The True Story of Wilson the Volleyball

Twenty years after "Cast Away" took the world by storm, read how Wilson the Volleyball became the cultural icon he is today. 

 

SETTING THE STAGE FOR SOMETHING BIG 

Wilson Sporting Goods is no stranger to product donation requests. For over a century, the company has provided equipment for community organizations, fundraisers, youth sports leagues, pro teams, and everything in between. 

But in 1998, a call came into Team Sports Communications Manager Molly Wallace that was unlike any she’d ever received. 

It was a representative from 20th Century Fox, one of the most prominent production companies in the world. He explained to Molly that the studio was about to start filming a movie and hoped Wilson could provide some balls to be used in the film.

“Nowadays, production companies want big money for product placement. But at the time, that wasn’t really the case,” explains Director of Basketball, Volleyball, and Soccer, Mike Kuehne. “But they just wanted the balls.”

“They were very vague about the film and how the product would be used,” Wallace remembers, “but they said it wouldn’t be used as a weapon or in any way that was damaging to the brand.” 

The representative from Fox explained that the film would be a bit unusual because it wouldn’t have much of a supporting cast. But he did disclose the film’s leading man. 

“Tom Hanks,” says Wallace with a smile. “He told me it was Tom Hanks, and I think that’s what ultimately sealed the deal. Tom Hanks movies are always good.” 

Wallace consulted with Kuehne and Volleyball and Soccer Business Manager, Alan Davenport. It was a more vague request than Wilson usually received, but with the reassurance only Tom Hanks could provide, the team agreed to send Fox what it had asked for… which was actually soccer balls. 

“Little known fact! The volleyballs didn’t come in until later,” Davenport says. 

So off the soccer balls went. It wasn’t until several months later that the team heard back from 20th Century Fox.

“They came back and said the soccer balls weren’t working, because...something...wouldn’t adhere to the soccer ball material,” Wallace remembers. “So they asked for some volleyballs instead.”

At the time, Wilson volleyballs had “Wilson” printed on both sides of the ball, but Fox specifically requested volleyballs with one side blank. Says Davenport, “ We had no idea why they needed that, but we did it. We special-made 60 one-sided volleyballs and sent them off to Fox.”

“That's when we really started wondering, ‘Why do they need that? What could they be doing with one-sided balls?'” Wallace recalls. 

At this point, all Wallace, Davenport, and Kuehne knew was that a one-sided Wilson Volleyball was going to be in a Tom Hanks movie. And that’s all the information they would have for the better part of a year. 

Months later, Wallace got a call from Fox letting her know they would be sending her an NDA, along with some sort of preview of the product placement. Wallace signed the NDA and about a week later, she received an envelope from Fox. It contained a single photograph with no context or story. The photo (below) was of Tom Hanks on a beach, holding a Wilson volleyball. Wallace shared the photo with Davenport and Kuehne. Together, they studied the photo and scratched their heads. Little did they know, they had just gotten their first glimpse of Hanks’ co-star and soon-to-be pop culture sensation, Wilson the Volleyball. 

The actual photo Wallace received from 20th Century Fox.

After receiving the photo, the team didn’t hear from Fox Studios again until the film was set to begin industry screenings in LA. And as soon as the screenings began, calls started rolling in.

“I immediately started getting calls from the media. And I felt like an idiot because I had no idea what they were talking about,” Wallace laughs. “Fox still hadn’t told us anything at all about the storyline or how the volleyballs had been used.”

After fielding her umpteenth call, Wallace reached out to Fox Studios.

“I said ‘OK, you have to tell me something; I have no idea what to say to the media and I keep getting calls.’”  

It just so happened that, later that same week, Fox was holding a critics’ screening of "Cast Away" at the Siskel and Ebert Theatre in downtown Chicago. Rather than explaining the plot over the phone, Fox invited Wallace, Davenport, and Kuehne to attend the screening. 

So they went.

“We truly didn’t have a clue what the ball’s involvement would be walking into that theatre,” Davenport recalls. “I remember walking out of the screening thinking ‘holy [expletive]!'’ We knew we (as a company) had to do something.”

At first, Fox was reluctant to let Wilson produce "Cast Away" replica balls. At the time, the film had no other commercial merchandise. But the Wilson team flew out to L.A. to meet with the film’s producers, and eventually got the go-ahead to produce replica Wilson the Volleyballs. 

“It wasn’t a paid product placement, so we had no idea until after the film was released,” Kuehne adds. “That’s why we were a few months behind in producing replica balls.”

Fortunately, the enthusiasm for the film continued to snowball well beyond the release of the replica balls.

 

A movie poster from "Cast Away."

“From a sheer exposure standpoint, this goes much deeper than simple product placement,” said then-General Manager of Wilson Team Sports, Chris Considine.  “This bumps us out of the gym and into the arena of pop culture.”

The film also helped Wilson's partner, the AVP (Association of Volleyball Professionals), because their logo was also visible on the ball. If they weren’t already, Wilson and the AVP became cemented together forever in the volleyball world. 

“We had one of the original balls used for filming with the reeds sticking out of its head, and we took it to the American Volleyball Coaches Association Show so all the volleyball coaches got their pictures taken with Wilson,” Davenport says.

Wilson the Volleyball left such an impression on moviegoers and critics alike that the Broadcast Film Critics Association created an award exclusively for him. That year, Wilson traveled to Los Angeles (accompanied by Wallace, Davenport, Kuehne, and Considine) for the 6th Annual Broadcast Critics Choice Awards to pick up his award for Best Inanimate Object. Wallace carried Wilson on the red carpet and answered questions from the media on his behalf.

“I keep saying it, but this is unbelievable,” said Considine, accepting the award. “All the attention we are receiving is incredible – so many phone calls from retailers, consumers, family and friends who have seen the movie and want to show their support. We appreciate the opportunity 20th Century Fox has given us and we’re honored to be receiving the first award for Best Inanimate Object.”

Wilson the Volleyball’s public appearances didn’t end at the red carpet. A year or so after "Cast Away" was released, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was racing at Darlington and complained to his crew chief that he was having car problems. “Y’all just make me feel like Tom Hanks out here, all alone,” Earnhardt reportedly said over the radio. “I should just get a volleyball to keep me company.” 

Three weeks later at Dover, Earnhardt’s crew put a homemade Wilson the Volleyball in his passenger seat. [The full radio exchange between Earnhardt and his crew chief can be read in this ESPN article.] Earnhardt went on to win the race. In his post-race press conference, Earnhardt said Wilson brought him some luck, so he just might want to keep him as a copilot from then on. Earnhardt’s mini commemorative diecast car for Dover even came with a mini Wilson volleyball. 

After the movie premiered, two out of three of the actual balls used for filming were auctioned off. The remaining OG Wilson the Volleyball went on to make an appearance on "Saturday Night Live." 

 

WILSON COMES HOME 

Back in the early 2000s, it was common for production companies to throw a second premier when a film was released on video for rental or purchase. To commemorate the film’s release on video, Fox had an idea to pick up where the film left off--with Wilson the Volleyball floating away. 

“They decided the right thing to do would be to go save Wilson,” Wallace remembers.

And they did so in spectacular fashion. 

Fox Studios went via Coast Guard helicopter, “rescued” Wilson, and delivered him to Wilson Sporting Goods HQ in Chicago, where he was given a hero’s welcome. Wallace and the Wilson team worked with Fox Studios to coordinate an elaborate homecoming parade, complete with a full marching band and Wilson the Volleyball riding comfortably on a plush red pillow in the back of a convertible.

Davenport, then-President of Wilson Sporting Goods Co., Jim Baugh, and Wallace hold Wilson on a pillow at his homecoming parade.

 

Wilson addresses the crowd at his homecoming celebration.

 

Wilson's friends supporting him from the bleachers.

 

Baugh and Wilson in the back of a convertible during the parade.

 

WHY WILSON IN THE FIRST PLACE?  

Perhaps you’ve heard that a Wilson brand volleyball was selected for the movie in honor of Tom Hanks’ wife, Rita Wilson. The story goes that Hanks knew he would be away from home filming with a small crew for an extended period of time, so he wanted to have some connection to the product that would play his co-star. That’s why he chose a ball with his wife’s name.

But there’s another story, that – if true – makes Wilson’s involvement in the movie seem written in the stars. 

“Allegedly, the screenwriter of the film was one of these guys who likes to go out and experience what he was writing about,” remembers Davenport. 

“Legend has it, this screenwriter went to a remote Caribbean island with a survivalist. He experienced many of the things that ultimately went into the movie, like trying to start a fire and open a coconut. Allegedly, one of the things the survivalist said was ‘If you’re going to be by yourself for a long period of time, you’re going to go a little crazy and start talking to yourself or inanimate objects.'”

Wilson the Volleyball's studio headshot.

Now here’s where it gets weird: Apparently, a soccer ball washed up on the island where the screenwriter and survivalist were staying. So they threw a hat on it and started talking to it. The marooned ball just so happened to be a Wilson soccer ball, which purportedly inspired the character of Wilson. 

 

NOTABLE OUTCOMES AND LASTING IMPACT

“From a sheer exposure standpoint, nothing we’ve ever done can match ‘Cast Away.’” - Chris Considine 

Wallace confirms that two decades, dozens of focus groups and brand studies later, Wilson the Volleyball from "Cast Away" is still one of the top three things people know about the brand.

“In today’s world, production companies will sell that brand spot. But one of the purities of Tom Hanks is that, for him, it wasn’t about making money for making the movie, it was about making money because it’s a good movie,” Kuehne explains. 

“We provided Fox with 60 balls for the actual production of the movie, and maybe 100 more for promotional use. So all in, we gave them around 150 volleyballs, and we got unprecedented product placement. Talk about the greatest return on investment in the history of Wilson.” 

Also thanks to "Cast Away," Alan Davenport was quoted in the Wall Street Journal and Entertainment Weekly magazine within a month of one another. “I believe my quote was ‘Not every actor can be as well-rounded as Wilson. He is not just another pretty face.'” 

Wilson the Volleyball still holds a place in the zeitgeist even two decades after the release of "Cast Away." He even has his own IMDB page.

“We still sell 20-25,000 'Cast Away' balls per year,” says Davenport. And rumor has it that Wilson volleyballs are still Tom Hanks’ no.1 most-requested autographed item. 

A volleyball signed by Tom Hanks, courtesy of Mike Kuehne.

Throughout the course of the film, the relationship between Hanks and Wilson seemed authentic. The reason it never felt like a paid product placement is simply because it wasn't one.  Wilson the Volleyball’s role as Hanks’ co-star was the kind of exposure money couldn’t buy. The connection was genuine, palpable, and if the legend is to be believed, fated from the start. 

It’s not too late to get your own Wilson the Volleyball, available in both mini ($9.99) and official ($19.99) sizes. 

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