A Requiem for the Sports Poster

Basketball players still get posterized, but they're no longer getting put on iconic posters.

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Mar 21 2018, 8:11pm

Blake Griffin posterizing an automobile. Screen capture via YouTube

Blake Griffin probably remembers every memorable dunk in his career. Timofey Mozgov. Pau Gasol. Kendrick Perkins. The Kia he jumped over to win the 2011 dunk contest. It’s a long list, but because those moments are played on endless loops during highlights, dunk compilations, GIFs, YouTube videos, and many other digital forms online, they’re hard to ignore, for Griffin or the average fan.

But finding those moments, the ones that sports fans and announcers frequently call “posterizations,” on an actual poster? That’s much more difficult today. “It’s different now,” Griffin told VICE Sports. “Growing up, I had posters. Now, kids can just go to YouTube to watch your highlights. The mixtape might be the new poster now.”

Michael Wilbon is credited with the earliest use of the term, in a 1991 Washington Post article, when he described Sam Perkins getting out of the way of a Michael Jordan dunk to avoid being “posterized.” Nearly 30 years later, when a thunderous slam dunk happens in a game, like when LeBron James threw down arguably the best dunk of his career recently on Jusuf Nurkic, social media accounts still rush to proclaim that another player has been put on a poster.

But they’re not actually being put on posters anymore. As the world has become more digital, the value of owning a permanent, physical item seems to matter less and less. We’ve seen this with music, where CDs have been replaced by streaming services. Just a decade ago, purchasing DVDs and Blu-rays was still a thing for collectors, and while they may persist today, every television show and movie is also just a click away.

Bismack Biyombo, not actually posterized. Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Neil Flagg is the founder, president, and CEO of Sports Poster Warehouse, which markets itself as "the world’s one-and-only sports poster specialty store." Flagg, a huge sports fan and sports poster fan growing up, launched his company in 1997.

“Like everything in the modern age,” Flagg told VICE Sports, “markets are fragmented. There are so many different products out there. There’s nothing that everyone needs to have. There’s a fragmentation of culture. People aren’t unified by any one thing anymore. In the internet age, everybody likes something different. Everybody is into their own thing. It’s more of an individualistic culture.”

Flagg remembers the joy of hanging up posters of his favorite sports moments in his room growing up, including Paul Henderson’s series winning goal over the Soviet Union at the 1972 Summit Series, one of the most iconic moments in Canadian sports history.

Michael Jordan’s “Wings” poster and Bo Jackson’s “The Ball Player” posters are among Flagg’s personal favorites. He also has an affinity toward Marketcom’s classic white-borders posters, which you could order from the back of Sports Illustrated magazines in the 1970s and 1980s.

A lot of these vintage posters, which have been out of print for years, are still available on Flagg’s website, thanks to years of sourcing original posters from sporting goods stores that were shutting down and liquidating their inventory, or taking advantage of other opportunities to purchase vintage collections from sellers.

"The mixtape might be the new poster now.”

Flagg disagreed with the original premise of this story, which was the death of the sports poster. “I wouldn’t say there’s a death of sports posters,” Flagg said. “But there’s definitely been the death of the iconic sports poster.”

Aside from his theory that posters are no longer a cultural event, Flagg pointed to the monopolization of the poster industry as something that has created little to no incentive for anyone to want to be creative with their poster designs.

Today, posters—of sports and pop culture variety—are mostly produced by Trends International, a private company based out of Indianapolis. They’re the company that stocks posters at big-box stores like Walmart and Target. The market is no longer filled with individual people who can express themselves creatively.

Your bedroom wall, the final frontier. Image via Costacosbrothers.com

When it comes to creativity in the poster business, nobody did it better than John and Tock Costacos, two brothers from Seattle better known as the Costacos Brothers, who completely changed the rules of what a sports poster could be in the 1980s.

The Costacos Brothers turned each poster they made of an individual player into an event. The posters came to define players. It accentuated their greatest traits and turned the players into larger-than-life icons.

Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco were The Bash Brothers, dressed up in an homage to The Blues Brothers while holding giant bats. Brian Bosworth’s poster had the tagline "The Land of Boz," with a fully re-imagined Wizard of Oz cast surrounding him.

Kirk Gibson was the Big Game Hunter, Lawrence Taylor was The Terminator, Kevin Mitchell was Bat Man. Being on a Costacos Brothers poster was a career achievement for most players; it catapulted the player into the mainstream and onto the walls of many kids at home. As Charles Barkley once put it: “The poster made you cool. You didn’t make the poster cool.”

When I reached out to John Costacos to speak with him about the sports poster industry, he had a quick-witted response as to why the creativity no longer exists. “Because we’re not making them,” Costacos told VICE Sports.

For Costacos, it’s a chicken-or-egg question. He wonders if great sports posters aren’t being made anymore because kids are no longer buying them, or if kids aren’t buying posters because they’re no longer great.

Flagg has a more pragmatic explanation for where the industry is going. “The licensing agreements with leagues are onerous and complicated,” Flagg said. “The process is expensive, you need lawyers, the leagues demand huge guarantees. The little guys have very little chance to get into the market.”

The Costacos Brothers sold their company in 1996, and faded from the sports poster industry as well. But they made a brief comeback in 2016, when they teamed up with Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson for a throwback poster with Wilson in combat gear and the tagline "Armed and Dangeruss."

The idea came to John when he was watching Wilson from his couch at home. He called up Wilson’s agent, ideas were bounced around, and eventually a photoshoot was set up. During the photoshoot, Wilson was energetic, and went the extra mile, even sending one of his assistants to go outside to collect some dirt, so it could be mixed into a bowl with water and oil to allow him to run it over his arms for extra effect.

John got a kick out of seeing how well-versed Wilson was with the history of the Costacos Brothers posters. After the photoshoot, at a fundraiser for Wilson’s Why Not Foundation, two copies of the poster were auctioned off for $30,000 each. John’s favorite moment of the evening was when Wilson took a photo with Steve Largent and Bosworth, who held up their own Costacos Brothers posters, shot in 1986 and 1987, respectively.

While John would love to make a return to the industry, he recognizes that times have changed. Today, players don’t need an iconic poster to help further their brand, not when social media is available for them to curate an image with their fans, with the assistance of a group of publicists who are meticulously trying to fine-tune every detail about the athletes they represent. And if that doesn’t work out, there’s always a chance to pen an essay on the Players’ Tribune.

Still, the lack of creativity is disappointing to John. He believes the industry should demand more of themselves. Just as other industries have evolved, with today’s technological advances with cameras and digital editing, posters should be taking the next step, too. “Nobody would make a car today without airbags and all the extra features,” he said. “The modern car is way better than what was being made [years ago].”

Posters are not in Kansas anymore, either. Image courtesy of Costacosbrothers.com

Ironically, there are more posters available now than ever, according to Flagg. There’s just a distinction between quantity versus quality. “It’s not a dying market,” he contends, although when most customers reach out, they’re not looking for the latest bland poster design of LeBron James; they’re trying to track down iconic posters from years ago. To this day, Flagg still gets calls about the availability of the Michael Jordan “Wings” poster.

“There’s no growth in it,” Flagg said of the industry. “We haven’t had growth in ten years. The market is still there, but it’s not where it used to be.” In response, Flagg has shifted some of his business focuses toward selling fitness charts, a popular purchase for local gyms, and motivational posters, which is a bestseller as well.

John gets nostalgic when he thinks about the heyday of the Costacos Brothers. One thing he misses the most is taking some of his friends' kids to the warehouse, giving them an empty box, and telling them to fill it up with as many posters as they wanted. “I didn’t care if their moms called me later because now there were a thousand thumbtacks on their walls,” he said, laughing. “A lot of these kids, I’ll run into them now and they’ll still talk about it.”

Would anything inspire John to make a permanent comeback in the sports posters industry? “If I could make a poster and it becomes a thing that the kids want on their wall, that’s what would motivate me,” he said.

Growing up, Griffin was one of those kids. He boarded up his entire room with posters, whether it was a full-sized poster of the 1992 Dream Team, one of Vince Carter’s between-the-legs dunk at the 2000 dunk contest, or just every single poster he ripped out from his SLAM Magazine collection. “My whole wall,” Griffin said, “from floor to ceiling, was just basketball pictures.”

Today, though, it’s less likely that the kid growing up dreaming of being Griffin at the dunk contest will have that kind of wall. It’s more likely one of his famous posterizations will show up as their iPhone background, or Macbook screensaver. Or, they’ll just go online and pull up a dunk compilation on YouTube.

“Times have changed,” Griffin said.