad in USA Today to trumpet in big, bold type that Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky and John McEnroe would each be appearing with Bo that night. A line near the bottom of the ad cautioned that anyone who missed the top of the fourth inning would be sorry.

Those extra flourishes took on increased significance when Bo delivered a performance worthy of the hype. He seized the moment from his first at-bat with former president Ronald Reagan joining Vin Scully in the NBC broadcast booth.

As Reagan marveled at Bo’s multisport prowess, the outfielder interrupted with a colossal home run to straightaway centerfield to lead off the bottom of the first inning. “He’s remarkable and look at that one!,” Scully shouted, breaking in with his call. “Bo Jackson says, ‘Hello!’ ”

Then, as NBC cut to a fan waving one of Nike’s “Bo Knows What?” hand pennants, Scully adds, “He almost hit it out of state!”

The evening became more serendipitous for Nike just after the “Bo Knows” spot debuted in the middle of the fourth inning. Bo led off the bottom of the fourth with a line-drive single, prompting NBC to cut to Nike’s “Bo Knows Baseball!” and “Bo Knows Football!” banners and Scully to gush “Bo knows them all, you betcha!”

“I was quoted in USA Today or the New York Times a day later that what we witnessed was the first fully documented marketing orgasm,” Bedbury said. “That got a rise out of my father and my mother. They were like, ‘Did you really have to say that?’ ”

By the time he exited the game, Bo cemented all-star MVP honors by adding an RBI groundout and a stolen base. It was as if Bo had a sense of the moment, a sense of what was at stake for the campaign Nike built around him.

“If Bo had struck out four times, that campaign would have been eviscerated,” Thomashow said. “You can see the New York Post headline now: Bo may know hockey or basketball, but he can’t hit a curveball. So we had everything in place, but it was a phenomenal piece of good luck that Bo delivered.”

What’s the deal with Wayne Gretzky’s one-word cameo?

There’s a reason the NHL’s most decorated player only said a single word in the original “Bo Knows” commercial: Riswold feared Wayne Gretzky couldn’t act well enough to say more.

The script originally called for Gretzky to say “Bo knows hockey” after a clip airs of the two-sport star checking an opposing player into the boards. Having listened to Gretzky awkwardly practice the line, Riswold instead instructed the Great One to skate up and say, ‘No.’ ”

“Wayne Gretzky is the greatest team sports athlete of the 20th century, but he’s not the greatest actor,” Riswold said. “Talking with him, I knew this was going to be tough for him, so I decided to have him do something different.”

Gretzky delivered his one-word assessment of Bo’s hockey skills in a single take. He spent far longer navigating the Los Angeles freeway gridlock than he did shooting his scene.

“We’re done?” Gretzky said.

“Yeah, that’s it,” director Joe Pytka said.

“Poor Wayne had to drive all the way home to Hidden Valley in rush-hour traffic,” Pytka added with a laugh.

How Bo overcame a severe stutter

The first time Pytka worked with Bo on a Nike spot, the director noticed that the two-sport star had a slight speech impediment.

“What are we going to do about that?” Pytka asked Riswold.

“We’re going to make it work,” Riswold replied.

Bo suffered from such a severe stutter as a kid that speaking in public once terrified him. In high school, he was reticent to raise his hand in class. As a freshman at Auburn University, he’d go to great lengths to avoid interviews in front of TV cameras.

Auburn officials quickly recognized that a multisport talent of Bo’s caliber couldn’t avoid the limelight forever, so they explored ways to help him overcome his speech impediment. He worked with a linguistic therapist, learning to speak slowly and deliberately and to sometimes refer to himself as “Bo” because the word “I” frequently caused him to stutter.

[Related: Want to read more about Iconic Sports Commericals? Click here]

By the time Bo began shooting commercials for Nike, he had made remarkable progress. He practiced his lines until he no longer felt nervous speaking in front of the cameras.

“He nailed it every time,” Pytka said. “Never once did he falter.”

Added Riswold, “There was never an issue when we shot. Never.”

The clearest example of Bo’s increased confidence as a public speaker came in 2009 when he delivered the commencement address at Auburn. Bo explained to Auburn graduates and their families how he went from being terrified of even giving a one-word answer in class to becoming the face of one of the highest-profile campaigns in advertising history.

“I decided to step outside of my comfort zone and do things that I would never, ever do,” Bo said. “I took a public speaking class and it scared the daylights out of me, but I knew that if I didn’t conquer my fear of standing in front of people like you to speak, that I couldn’t get to where I wanted to go.”

Three fun facts

1. The hockey scenes in the original Bo Knows commercial were actually shot in a basketball gymnasium in Kansas. Bo wore socks, not skates, because Nike didn’t think it was worth the injury risk to have him film on ice.

2. One of Riswold’s favorite stories from the Bo Knows campaign is what Diddley said about it before his death in 2008: "I never could figure out what it had to do with shoes, but it worked," the pioneering musician said.

3. In addition to his Nike spots, Bo also appeared in one other memorable commercial. Seeking to position itself as a competitor to Gatorade in 1990, Mountain Dew Sport showed Bo running circles around a big, ugly alligator in a handful of land sports. When the competition moves to the pool, Bo wisely protests. “Later gator,” he says, leaving the diving board behind

Impact on pop culture

Ask Riswold to describe how popular Bo was at the height of Nike’s Bo Knows campaign, and this is his startling response.

“For awhile, Bo Jackson was bigger than Michael Jordan,” Riswold says.

Whether Bo ever surpassed Michael is certainly debatable, but there’s little doubt that from 1989 to 1991 those were America’s two most beloved athletes. The ‘Bo Knows’ catchphrase was as unavoidable during that period as the Budweiser Frogs in the mid-1990s or the Dos Equis Most Interesting Man in the World more recently.

It had high-brow appeal — in The New Yorker, a humor piece entitled “Bo Knows Fiction” whimsically envisioned Bo’s entry into the sport of professional writing. It had low-brow appeal too — pirated “Bo Knows Your Mama” or “Bo Knows Your Sister” T-shirts were as common as the originals Nike produced.

The campaign’s popularity only increased as Bo’s mind-blowing feats of athleticism became more frequent.

He snapped his bat over his helmet like a toothpick after hitting a feeble ground ball back to the mound in 1989. That same year, he also gunned down Harold Reynolds at the plate on the fly with a throw that was as unfathomably strong as it was pinpoint accurate. In 1990, he famously defied gravity, scaling the outfield wall in Baltimore in 1990 after tracking down Joe Orsulak’s deep fly ball in the gap. Months later, he became the only athlete to earn all-star honors in baseball and football when he was selected to the Pro Bowl after the 1990 NFL season.

Eager to capitalize on Bo’s rapid rise, Nike asked Riswold to create some sequels to the original Bo Knows spot. The best of them had Bo don gear from a dozen different sports, from soccer, to cricket, to Indy car racing, to surfing.

Bo Hockey sports a jersey with “Le Bo” stitched on the back. Bo Golfer has a Bo Caddy to lug his clubs. And when the other Bos say, “Hey, Bo don’t surf,” Bo surfer replies, “That’s what you think, dudes!”

Before the launch of the Bo Knows campaign in 1989, Nike had actually slipped behind Reebok in the race for the shoe-apparel market’s top spot. The sales and exposure that Bo’s campaign generated helped Nike seize control of the cross-trainer market and wrest the industry’s No. 1 slot back from Reebok.

There’s no telling how much Bo could have accomplished or how popular he could have gotten had he not suffered a career-altering hip injury in a playoff game against the Cincinnati Bengals in Jan. 1991. Never again did Bo play football competitively, though he did play parts of three baseball seasons with the White Sox and Angels from 1991-94.

Nike prioritized other prominent athletes after Bo’s injury and formally ended its relationship with him in 1994, a practical decision that he now apparently accepts. About five years ago, Bo visited Nike’s campus and organized a dinner to thank everyone at the company who played a role in his commercial success.

“Bo gets up and says, ‘I know that I can be a pain in the ass to work with, but the way you people treated me and my family was really special,’ ” Thomashow said. “I’ve heard a lot of athletes try to thank people, but this was really genuine.”

One last behind the scenes story

Joe Pytka could scarcely hide his frustration.

The notoriously demanding director was filming from a linebacker’s perspective for a specific sequence in the original Bo Knows commercial, but Bo wasn’t running straight at the camera. Take after take, he kept pulling up short or missing the angle.

“You’ve got to head directly for the camera,” Pytka shouted, not quite realizing the implications of such a request.

Instead of slowing up before he got to Pytka, Bo sent the ponytailed 6-foot-5 director sprawling, bloodying his nose and shattering his camera lens.

“He blasted me,” Pytka said. “They ran the footage in Nike stores for about a year after that. It was my 30 seconds of fame. Little kids would come up to me like, ‘Aren’t you the guy Bo knocked on his ass?’ ”