How the Owners of All 32 NFL Teams Made Their Money

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Getty Images

Has the return of football season inspired you to pursue your dream of NFL franchise ownership? Here's how someone—or, in many cases, someone's parents or grandparents—becomes wealthy enough to buy a team. 

Arizona Cardinals: Bill Bidwill

Owner Since: 1972

The Numbers: Forbes estimates the Cardinals are worth $1 billion, making them the 25th most valuable team in the NFL. 

Moving Man: Bidwill moved the team from St. Louis after his demands for a new stadium weren’t met.

How He Got Rich: Bidwill inherited the Cardinals from his father, Charles. Charles was a wealthy Chicago lawyer, and according to the book From Sandlots to the Super Bowl: The National Football League, 1920-1967, he had connections to Al Capone.

Atlanta Falcons: Arthur Blank

Owner Since: 2002

The Numbers: The Falcons are estimated to be worth $1.125 billion, placing them 21st in the NFL franchise financial rankings. Blank reportedly bought the team for $545 million.

More Teams on the Way?: Blank has expressed interest in bringing an MLS team to Atlanta.

How He Got Rich: In 1978, Arthur Blank co-founded Home Depot. Story has it that during Home Depot’s early days, Blank and his business partner would stand in the parking lot handing out dollar bills to entice customers to browse the store. Blank is now worth an estimated $2.5 billion, meaning he could lure the entire population of China into a Home Depot if he wanted to.

Baltimore Ravens: Stephen Bisciotti

Owner Since: 2004

The Numbers: Bisciotti was a minority owner of the Ravens from 2000 until he bought the whole dang team through a $325 million deal with Art Modell in 2004. The Ravens are now worth $1.5 billion.

Young Gun: Bisciotti is the second youngest sole owner of an NFL franchise behind Dan Snyder. Bisciotti is the first youngest if you don’t count owners who are despised by their own fans.

How He Got Rich: Bisciotti founded Aerotek in a basement office with his cousin. This later turned into the parent company the Allegis Group, which owns both Aerotek and TEKsystems. Despite what they sound like, these companies are not fronts for a Bond villain’s plot for world domination, but rather staffing firms for engineering and technology companies.

Buffalo Bills: Terry Pegula


Owner Since: 2014

The Numbers: The Buffalo Bills are worth $935 million, according to Forbes. Ralph Wilson founded the team in the then-AFL in 1959. The league eventually merged with the NFL in 1970, where the Bills went on to define small-market success in the early '90s—before doing the exact opposite of that for the following two decades. 

How He Got Rich: After Wilson's passing in 2014, Pegula bought the Bills for a reported sum of $1.4 billion. His fortune comes from the sale of his natural gas drilling and fracking company.

Carolina Panthers: David Tepper

Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper is photographed before a preseason game against the Miami Dolphins at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina in 2018
Grant Halverson, Getty Images

Owner Since: 2018

The Numbers: Tepper bought the Panthers for $2.275 billion, setting a record for the highest price ever paid for an NFL team.

Experience: Tepper purchased the franchise amid sexual harassment allegations against previous owner Jerry Richardson. In order for the sale to go through, Tepper had to sell his 5 percent stake in the Pittsburgh Steelers, which he had purchased in 2009. The shares were estimated to be worth $122 million.

How He Got Rich: Tepper's high-risk hedge fund moves, which bet against collapsing companies like Enron and WorldCom, made him a billionaire by 2003. His net worth is estimated to be $11 billion. He reportedly once kept a set of brass testicles on his office desk.

Chicago Bears: Virginia Halas McCaskey

Owner Since: 1983

The Numbers: Virginia McCaskey owns 80% of the Bears, who are valued at $1.7 billion. Nearly $1 billion of that money is spent reminding people the 1985 Bears won the Super Bowl.

Football Money: It’s hard to find any Halas family holdings or enterprises that don’t have to do with the T-formation, linebackers, or angry, mustachioed head coaches. The family’s fortune grew with the NFL, which is to say it grew a lot.

How She Got Rich: She inherited the team from her father, George Halas, who took a starch company’s rec-league squad and essentially turned it into the NFL. He was a founder, player, coordinator, coach, and owner of the Bears—hence his nickname, “Mr. Everything.”

Cincinnati Bengals: Mike Brown

Owner Since: 1991

The Numbers: Mike Brown took over the Bengals after his father’s death in 1991. The team is worth an estimated $990 million.

Total Control: Mike Brown works as the general manager of the Bengals, and is one of only two owners in the NFL to do so. The Cowboys’ Jerry Jones is the other, which doesn’t help Brown in deflecting any criticism that he’s a control freak.

How He Got Rich: Mike Brown’s father, Paul Brown, was the namesake and first coach of Ohio’s other team, the Browns. He went on to co-found and own the Bengals before leaving the team to his son. Like the Halas family, the Browns’ money comes from football. Should football one day cease to exist, the Browns would be penniless and confused, wandering through the Midwest wondering where their publicly-funded stadiums and fortune went. Luckily for them, football has continued to exist and looks relatively stable.

Cleveland Browns: Jimmy Haslam

Owner Since: 2012

The Numbers: In 2012, Jimmy Haslam bought the Cleveland Browns from Randy Lerner for a reported $1 billion.

Serial Buyer: Haslam had to sell a minority interest in the Pittsburgh Steelers that he held since 2008 in order to buy the Browns. NFL rules state that owners aren’t allowed to have ownership stakes in multiple teams. In fact, that’s pretty much the only rule the NFL has for its owners.

How He Got Rich: Jimmy Haslam is the CEO of the Pilot Flying J truck stop company, a nationwide chain founded by his father. Pilot Flying J is the largest such company in the country and sells more over-the-road diesel fuel than anyone else. Haslam and Pilot Flying J are currently under federal investigation for allegedly scheming customers and shortchanging them on fuel rebates.

Dallas Cowboys: Jerry Jones

Owner Since: 1989

The Numbers: The Cowboys are worth an estimated $3.2 billion, making them the number one team on Forbes’ list of the most valuable NFL franchises. Jerry Jones bought them in 1989 for $140 million and has been one of the most visible owners in all of pro sports. In 2009, Jones opened the new $1.3 billion Cowboys Stadium, now named AT&T Stadium. Remember to call it that—AT&T paid an estimated $500 million and would appreciate it.

How He Got Rich: Jones is an oilman, naturally. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Jones made his fortune wildcatting with Jones Oil and Land Lease, drilling all the way to the Cowboys’ owners box. Jones’ estimated net worth now sits at $4.2 billion, or roughly 35 debatable Tony Romo contract extensions.

Denver Broncos: Pat Bowlen

Owner Since: 1984

The Numbers: Pat Bowlen became the majority owner of the Denver Broncos in 1984 after his family purchased the team from Edgar Kaiser. The Broncos are now worth $1.45 billion which, adjusted for altitude, is still $1.45 billion. Bowlen also owns the Denver Outlaws of Major League Lacrosse.

How He Got Rich: Pat Bowlen achieved success as a lawyer in Edmonton before becoming an executive for his family’s oil drilling and exploration company, Regent Resources. The lesson here seems to be that if you can strike oil and buy a sports team before the league’s popularity explodes, you might be able to make a buck or two.

Detroit Lions: Martha Ford

Owner Since: 2014 (Inherited team from late husband William Clay Ford, Sr.)

The Numbers: William Clay Ford, Sr. bought the Detroit Lions in 1963 for $4.5 million. The team is now worth $960 million. Since buying the team, Ford’s Lions have won exactly one playoff game. 

How He Got Rich: Bill was Henry Ford grandchild and the Ford Motor Company’s single largest stockholder. According to a 2011 calculation, Ford’s shares in the motor company were estimated to be worth about $500 million.

Green Bay Packers: Green Bay Packers, Inc.

This One's Different: The Packers are a very special case. They are a publicly traded non-profit company owned by their 360,760 shareholders. If they ever need to raise money for a stadium or something else expensive, they just sell more shares. To prevent anything even resembling a majority owner from coming into existence, there’s a limit on how many shares you can buy.

It’s a remarkably effective and successful model that goes directly against the NFL’s runaway capitalist ideal. Naturally, it’s long been banned by the league—the Packers have been grandfathered in.

Houston Texans: Janice McNair

An image of the late Houston Texans owner Robert C. McNair is shown on a big screen prior to a game between the New Orleans Saints and the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas in 2018
Ronald Martinez, Getty Images

Owner Since: 2018

The Numbers: Janice's late husband Robert McNair and his partners bought the expansion Houston Texans for $700 million in 1999. They began playing in 2002. In a little over a decade, the team’s value ballooned to an estimated $1.85 billion, making them the 5th most valuable NFL franchise according to Forbes, and proving that people from Texas really took to rooting against the Cowboys.

How She Got Rich: Robert C. McNair owned a cogeneration power plant company and sold it to Enron in 1999. Janice took over as controlling owner after Robert passed away from cancer in 2018. Their son, Cal McNair, is the team's chairman.

Indianapolis Colts: Jim Irsay

Owner Since: 1997

The Numbers: The Colts are worth an estimated $1.4 billion, much of which is tied to a sweet stadium deal hashed out with Indianapolis.

How He Got Rich: Jim Irsay’s father, Robert Irsay, built a fortune estimated to be over $150 million through successful heating and air-conditioning companies. In 1972 he bought the Los Angeles Rams for $19 million before trading franchises with Carroll Rosenbloom for the Baltimore Colts. The franchise trade wasn’t the last oddball ownership trick he pulled: Irsay infamously moved the Colts out of Baltimore in the middle of the night in 1984 via a fleet of moving trucks. No one ever gives the movers enough credit. Moving an entire pro football team in one night must’ve been really hard.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Shahid Khan

Owner Since: 2012

The Numbers: The Jaguars are worth an estimated $965 million, which must come as a surprise to the citizens of Jacksonville. Khan also purchased English soccer team Fulham FC for a price estimated to be over $200 million.

How He Got Rich: Bumpers.

Khan arrived in America from Pakistan when he was 16 to study engineering at the University of Illinois. After graduating, Khan found work as an engineering manager at Flex-N-Gate, a nearby autoparts company. Flex-N-Gate made bumpers, and they made them inefficiently. Khan streamlined the process and started his own company, Bumper Works. Soon after, Khan bought Flex-N-Gate and began supplying lightweight bumpers to General Motors. After GM decided to use his methods on their own, Khan shifted his focus to Japanese automakers in the ‘80s, just as the Japanese auto invasion began to storm U.S. shores. Flex-N-Gate is now the sole bumper manufacturer for Toyota, and made $4.5 billion in 2014 alone.

Kansas City Chiefs: Clark Hunt

Owner Since: 2006

The Numbers: The Chiefs are worth a little over $1 billion, and have been in the Hunt family since the team’s inception in the AFL. Clark Hunt is the Chairman of Hunt Sports Group, which operates the Columbus Crew.

How He Got Rich: Clark Hunt is the grandchild of extravagant oil tycoon H.L. Hunt, who was the Platonic ideal for a Texas billionaire (he may have been the inspiration for J.R. Ewing on Dallas). H.L’s son (and Clark’s father) Lamar was a co-founder of the American Football League. He’s also the person who coined the term “Super Bowl,” and had investments in various soccer, tennis, hockey, and basketball ventures (including the Chicago Bulls). When Lamar died in 2006, Clark inherited the Chiefs and has served as chairman and CEO ever since.

Los Angeles Chargers: Dean Spanos

Los Angeles Chargers owner Dean Spanos is photograhed during a game between the Chargers and the Jacksonville Jaguars at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, California in 2016
Donald Miralle, Getty Images

Owner Since: 2018

The Numbers: The Chargers are worth an estimated $995 million.

How He Got Rich: Spanos’ father, Alex Spanos, began his business in 1951 when he started a catering company with an $800 loan. He threw his catering profits into real estate and rolled those investments into the A.G. Spanos Companies, a construction business specializing in apartment and commercial buildings. Alex bought the team while they were the San Diego Chargers in 1984. Dean took full control of the team following his father's death in 2018, though he had been running day-to-day operations since 1994. He soon exercised the team's option to relocate to Los Angeles.

Miami Dolphins: Stephen M. Ross

Owner Since: 2009

The Numbers: The Dolphins are worth an estimated $1.3 billion. Not bad for a team whose logo is a porpoise wearing a helmet. Ross increased his share of the franchise from 50% to 95% in 2009.

How He Got Rich: Stephen Ross started his career as a tax attorney before getting into real estate. He started by investing in affordable housing and syndicating and selling these projects as tax shelters to wealthy investors. His real estate ventures eventually grew to include mammoth projects like the Time Warner Center and the sprawling Hudson Yards development site in Manhattan. His estimated net worth is now $6.5 billion. Ross donates a lot to his alma mater, the University of Michigan. A lot: he's given over $300 million so far. For his troubles they went ahead and named the business school after him.

Minnesota Vikings: Zygi Wilf

Owner Since: 2005

The Numbers: Wilf and his partners bought the Vikings in 2005 for a reported $600 million. The team is now worth over $1.1 billion.

How He Got Rich: Wilf’s family, German immigrants and Holocaust survivors, launched their wealth by building and selling single family homes in the ‘50s. The company grew with Wilf and his brothers at the helm, and their business now develops town homes in 39 states. They also have a commercial arm that specializes in shopping malls and owns over 20 million square feet of retail space in the U.S.

New England Patriots: Robert Kraft

Owner since: 1995

The Numbers: Robert Kraft bought the Patriots for $172 million in 1995, and their estimated net worth is now $2.6 billion. In an alternate universe, this number swelled to over $3 billion due to merchandise sales celebrating the Pats’ undefeated season in 2007. But in this universe, there was the helmet catch.

Other Notable Holdings: Kraft is the founder of one of the first MLS teams, the New England Revolution.

How He Got Rich: Robert Kraft got his start working at his father-in-law’s packaging material company. He eventually bought the business and merged it with International Forest Products, a separate packaging and recycling company he started. All his ventures are currently under the umbrella of The Kraft Group, a holding company that also controls various real estate and entertainment ventures. His estimated net worth is $4.3 billion.

New Orleans Saints: Gayle Benson

New Orleans Saints owner Gayle Benson is photographed before an NFC Championship game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana in 2019
Sean Gardner, Getty Images

Owner Since: 2018

The Numbers: The New Orleans Saints are worth around $1.1 billion. Tom Benson bought the team in 1985 when he found out they were in talks to be moved to Jacksonville, a city with far inferior zydeco music and gumbo. Tom Benson also bought the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans. When he passed away in 2018, his wife, Gayle, took control of both teams, becoming the first woman to own both an NFL and NBA franchise.

How She Got Rich: Tom Benson owned multiple car dealerships in the New Orleans and San Antonio areas. He began to invest in and purchase local banks and formed Benson Financial, which was a successful enough enterprise to fund his purchase of the Saints. In 1996 he sold Benson Financial to Norwest Banks for $440 million. Gayle ran an interior design business for 30 years before their marriage in 2004. Her inheritance was contested by Tom's daughter and granddaughter, who were reportedly left out of the will; a court upheld the transfer of his assets.

New York Giants: John Mara and Steve Tisch

Owners Since: 2005

The Numbers: The Giants, one of the NFL’s first teams, are estimated to be worth around $2.1 billion. But they have to share a stadium with the Jets, which really must bring their property values down.

Familiar Names: That’s Mara as in Rooney and Kate Mara; the actresses are the great-granddaughters of Tim Mara. And the Tisch family might ring a bell because they’re the Tisches of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.

How They Got Rich: The Maras' fortune started with the Giants’ original owner, Tim Mara. Tim was a bookkeeper in the horse racing circuit and bought the Giants for $500 in 1925. Story has it that Mara’s buddy, a boxing promoter, was offered the team but passed it along to him. Mara didn’t know much about football, but he ponied up the five hundred bucks anyway.

Steve Tisch is a film producer and inherited his part-ownership of the Giants from his father, Bob Tisch, a former postmaster general and co-owner of the Loews Corporation.

New York Jets: Robert Wood Johnson IV

Owner Since: 2000

The Numbers: Robert “Woody” Johnson IV bought the Jets in 2000 for a reported $635 million. They are now worth an estimated $1.8 billion, but if you ask the New York tabloids, they’d list the team as “priceless.”

How He Got Rich: Woody Johnson is an heir to the Johnson & Johnson company, which was co-founded by his great-grandfather.

Oakland Raiders: Mark and Carol Davis

Owners Since: 2011

The Numbers: The Raiders are worth $970 million, so they should be able to afford a football field that doesn’t have a baseball diamond sitting in the middle of it. This isn’t Pop Warner, folks.

Warring With The NFL: He could be a clueless blowhard at times, but former owner Al Davis loved to stick it to the powers-that-be, something that’s always enjoyable. Davis quit as the AFL commissioner because he was so against the move to the NFL. As owner, he went on to annoy every NFL commissioner who stood in his way.

How They Got Rich: Mark Davis and his mother, Carol, inherited a controlling interest in the Raiders from Mark’s father, Al. The elder Davis began as a coach and general manager of the Raiders before becoming the team’s owner by shouldering out Wayne Valley, the man who'd originally hired Davis, when Valley was out of the country. The moral of the story: Don’t go on vacation when Al Davis is around.

Philadelphia Eagles: Jeffrey Lurie

Owner Since: 1994

The Numbers: Jeffrey Lurie bought the Eagles in 1994 for $195 million. The team is now worth around $1.75 billion.

Eagles Are Green: In 2010, Lurie and the Eagles announced a plan to make Lincoln Financial Field the first major sports stadium to generate its own renewable energy. Though, that’s pretty easy when the fans are throwing batteries on the field. (Lay off, Eagles fans; at least we didn’t go the Santa-booing route.)

How He Got Rich: The Lurie family fortune started with a chain of movie theaters founded and built by Jeffrey Lurie’s grandfather. The family wealth blossomed after acquiring other ventures like bottling companies and clothing retailers. In 1985, Jeffrey founded Chestnut Hill Productions, which produced a slew of pretty forgettable films including Blind Side. No, not the movie about football, but rather the steamy 1993 thriller starring Ron Silver.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Dan Rooney

Owner Since: 1988

The Numbers: The Steelers are worth $1.35 billion, making them the richest towel manufacturer in the world. They also run a football team on the side.

Steeler Nation Envoy: In 2009, President Obama named Rooney the U.S.’s ambassador to Ireland. He resigned in 2012.

How He Got Rich: Lore has it that Art Rooney, Dan’s father, got the $2500 needed to purchase Pittsburgh an NFL franchise in 1933 after he won a parlay at the horse track. There is some dispute over the validity of this story, but no matter how he earned the money, Art managed to turn the Steelers into one of the NFL’s wealthiest franchises. Gambling never left the family’s blood, either: Dan Rooney’s brothers own various horse and greyhound tracks across the country.

San Francisco 49ers: Jed York

Owner Since: 2009

The Numbers: Forbes estimates the 49ers to be worth about $1.6 billion.

How He Got Rich: Jed York is the nephew of Edward DeBartolo Jr., who was the 49ers’ remarkably successful owner for 23 years. The DeBartolo fortune came from construction and real estate: they built some of the first suburban shopping malls in the country.

Seattle Seahawks: The Paul G. Allen Trust

Owner Since: 2018

The Numbers: The Seahawks are worth an estimated $1.33 billion [cut to footage of people throwing sturgeon in the Pike Place Fish Market].

How He Got Rich: In 1975, Paul Allen founded Microsoft with Bill Gates. His worth was estimated at $17.4 billion, making him the NFL’s richest team owner (by far). When he passed in 2018, the Paul G. Allen Trust was listed as owner of the Seahawks. His sister, Jody Allen, is a trustee and the current chair of the team. Jody is also chair of Vulcan, Inc., an umbrella for Paul Allen's business interests. Vulcan owns the Portland Trail Blazers, making her team chair there as well.

St. Louis Rams: Stan Kroenke

Owner Since: 2010

The Numbers: The St. Louis Rams are worth an estimated $930 million, making them the "poorest" team in the NFL.

Other Notable Holdings: Kroenke heads Kroenke Sports Enterprises, which owns or holds considerable shares of the Denver Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche, and Colorado Rapids. He had to turn over operational control of these teams upon becoming the owner of the Rams, as per the NFL’s rules on owning teams in multiple markets.

How He Got Rich: Stan Kroenke is a real estate magnate who owns developments around the country, many of which are anchored by Wal-Mart locations. His wife, Anna Walton Kroenke, is the daughter of Bud Walton, co-founder with his brother Sam of Wal-Mart. What a coincidence!

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Glazer Family

Owners Since: 1995

The Numbers: Malcolm Glazer bought the Bucs for $192 million in 1995, which was a record at the time. He died in 2014.

Other Notable Holdings: The Glazer family bought Manchester United in 2005. The soccer club is the third-richest in the world.

How They Got Rich: When he was 15, Glazer inherited his father’s watch business. In the ‘70s, Glazer began buying trailer parks and soon developed that real estate venture into First Allied Corporation, a holding company that owns and rents shopping centers across the country. The company took a huge hit during the recession, and his current wealth is mainly due to his sports franchise ownerships.

Tennessee Titans: KSA Industries (A Holding Company Established by Former Owner Bud Adams)

Owner Since: 2013

The Numbers: The Titans are estimated to be worth $1.161 billion.

How He Got Rich: Bud Adams was a wildcatter in the ‘50s and ’60s and made his money in oil. Hence the Titans original identity: The Houston Oilers. Adams died in 2013.

Washington Redskins: Dan Snyder

Owner Since: 1999

The Numbers: The Redskins are worth $2.4 billion.

Other Notable Holdings: Snyder owns three sports radio stations in the DC area, as well as a production company with Tom Cruise. He also purchased Dick Clark Productions, hoping it would provide rockin’ returns.

How He Got Rich: Snyder started a marketing and advertising company with his sister. They specialized in doctors' offices and hospitals. According to a report in the Washingtonian, “When new mothers were sent home from the maternity ward, they were given goodie bags of creams and diapers—through Dan Snyder’s company.” This direct marketing proved successful and the business took off and started to branch out to include telemarketing and other methods. That call you got during dinner last night? Probably Dan Snyder.

All photos courtesy of Getty Images. An earlier version of this post appeared in 2013.

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Bo Knows Everything: Remembering Nike's Legendary Bo Jackson Ad Campaign

Bo Jackson and the "Bo Knows" campaign helped Nike finally overtake Reebook in the early 1990s.
Bo Jackson and the "Bo Knows" campaign helped Nike finally overtake Reebook in the early 1990s.
Mike Powell, Allsport/Getty Images

It may have been difficult for Nike to conceive of any athlete being able to do more for its company than Michael Jordan. In the late 1980s and 1990s, the Chicago Bulls star was omnipresent, helping turn their Air Jordan line of sneakers into a squeaky chorus in school hallways and gyms around the country. Even better, the company had scored big with “Just Do It,” an advertising slogan introduced in 1988 that became part of the public lexicon.

There was just one issue. In spite of Jordan’s growing popularity and their innovative advertising, Nike was still in second place behind Reebok. No other athlete on their roster could seemingly bridge the gap. Not even their new cross-training shoe endorsed by tennis pro John McEnroe was igniting excitement in the way the company had hoped.

In 1989, two major events changed all of that: An advertising copywriter was struck with inspiration, and two-sport athlete Bo Jackson slammed a first-inning home run during the Major League Baseball All-Star Game. The ad man’s idea was to portray Jackson as being able to do just about anything. Jackson went ahead and proved him right.

 

Bo Jackson was an ideal spokesperson for Nike's new line of cross-training sneakers. The Auburn University graduate was making waves as a rare two-sport pro athlete; he was playing baseball for the Kansas City Royals and football for the Los Angeles Raiders. Early commercials featured Jackson sampling other sporting activities like riding a bike. “Now, when’s that Tour de France?” he asked. In another, he dunked a basketball and pondered the potential of “Air Bo.”

At a Portland bar near Nike’s headquarters one evening, Nike vice president of marketing Tom Clarke and Jim Riswold of ad agency Wieden + Kennedy were pondering how best to use Jackson going forward. Clarke wanted to devote the majority of their budget for the cross-trainers to an ad campaign featuring the athlete. The two started lobbing ideas about other people named Bo—Bo Derek, Beau Brummell, Little Bo Peep, and Bo Diddley, among others.

The last one stuck with Riswold. He thought of a phrase—“Bo, you don’t know Diddley”—and went home to sleep on it. When he woke up the next morning, he was able to sketch out an entire commercial premise in minutes. Riswold envisioned a spot in which Jackson would try his hand at other sports, punctuating each with a “Bo Knows” proclamation. Jackson soon realizes the one thing he can’t do is play guitar with Bo Diddley, the legendary musician.

It took longer to shoot the commercial than to conceive of it. The spot was shot over the course of a month, with the crew going to California, Florida, and Kansas to film cameos with other athletes including Jordan, McEnroe, and Wayne Gretzky—all of whom Nike had under personal appearance contracts.

Fearing Jackson might hurt himself trying to skate, the production filmed him from the knees up sliding around in socks at a University of Kansas gymnasium rather than on ice. But not all attempts at caution were successful. When director Joe Pytka grew frustrated that Jackson kept running off-camera and implored him to move in a straight line, Jackson steamrolled both the equipment and Pytka, who had to tend to a bloody nose before continuing.

In portraying any other athlete this way, the campaign may have come off as stretching credulity. But Jackson had already been improving his game in all areas, hitting a 515-foot home run during a spring training win over the Boston Red Sox. In April, he hit .282 and tallied eight home runs. Even when he struck out, he still stood out: Jackson was prone to breaking his bat over his knee in frustration.

 

After Jackson was voted into the 1989 MLB All-Star Game in July, Nike decided the telecast would be the ideal place to debut their Bo Knows campaign. They handed out Bo Knows pennants for fans and even flew Bo Knows signs overhead. Bo Knows appeared in a full-page spot for USA Today. Even by Nike standards, this was big.

There was, of course, a chance Jackson would be in a bat-breaking mood, which might diminish the commercial’s impact. But in the very first inning, Jackson sent one into the stands off pitcher Rick Reuschel. With a little scrambling, Nike was able to get their ad moved up from the fourth inning, where it was originally scheduled to run. In the broadcast booth, announcer Vin Scully and special guest, former president Ronald Reagan, marveled at Jackson’s prowess. Scully reminded viewers that his pro football career was something Jackson once described as a “hobby.”

A Bo Jackson fan is pictured holding up a 'Bo Knows Baseball!' sign at the Major League Baseball All-Star Game at Anaheim Stadium in Anaheim, California on July 11, 1989
A Bo Jackson fan shows his support at the MLB All-Star Game in Anaheim, California on July 11, 1989.
Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Jackson was named the Most Valuable Player of the game. That summer and into the fall, Bo Knows was quickly moving up the ranks of the most pervasive commercial spots in memory, second only to Jordan’s memorable ads for Nike and McDonald’s. Jackson turned up in sequels, trying his hand at everything from surfing to soccer to cricket. Special effects artists created multiple Bo Jacksons, a seemingly supernatural explanation for why he excelled at everything.

It was a myth, but one rooted in reality. After 92 wins with the Royals as a left-fielder in 1989, Jackson reported for the NFL season that fall as a running back for the Raiders. In one three-game stretch, he ran for over 100 yards each. Against the Cincinnati Bengals in November, Jackson ran 92 yards for a touchdown. He finished the season with 950 rushing yards. That winter, he was named to the Pro Bowl, making him the only athlete to appear in two all-star games for two major North American sports in consecutive seasons.

Nike was staggered by the results of Bo Knows, which helped them leap over Reebok to become the top athletic shoe company. They eventually secured 80 percent of the cross-training shoe market, going from $40 million in sales to $400 million, a feat that executives attributed in large part to Jackson. Bo Knows, bolstered by Jackson’s demonstrated versatility, was the perfect marriage of concept and talent. His stature as a spokesperson rose, and he appeared in spots for AT&T and Mountain Dew Sport, earning a reported $2 million a year for endorsements. A viewer survey named him the most persuasive athlete in advertising. If that weren’t enough, Jackson also appeared in the popular Nintendo Entertainment System game Tecmo Bowl and on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1989.

 

In 1991, Jackson suffered a serious hip injury during a Raiders game, one that permanently derailed his football career. He played three more seasons of baseball with the Chicago White Sox and California Angels before retiring from sports in 1994.

Jackson's relationship with Nike was dissolved soon after, though the company never totally abandoned the concept of athletes wading into new territory. In 2004, a campaign depicted big names sampling other activities. Tennis great Andre Agassi suited up for the Boston Red Sox; cyclist Lance Armstrong was seen boxing; Serena Williams played beach volleyball. The Bo Knows DNA ran throughout.

Jackson still makes periodic references to the campaign, including in advertisements for his Bo Jackson Signature Foods. (“Bo Knows Meat,” the website proclaims.) In 2019, Jackson also appeared in a Sprint commercial that aimed for surrealism, with Jackson holding a mermaid playing a keytar and having a robot intone that “Bo does know” something about cell phone carriers.

The other key Bo—Diddley—never quite understood why the campaign worked. After seeing the commercial, he reportedly said that he was confused because it had nothing to do with shoes.