Gretzky. MJ. Bo. In September, 1991, these three athletes represented the pinnacle of North American professional sports. Gretzky was entering his fourth year in Los Angeles, spreading hockey into one of the biggest markets in the US. Within five years of his arrival in Southern California, enough interest had been generated to create two new franchises in the state. He had won the last two scoring titles, an incredible 11 of the last 13 scoring titles, and was a year and a half away from leading the Kings to their first Stanley Cup final. Jordan had just won his first NBA championship, his second MVP, and was in the midst of seven consecutive scoring titles. Jackson was a two sport phenom, the only player to play in both the MLB All Star game and the Pro Bowl . Though he had injured his hip in January, 1991, the full effect of the injury on Jackson’s career was yet to be revealed; there was hope that he would continue to develop on both fields. Combined, the three played in two of three biggest markets in the US (and Kansas City).
Beyond athletic achievements, what makes these three athletes so remarkable is the incredible global branding that each had achieved. Jordan was maybe the first true sports superstar, inking endorsement deals with Nike, Gatorade, and others. Jackson was close behind, with his ubiquitous “Bo Knows” Nike campaign. Gretzky reached levels of fame and popularity that no hockey player before or since has even approached. Combined, the three represented an incredible confluence of talent, achievement, and broad mass market appeal.
It is no surprise that if a children’s cartoon show was to be made about professional athletes as super heroes, it would have occurred in 1991 with these individuals. And that is exactly what happened. Pro Stars, the memorable cartoon, debuted in September, 1991 . Each episode involved the Pro Stars helping out a kid, saving the environment, teaching moral lessons, or other quaint 90’s issues . Basically, the show was awesome. In doing some research for this piece, I was surprised to learn that it only lasted for one fall, airing 13 episodes. I feel like I watched it every Saturday morning for years. If you need a refresher, watch below.
The natural question when discussing Pro Stars is who would be in the modern version? Which athletes have the right combination of transcendent talent, on field achievement, and global brand dominance? A main criteria, if not the only criteria, for being a Pro Star is, “Does your mother/great aunt/generic-non-sport-watching-person know this athlete? And is the cause of their notoriety not related to shocking/humiliating/illegal behaviour? ”. If the answer to both questions is yes, you’ve found a Pro Star. So, we here at The Goat decided to come up with the current generation’s Pro Stars.
But then a funny thing happened; we couldn’t come up with a list. This was frustrating, and kind of surprising, but in the end hard to argue with. Let’s take a look at it by sport:
We’ll start with the easy one, its LeBron James. There can’t be any serious debate about this. With two titles and four MVP awards, as well as constant Samsung adds and a growing NBA presence in China, LeBron is about as big as you can get for a pro athlete in North America. I don’t want to hear about “The Decision” anymore, get over it. LBJ is a Pro Star.
Here’s where it starts to get difficult, only one league in. Adrian Peterson was floated around, but he has only one transcendent season and not nearly enough media presence. Calvin Johnston has a great nickname (Megatron) and a growing brand with Nike. But he plays for Detroit, and until they do something in the post season, most people won’t be able to name the wide out for the Lions. Peyton Manning is another potential candidate, but then the following points get in the way: 1) He is 37 years old, 2) His endorsements include deals with Buick, DirecTV, and Papa John’s Pizza, and 3) Outside of a football uniform can you picture him in anything but a golf shirt and freshly pressed khakis? There are other candidates like Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, or 2012 Robert Griffin III, but there is no dominant player or brand in the NFL these days.
Baseball continues to sign mind-boggling TV deals, but it no longer holds a dominant place in North American sports. Post steroids era (McGwire, Bonds, A-Rod) it is hard for any player to really distinguish themselves from the pack. Advanced metrics geeks might push forward Mike Trout, but advanced metrics don’t sell shoes. Plus, baseball is kind of boring.
Even more so than baseball, it is getting tougher and tougher to make a case that hockey should be included as a “Big Four” sport in North America. Hockey players have the personalities of cardboard; I’m pretty sure they are grown in separate pods, like in the Matrix, where meaningless statements such as, “We've got to keep working and play our game” are uploaded into their speech drives. Stars like Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin haven’t reached the upper echelon of superstardom that the NHL hoped for when they entered the league after the lockout.
Golf is suffering through post-Tiger malaise, with another unknown arising out of nowhere to win seemingly every major. Tennis is split between Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and an ageing Roger Federer. Serena Williams certainly has the dominance to be a Pro Star, but tennis in general isn’t market relevant enough in North America to qualify. Usain Bolt has transcendent talent and branding on his side, but is hurt by the fact that we forget about Olympic athletes during the non-Olympic years.
The last point in time that you could legitimately make a case for a roster of Pro Stars was the fall of 2008. A pre-scandal Tiger Woods was coming off his most dramatic US Open victory on one knee. Two Olympians, Usain Bolt and 8-gold-medal-pre-bong-hit Michael Phelps, would have been strong contenders. Lance Armstrong was retired, but we still thought he was a golden god instead of the tarnished idol (read: scumbag) that we now know him to be. Tom Brady was coming off a record setting year, in which the 16-0 Patriots almost won their fourth Super Bowl in seven years. Alex Rodriguez had yet to test positive for steroids and was still on pace to set the all-time home run record. Roger Federer was the dominant player in tennis, winning 12 of the previous 20 Grand Slam titles. Even Sidney Crosby still had superstar potential; he was the second youngest winner of the Hart trophy (after Gretzky), had just led his team to the Stanley Cup finals, and had yet to go through the injury drama of the last several years.
Even then, I don’t think that group would stack up against the original. Jordan, Gretzky and Jackson, all in their prime; saving the rainforest and helping kids find their fathers. We didn’t realize it at the time, but we were witness to a very rare period when the greatest hockey player of all time, arguably the greatest basketball player of all time, and the straight-up greatest athlete of all time were at the peak of their powers, both on the field and off. Should we live to see such times again, I hope they make a cartoon about it for my kids.
 If you haven’t seen the 30 for 30 on Bo Jackson, it is must see TV.
 I would like to see the Pro Stars deal with climate change or the debt ceiling.
 Think OJ in 1995. Everybody knew him then, even if they didn’t know he had rushed for 2000 yards in the 70’s.