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John and Tock Costacos thought they were done with the sports poster business when they sold their multimillion-dollar company, Costacos Brothers Inc., in 1996. They’ve spent the subsequent years investing in other industries — John in independent film and Tock in the internet. The brothers look back at the business they started in their early 20s and consider themselves lucky that it was not only successful but also fun.
The kids who pinned Costacos Brothers posters on their bedroom walls didn’t forget about them either. They grew up to make careers in business, marketing and — significantly for the Costacoses — publishing and art. Although posters are arguably obsolete today, that loyal fan base repeatedly has brought the brothers out of retirement to revisit what they did best: capture the personalities of sports giants in imaginative scenarios with pop culture riffs and puns.
Think receiver Jerry Rice doing a James Bond turn as “Goldfingers” or NHL star Jaromir Jagr under the headline “Czechmate.”
Kevin Toyama, a fan who was the former acquisitions editor for the publisher Weldon Owen, is partly responsible for the brothers’ 2018 book, “Walls of Fame: The Unforgettable Sports Posters of the Costacos Brothers.” Over the years, the brothers had passed on offers to write a book, but Toyama was persistent. He grew up with the posters and understood them.
“When Kevin Smith talks about comic book movies, he talks about how they are time machines because it brings him back to his childhood and connects him with old feelings, wonder and excitement he felt as a kid,” Toyama said. “When I see John and Tock’s posters pop up on a website or news articles, I feel the same sense of nostalgia.”
The book hit a soft spot for the die-hard sports fans who grew up in the 1980s, but it also documents a past sports culture for younger generations. It contains more than 100 poster images, most of which are accompanied by serendipitous and funny backstories. John spent a year writing, based on his memories as well as in-depth talks with Tock (whose given name is Constantine) and some of the original production crew.
The idea to mix sports and pop culture started when John created T-shirts of his alma mater’s football team titled “Purple Reign,” a reference to the Washington Huskies’ purple colors and Prince’s song “Purple Rain.” John sold about 20,000 T-shirts. Tock grew a beard, borrowed a Volkswagen van and backpacked through Western national parks with a friend. When Tock came back from his post-graduation trip, John convinced him to start a new business together.
They made T-shirts for about a year and moved on to their first poster, of future Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee Kenny Easley, a former Seattle Seahawks and UCLA safety. The business took off after a phone call from the Seattle bureau of the Associated Press. The request was for a poster slide of quarterback Jim McMahon. Tock hung up to ask John if it was possible to turn a poster into a slide. They figured it out. Once an image of the poster ran in multiple publications by way of the AP wire service, the phone rang nonstop.
“Customers were calling us. We had no distribution, no phone screening, no credit. It happened so fast,” Tock said. “A total Forrest Gump moment.”
They sold 200,000 copies of the McMahon poster, but John thinks the number could have been triple that if they had had wider distribution. They used their home as storage, and friends came over to package orders. At that time, they’d made four posters: Easley, McMahon, cornerback Lester Hayes and defensive lineman Howie Long.
Tock took care of the business side, part of which meant hiring sales and customer service representatives; John dealt with agents and creating more posters. For the next couple of years, they used a vacant space in their father’s parking garage in downtown Seattle, which Tock describes as a makeshift office out of a Humphrey Bogart movie.
Why did pro athletes say yes to people fresh out of college with no experience in art, photography, graphic design or business?
“There was something in John’s eyes. I have a gift. I can detect truth and bull...,” said Hayes, followed by a throaty cackle. “John was sincere. I have seen other companies do posters, but there is only one John Costacos.”
The story of Hayes’ poster goes like this: John and Tock were meeting with folks in the Los Angeles Raiders organization to talk about the Costacoses‘ “Real Men Wear Black” slogan — which went on to adorn T-shirts and become a big hit for the brothers. As they were finishing up a meeting at Raiders headquarters in El Segundo, Hayes was finishing football practice.
The result was their second poster, titled “Lester’s Court,” a reference to the Judge nickname he earned while playing at Texas A&M and to “The People’s Court” TV show. The poster was shot in a courthouse with Tock dressed in 49ers colors and footballs marked with game dates of Hayes’ interceptions.
They sold more than 30 million copies of posters with a lineup that included Bo Jackson, Kirk Gibson, Michael Jordan and Jackie Joyner-Kersee. Although Nike posters from the ’70s influenced the brothers, Costacos posters beat companies like Nike in the marketplace until a shift in the early 1990s.
They started without sports licenses, so they worked closely with players to create images, cautiously and creatively avoiding team logos. When the Costacoses finally did get licenses with major sports leagues and their associations, it changed their business — in ways both good and bad. They stopped shooting in studios and used existing action photos. These types of posters cost less and met the demands of their licensing contracts.
Tock saw royalty rates increase, making posters less profitable. The use of action shots meant John couldn’t create whimsical images as he had in the past, so they had no regrets when they sold the business to Day Dream Publishing, which was later purchased by At-a-Glance, then by the Mead Corp.
“Selling posters became more important than creating them,” John said. “That’s when the fun went out of it for me.”
In time, John and Tock discovered the loyalty of their fans. The premiere of Windows 95 and the maturation of the internet should have killed the desire for posters. But the brothers resurfaced in 2011 at Salon 94 Freemans, a New York art gallery. Adam Shopkorn, another kid with a Costacos poster on his wall, grew up to be an art curator.
“I didn’t realize how smart they were and how much work went into them,” Shopkorn said. “I thought they were on par with visual art pieces rather than sports memorabilia. I wanted to play with high-brow and low-brow culture.”
In the “For the Kids” exhibit, Shopkorn framed early Costacos posters behind plexiglass and mounted them alongside ’70s Nike posters from the private collection of artist Jeff Koons. Dana White walked in on opening night and bought about 40 Costacos works (priced at $5 in the ’80s) for $2,500 each. Alex Rodriguez bought nearly $40,000 worth of posters.
The exhibit had a second run in L.A. in 2012. It snowballed into renewed interest in the form of an SB Nation documentary and new posters for Russell Wilson, Aaron Judge and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The 2018 poster commemorating Ibrahimovic’s 500th career goal was released for free to fans at the L.A. Galaxy game against Vancouver. John and Chris Thomas, Galaxy senior director of digital media and marketing, went back and forth on ideas for about a year and landed on a Thor theme. A perfect fit for an athlete who compares himself to a god.
“I was pleasantly surprised about how excited our fans were about getting the physical poster,” Thomas said. “It did well on social. Nowadays it’s less about the people having the posters on their wall and more about social and digital content.”
John and Tock now help their 92-year-old father — who drives to work every day — with their family businesses in real estate, parking and rental cars. John is working toward developing a reality-based TV show concept that takes an audience through the process of working with athletes to make a poster.
Business relationships turned friendships outlasted the rise and fall of the poster business. John still keeps in contact with some athletes and texts Toyama, Shopkorn and Thomas about sports. His connection extends to their poster customers as well, be it Joseph Ruback, aka “License Plate Guy,” who is a well-known New York Giants fan, or Sean Jacoby.
In his youth, Jacoby had a poster of Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire sitting on top of an Oakland police car and holding 6-foot-long bats. They were dressed in Blues Brothers get-ups. The poster, aptly titled “The Bash Brothers,” was shot in 1988 after each player won AL rookie of the year but before Canseco’s written account of steroid use soured their relationship. The poster of the baseball power duo took up real estate on Jacoby’s wall for a decade until his dad mistakenly threw it away while moving rooms when Jacoby was 15 years old.
“It was a big part of my childhood, and McGwire was playing really well at the time,” Jacoby said. “I can remember crying, being so heartbroken about it.”
Jacoby’s dad tracked down the address of the poster company and wrote a letter in 1999 asking where he could purchase the poster. By that time, the sibling owners had sold the business. Jacoby’s dad didn’t hear back.
Eighteen years later, John found the unopened letter when he was rummaging through boxes of files and film.
“I read it and then looked at the postmark and I was horrified. Poor kid lost his poster and he was so upset that his dad found our address. And we didn’t respond. That’s not right,” John said.
After some internet sleuthing, John contacted Jacoby and sent him a new poster. They became Facebook friends, and they plan to meet the next time John visits Southern California.
John and Tock signed the new “Bash Brothers” poster for Jacoby. He wants to get Canseco and McGwire to sign either the poster or his dad’s letter before he hangs both on his kids’ bedroom wall. It’s an appropriate place for framed mementos of the Costacoses’ childlike imagination.