SBJ/July 22-28, 2013/Franchises

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  • Funny business: Mascots

    The cluster of blue-shirted children surged steadily up the aisle, onto the concourse and then down the first base line, shrinking here and stretching there, like paint spilled on the deck of a rocking boat.

    It was Camp Day at Fluor Field, home to the Greenville Drive, the Class A South Atlantic League affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. On a Tuesday in June, about 600 children from various day camps spent the afternoon at the game.

    Campers being campers, most were dressed in matching T-shirts, turning the sections along the foul lines into blobs of yellow, green, red and blue. At the far end of the first base dugout sat the blue shirts, who at one point late in the game stirred to attention, rose in unison and headed for the aisle, hot in pursuit of the sort of thing children often pursue during a sporting event.

    Sure, it’s all fun and games, but Reedy Rip’It helps connect the Drive to Greenville, S.C.
    Photo by: GREENVILLE DRIVE
    A 7-foot-tall, googly-eyed frog.

    “There he goes,” said Drive general manager Mike deMaine, pointing from his perch in a climate-controlled suite behind home plate. “If you’re looking for Reedy, just follow the kids.”

    Reedy is Reedy Rip’It, mascot of the Drive. As the story goes, Reedy hails from the banks of the nearby Reedy River, where he chases flies and makes, yes, leaping catches.

    Were it not for that back story, the fact that Reedy is a frog would seem rather random, considering that the team name — the Drive — doesn’t inspire much of a visual, and certainly not one of a frog.

    Reedy is a frog not because of a connection to the team, but to the community. The Drive had no such link when they hit town in 2006. Their owners were retired Madison Avenue ad men. The franchise’s affiliation was with Boston, not the Atlanta Braves, who had been tied to a Double A club in Greenville for the previous 20 years. And the team name was mostly a verb.

    As an olive branch, management came up with a mascot contest, inviting elementary school students from throughout the region to submit names and designs. They brought in local artists as judges. The frog won.

    Drive management turned the original drawing over to a graphic designer, who created a sketch. They took the sketch to a costume manufacturer in nearby Columbia, S.C., which makes suits for teams, colleges and companies across the country. For about $6,500 — the Drive won’t reveal a specific price, but that’s the going rate for a suit that will last a minor league baseball team about three seasons — the startup club had its mascot.

    It is a process familiar to game entertainment departments across pro and college sports, who typically spend $5,000 to $15,000 for a suit that will hold up for three to seven years.

    All but 20 of the 122 teams in the NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball have at least one mascot character, according to a SportsBusiness Journal survey. Those 102 teams that do have mascots together outfit a combined 166 characters — including assorted racing sausages, pierogies and big-headed retired players — and stock 353 full suits, not counting extra feet, gloves and other spare parts that they keep on hand in the event of a dreaded mascot wardrobe malfunction.

    The 106 affiliated Minor League Baseball clubs that responded reported 192 characters and 307 suits.

    Eight years in, the Drive is on its third Reedy suit. It is green and sufficiently goofy, topped by a red baseball cap turned to the side. It looks like a frog, so long as you’ve been told it’s a frog. Otherwise, it’s 50-50 you’ll think it’s a turtle.

    Mascot history tells us that it really doesn’t matter.

    What, after all, is a Phillie Phanatic? He has green fur. Blue hair. No ears. A long, tubular snout. Take that description to your local zoo and see where it gets you.

    The San Diego Chicken — aka the Famous Chicken — appeared at more than 500 San Diego Padres games, beginning in 1974. He emerged as a pop culture icon in the ’80s, performing at events across the country and on TV shows. He even had a cameo in a movie.

    What does a chicken have to do with the Padres, or even with San Diego? Not a thing. Yet far more fans associated the Padres with The Chicken than with their actual mascot, the more apropos Swinging Friar.

    The most recognizable mascot in the NBA belongs to the Phoenix Suns. He dances. He dunks. Once, he dressed up like Frank Sinatra. He’s both a thrill, and a hoot.

    Is he a sun? No.

    A sunflower — which, believe it or not, the Suns tried at one point? Nope.

    He’s a gorilla. A dancing, dunking gorilla, in a large U.S. city in the desert.

    Makes as much sense as a chicken at a Padres game.

    The success of a team’s mascot program has less to do with the suit than it does the person in the suit and the story behind the suit, as evidenced by the fact that these three mascots with no logical connection to their teams — the Phanatic, the Chicken and the Gorilla — were the three inaugural inductees into the Mascot Hall of Fame, launched in 2005 by David Raymond, the original Phanatic.

    “What’s most important is not what it looks like,” said Raymond, who now operates Raymond Entertainment Group, a consultancy that specializes in character branding under the moniker The Mascot Doctor. “Branding is important: the colors and everything. But what it looks like is less important than who it is and why it’s there.

    “You can be the Drive and have a mascot that’s a frog — as long as it’s a really fun frog.”

    What to wear

    About 85 miles down the interstate to the southeast of Greenville, between a pair of metal-roofed warehouses, the costumes of five college mascots hung from a makeshift clothesline, drying in the summer sun. Inside an adjacent building, a woman massaged the dent out of a large, unrecognizable head.

    This is where you bring a 7-foot-tall, googly-eyed frog when it is in need of care.

    On a Friday afternoon, a few days after the Drive held their camp promotion, the University of South Carolina senior who has spent much of his summer inside Reedy Rip’It pulled into the parking lot at Scollon Productions, which has been designing and manufacturing costumes for sports and entertainment properties since the 1960s.

    In a conference room inside the main building, James Fowler — a media arts major who also performs as South Carolina mascot Cocky — laid Reedy across a table and explained some of his unavoidable wear and tear to Rick Scollon Jr., a third-generation mascot-maker who heads the company’s cleaning and maintenance operation.

    A few stitches to lift a droopy eye-lid. Some well-placed glue to firm up the lining inside the head. A good, thorough bath. It would take a few days, but Reedy Rip’It would make it back to Greenville in time for the next homestand.

    “They’re built to hold up, plus the teams have enough invested that most of them take good care of them,” said Scollon Jr., whose father is the company’s CEO.

    The mascot costumes that most pro teams and major college programs buy are made to endure the rigors of performing — dancing, sprawling and, especially, sweating — through the span of  a sports season, which in the case of professional baseball can mean 70 to 90 games, including the playoffs. Reedy will be on duty for about 70 home games this year, plus an additional 100 or so appearances at schools, summer camps, sponsor events and community gatherings.

    Having Scollon down the road makes maintenance easier for the Drive. After all, this is where Reedy was born.

    He began, like all mascots do, as a sketch.

    Scollon employs two in-house artists who can provide those drawings, but pro teams and colleges typically send their own. Turning that sketch into a mascot often means some adjustment, though.

    “The only thing a graphics company knows is a great image on paper,” Raymond said. “They draw a super image on paper and then say, ‘Build it.’ And we say, ‘We can’t.’ It will be a dangerous costume. A performer can’t move in it and they’re not going to be able to see.

    “It’s a great looking character that either a performer will die in, or nobody will like it because it can’t do anything.”

    At Scollon Productions, the process is largely by hand. The head starts out as a block of high-density foam, the same material that is used to insulate hot tubs. An artist carves it to match the sketch, then paints it. Once approved by the team, the foam model is then used to create either a pattern that can be used to make a foam head, or cut in half and turned into a mold that can then produce a head of hard plastic or carbon fiber. That head — which always starts out white — is then painted using an airbrush and, when needed, fitted with plastic eyes, ears and teeth. Most heads are then covered with fabrics of various texture and color.

    Bodies are fairly simple, so long as they have two arms and two legs, and maybe a tail. But there is extensive cutting of patterns and stitching.

    Scollon typically employs about 50 people, including about 20 who work in the sewing room. About a dozen work on heads and other molded body parts.

    One long wall in the 10,000-square-foot main shop at Scollon shows the broad variance that can exist from one suit to the next. It is covered with molds of feet; dozens of them, of various shapes and sizes. There are only so many versions of a tiger foot, so Scollon tries to work off stock models when it can. But there are lots of creatures in the costume world, and some demand variation. One pair on the wall is for a penguin from the movie “Happy Feet.” Another is from the animated TV series “Robot Chicken.”

    The company has built mascots for dozens of pro teams and even more colleges, but the bulk of its business comes from the entertainment world, manufacturing costumes for Warner Bros. and Nickelodeon, among others. In fact, it is in children’s entertainment that the company has its roots.

    Rick Scollon’s parents, Allie and Bill, started building marionettes together out of a one-bedroom apartment in Cleveland shortly after they were married. In 1968, they turned their passion into a national touring company, putting on puppet shows in malls and shopping centers. That led to a licensed costume company, which they relocated to South Carolina in 1982.

    “When we started doing this, it was just a circus act to keep people occupied between innings,” Scollon said. “Now, most teams have turned it into a profit center. You see more and more characters and teams and schools realize they need more costumes. That’s only been good for our business.”

    ‘Crazy, wild, silliness’

    The book of the genealogy of the racing mascots:
    The racing sausages begot the racing pierogies, the racing pierogies begot the racing presidents, and the racing presidents begot various racing fruits and vegetables (including broccoli, blueberries, an apple and a pear).

    The racing fruits and vegetables begot the racing power tools, the racing power tools begot the racing hot sauce packets, and the racing hot sauce packets begot the racing menu items (taco, burrito and 20-ounce drink).

    The racing menu items begot the racing D-Backs legends (Randy Johnson, Matt Williams, Luis Gonzalez and Mark Grace), the racing D-Backs legends begot the racing White Sox legends of 1972 (Dick Allen, Goose Gossage and Bill Melton), and the racing White Sox legends of 1972 begot the racing White Sox legends of 1983 (Harold Baines, Carlton Fisk and Ron Kittle).

    It was in that order, pretty much, probably.

    Also, there were others, most likely.

    But you get the idea.

    Until 20 years ago, teams typically had one suited character in their stadium or arena, if they had that. It was the mascot.

    Once Milwaukee’s sausages hit the field, racing mascots were off and running.
    Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
    Then, in June of 1993, the Milwaukee Brewers took what for two seasons had been an animated scoreboard race between three sausages from sponsor Klement’s — The Bratwurst, The Polish and The Italian — and turned it into live theater.

    For years, it remained a quirky Milwaukee thing. But in 2001, the Pittsburgh Pirates signed a local pierogi company to sponsor a race. The sausages vs. the pierogies became a bit of a rivalry. Marketing executives at other teams began to take notice.

    Before you knew it, soda bottles and Mexican menu items were running hither and yon across the nation’s ballfields, both major and minor.

    For fans who like to mix in a laugh with all the screaming, this is good.

    It’s also good for the companies that make the costumes.

    The suits used for races typically can be made for a fraction of the cost of the costume a team uses for its mascot. The Cadillac of racing costumes, the Klement’s sausages, go for about $3,000 each, but the suits you find running the warning tracks at most minor league parks cost less than half that much. They run and they’re done, so they don’t take much wear and tear. And there’s rarely much design involved. Strip away the faces, and you’ll find a considerable resemblance between as diverse a grouping as Mark Grace, Dick Allen and The Bratwurst.

    While sponsorship was behind the creation of additional characters at the outset, many minor league teams have looked at the addition as an expansion of their entertainment offerings.

    The Lake Elsinore Storm started in 1994 with one mascot, Jackpot, a pink bunny who danced every time the Storm scored. When new general manager Dave Oster arrived in the team’s fourth season, he wanted something that would provide a consistent presence throughout the game.

    Working with Raymond, he created Thunder, an excitable green puppy. Like the Drive, the Storm had no natural connection between its team name and a mascot. But the character’s playful, energetic nature — when the performer inside pulls a string, his ears pop up on alert — made Thunder a hit for the Southern California team. Oster, now the team president, figured that if a second character livened up the ballpark, more would be even better. So he and his staff began creating friends for Thunder. There is the Grounds Crew Gorilla, who knocks over all who stand in his path. And there’s Ace, the Fastest Squirrel in the World, who races fans and is unbeaten — largely because the man in the squirrel suit is a Storm account executive who was a Division III All-American sprinter.

    “They’ve taken this theme with Thunder, not necessarily making sense, and they’ve created five or six other characters that don’t make sense,” Raymond said. “It’s all just crazy, wild, silliness. They interact as a group and they each entertain in their own way. And it’s great.

    “It just goes to show you that the suit is secondary. As long as the character gets developed, and he’s great because of the performer, it doesn’t matter what it is.”

    A team’s investment

    The fact that the guy who used to be in the Phanatic suit is now a consultant to teams and other businesses says much about how his old line of work has evolved.

    The sports industry has its sponsorship consultants. It has its ticketing consultants. It has its food consultants and security consultants and parking consultants and stadium design consultants. Somewhere, there is a consultant to tell you which consultants to hire.

    “More and more people in sports have come to understand the depth and breadth of what we call ‘character branding,’” Raymond said. “Your mascot is a living, breathing brand extension. This ought to be our most important marketing tool, a chance to make our message memorable to our fans or our customers without sounding like we’re selling something to them.”

    Once known for his on-the-edge outlandishness, Raymond now counsels teams on the use of their mascots and helps them hire and train performers.

    “The reason I’m such a good trainer is that I’ve done everything wrong that you can imagine,” Raymond said. “Fortunately, I was not fired. But I made all the mistakes.”

    One of his favorite cautionary tales involves a mother and her baby, who Raymond estimated to be about eight weeks old. He was roaming the top of the dugout between innings one game when the woman asked him to hold her baby so she could take a photo of them. Today, Raymond tells his students that this is a textbook example of a time when they should show restraint. Gesture to the mother that you can’t do that but would be happy to pose with her and the baby.

    Of course, that’s not what the Phanatic did. The Phanatic took the baby. He ran to the other end of the dugout with the baby. He then handed the baby to a stranger wearing a baseball glove.

    He took the glove from the stranger, went back to the other end of the dugout, and presented it to the mother.

    “I made a trade,” Raymond said, deadpan. “And then I got back to my dressing room after the game and I took my costume off, and I got this shiver down my spine. Oh my God, I can’t believe I did that. I could have tripped. I could have dropped the baby. The person I gave the baby to could have dropped the baby. It was a really funny routine, but I never should have done it.

    “I tell performers, there are many things you can do that are just as funny that don’t put an eight-week-old baby’s life on the line. You’ve got to teach common sense.

    “I was the intern they put in the suit. It worked out great. But that’s not what I advise teams to do.”

    Some teams do still go that route, but the numbers are dwindling, Raymond and others said. Minor league teams typically look for someone who has been a mascot in college. Major league teams want performers who have demonstrated success at lower levels.

    Mascots in MLB and the NBA can expect a full-time position with a starting salary of $50,000 to $60,000, with the chance to break into six figures in three to four years if they achieve goals for bonuses and other incentives. Teams not only want someone who can perform in the suit, they want them to be able to create their own skits and work on production. They want them to be able to amuse children during games, but also entertain adults at sponsor events. They want them to manage an appearance schedule.

    Those appearances, Raymond said, are critical, because they not only create good will, but they also offer sales opportunities. For years, he counseled teams to charge for every mascot appearance so that they could assign a value to the mascot appearances they included in their sponsorship contracts.

    Then one minor league general manager said he appreciated that revenue, but he’d prefer it if he were getting it because people bought more tickets. They changed the mascot program so that all appearances would be free to sponsors and other groups, so long as they committed to buy a block of tickets.

    They ended up making more from ticket sales than they had been from appearances.

    And the mascot earned a commission on the group sales.

    “It’s not enough to be a performer anymore,” Raymond said. “If you want to get into this today, you have to learn the mascot business.”

    Beneath the head of Reedy Rip’It, Fowler, the senior at South Carolina, has worked this summer on just that, interning in the Drive production department. He will go back to being Cocky this football season.

    “I’ll get my degree, and then I want to mascot,” said Fowler, who is scheduled to graduate in December. “Honestly, I’d love to be in the NBA one day. It’s high hopes, I know. But hopefully I’ll get there.”

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  • For Cleveland, ‘creative flexibility’ for a five-mascot lineup

    Mascots for Dan Gilbert’s four teams report to Cavs marketing.
    Photo by: CLEVELAND CAVALIERS
    When Tracy Marek, CMO and senior vice president of marketing for the Cleveland Cavaliers, calls a meeting, the list of attendees can sound like something out of a “B” mob movie.

    There’s Moondog, Sully the Seagull, Sir C.C., Pozzie and Rudi. But in a strange reversal of roles, it’s usually the employees who end up telling the boss what, how, where and when they are going to do their jobs.

    The cast of characters represents the mascots from the four professional teams owned by Dan Gilbert: the NBA Cavs, AHL Lake Erie Monsters, AFL Cleveland Gladiators and NBA D-League Canton Charge.

    “We call it creative flexibility,” Marek said, referring to a philosophy of letting the people inside the mascot costumes create the characters the fans will see. “We believe that it is our job to help support the business of the mascots, not the other way around.”

    Marek said the Monsters (with Sully) and the Cavs (Moondog and Sir C.C.) have full-time mascot “coordinators” for the characters; the Charge (Pozzie) and Gladiators (Rudi) feature seasonal employees. Each individual reports to Cavs marketing. For Marek and her staff, overseeing four mascot operations means there is at least one character event nearly every day of the year.

    Other ownership groups that have four or more teams with at least as many individual mascots include:
    Calgary Sports and Entertainment Group: NHL Calgary Flames (Harvey the Hound); CFL Calgary Stampeders (Ralph the Dog); WHL Calgary Hitmen (Farley the Fox); and NLL Calgary Roughnecks (Howie the Honey Badger)

    Spurs Sports & Entertainment: NBA San Antonio Spurs (The Coyote); WNBA San Antonio Silver Stars (The Fox); AHL San Antonio Rampage (T-Bone); and NBA D-League Austin Toros (Da Bull)

    Kroenke Sports and Entertainment: NBA Denver Nuggets (Rocky); NHL Colorado Avalanche (Bernie); NLL Colorado Mammoth (Wooly); and MLS Colorado Rapids (Edson the Eagle and Franz the Fox).

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  • A look inside some of the companies that make the costumes

    More than two dozen companies are involved in producing and maintaining the hundreds of mascot costumes across professional sports. SportsBusiness Journal contacted each team in the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB, as well as each MiLB ballclub above the rookie league level, and asked: Who makes your suits?

    Following are some of the firms that have notable stakes.

    Alinco

    Headquarters: Salt Lake City
    Founded: 1961
    Website: alincocostumes.com
    Key executives: Lowla Allen, director of marketing; Jill Palmer, vice president of operations; Kevin Wasden, vice president of creative services
    Clients: Approximately one-quarter of the big league clubs, with half the NBA, including the Memphis Grizzlies (Grizz); four MiLB teams
    Of note: Created the San Diego Chicken in 1974 for promotional use by San Diego rock ’n’ roll station KGB-FM.

    FiberWorks
    Headquarters: Phoenix
    Founded: 1982
    Website: fiberworks.us
    Key executives: Donna Nagel and Joe Turnbough
    Clients: 13 big league clubs spread across all four leagues, including the Houston Rockets for costumes for Clutch since his creation in 1995
    Of note: Work includes three cardinals: NFL Arizona, MLB St. Louis and Class AA Springfield (Mo.)

    International Mascot Corp.
    Headquarters: Edmonton and Atlanta
    Founded: 1983
    Website: internationalmascot.com
    Key executives: Joel Leveille, president; Brendan Watson, general manager of operations
    Clients: Nine big league teams, including the Oakland A’s (Stomper)
    Of note: Also provides the characters for the Home Depot Tool Race at Atlanta Braves games, as well as Toothy, Bristles and Fresh, the dental-themed racing mascots for the Colorado Rockies.

    Olympus Group
    Headquarters: Milwaukee
    Founded: 1893
    Website: olympusgrp.com/Mascot-costumes.htm
    Key executives: Brian Adam, president, large format digital graphics and character costumes; Dawn Rolison, marketing director; Dan Ward, vice president of sales
    Clients: Biggest player in MiLB, with more than 30 clubs, including the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers (Fang), Sacramento River Cats (Dinger) and Richmond Flying Squirrels (Nutzy, pictured).
    Of note: Best known for the Milwaukee Brewers’ Racing Sausages.

    Raymond Entertainment Group
    Headquarters: West Grove, Pa.
    Founded: 1999
    Website: raymondeg.com
    Key executives: David Raymond, emperor of fun and games; Randy Carfagno, sultan of silly
    Clients: Two big league clubs, including the Tampa Bay Lightning (ThunderBug); eight MiLB teams
    Of note: Company founder Raymond was the original Phillie Phanatic. His company makes fewer costumes now than in its early days, serving more as a mascot and team branding consulting group.

    Scollon Productions

    Headquarters: White Rock, S.C.
    Founded: 1968
    Website: scollon.com
    Key executives: Rick Scollon, CEO; Ellery Locklear, president
    Clients: Nine big league clubs, including the Carolina Panthers (Sir Purr)
    Of note: All of its current big league clients are in the NFL or NHL, but Scollon also works with a dozen MiLB clubs.

    Street Characters
    Headquarters: Calgary
    Founded: 1984
    Website: mascots.com
    Key executives: Glenn Street, president; Aubrey Fishman, director of marketing; Shae Motz, concept graphic artist
    Clients: 19 big league clubs, including the MLB Texas Rangers (Captain), and approximately one-quarter of the NFL; nine MiLB clubs
    Of note: Founder Glenn Street performed as the first mascot in the NHL: Harvey the Hound for the Calgary Flames.

    Vee
    Headquarters: Minneapolis
    Founded: 1980
    Website: vee.com
    Key executives: Dayna Deutsch, senior vice president of sales and marketing; Jim Waters, senior vice president of production; Jack Pence, general manager, production services, costumes and creatures
    Clients: Nine big league clubs, with at least one in each of the four big leagues, including the NHL Minnesota Wild (Nordy)
    Of note: Generated additional exposure this summer by building a 12-foot-tall likeness of Mutual of Omaha-sponsored golfer Fred Funk on the grounds of that sponsor company’s headquarters to welcome the U.S. Senior Open to Omaha, Neb.

    Note: Of the 122 big league teams, 20 do not have mascots. The New Orleans Pelicans, who are in the midst of replacing the team’s previous Hornets identity, have not yet selected a mascot provider for their new character.
    Sources: Mascot company websites, MLB, NFL, NBA and NHL teams
    Compiled by David Broughton, Brandon McClung and Stephanie Brown


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  • It’s not easy being green: An inside look

    How better to understand a mascot’s world than to be a mascot — even if only for an inning or two? Thanks to the Class A Kannapolis (N.C.) Intimidators, that possibility became a reality for this writer on an early July evening at CMC-NorthEast Stadium.
       David Broughton: SportsBusiness Journal research director by day … Tim E. Gator by night.

    Photo by: RAY MARSDEN / KANNAPOLIS INTIMIDATORS
    My night begins in a decommissioned bathroom turned mascot dressing room the size of an office cubicle, surrounded by empty bottles of Gatorade — and empty bottles of Febreze. Josh Barlow, the man who usually portrays Tim E. Gator, has just returned from an off-site event in the suit, so the inside is still, um, warm.

    (To understand the gator connection to the landlocked Intimidators, simply say his name fast. Tim E. Gator.)

    I step into the hula-hoop torso, strap the huge gator feet over my sneakers, and put on the furry and oh-so-wet gloves. The head straps on like a bike helmet, and although the foam and fur feel top heavy, it is actually very secure. And now it’s hot. I know from talking to companies that the temperature inside can reach 120 degrees for warm afternoon games, making me all the more thankful this evening is an unseasonably cool night in the upper 70s.

    Fully suited up, I’ve instantly gained approximately 20 pounds.

    ■ ■ ■

    The Intimidators’ 2-month-old Tim E. Gator costume was made by Myrtle Beach, S.C.-based Brand Animations at a cost of $5,500. The company has more than a dozen other mascots on its current sports roster, including Rascal of the Quad Cities (Iowa) River Bandits and SouthPaw of the Lynchburg (Va.) Hillcats. Tim E. Gator’s head and feet are made of MC1900 foam, and the interior is a moisture-wicking mesh lining. Both materials help keep the performers cooler than costumes of years past.

    Brand Animations offers an upgrade package that includes a small fan in a costume’s head (powered by a 12-volt battery) for an extra $79, according to Rachel Delaney, the company’s co-founder and director of marketing. A separate add-on is something called “polar pods” in the hoop of a costume’s belly: a set of six pockets that hold ice packs. That costs $225.

    The Kannapolis costume has neither.

    ■ ■ ■

    I emerge from the air-conditioned media hut onto the wide-open concourse, and within three minutes sweat is dripping from my nose.

    Josh, my handler and guide for the evening, says quietly, “Little boy to your right.” I turn to my right. I peer through the narrow slit at the back of the gator’s mouth that provides me with my field of vision. I don’t see anyone. But then I feel something — and it’s hugging my right leg.

    Hello, little boy.

    We do a couple of high fives, and we break out some gator dance moves to what I think is One Direction playing over the PA system. I’m not entirely sure of that because I’m already wondering if I am going to make it to the first pitch without melting. And I deliberately stay away from the boy’s baby sister, who is calmly enjoying a pacifier in her stroller.

    I begin to walk away when I feel a small hand tugging my left claw — and bringing me over to the stroller. Uh oh. I begin a countdown-to-scream in my head.

    10…9…8…

    It’s the same countdown I’ve done many times over the years for my own masklophobia-suffering daughter.

    7…6…5…

    He pulls her hand to mine and instructs her to high five. It is weird realizing that no one can see I’m now smiling at all this. I give him a wave and start to walk away again, relieved that any nightmares the girl might have tonight won’t be my fault. But then I feel a tug on my right hand. It’s him again, this time wanting me to complete the process with a right-hand-to-right-hand high five with his sister.

    4…3…2…1.

    Above: The rather limited view from inside Tim E. Gator. Below: Warren Kauber gives Broughton a hand with his vision by helping straighten his suit’s head.
    Photos: RAY MARSDEN / KANNAPOLIS INTIMIDATORS
    And there it is. Right on cue, out comes the pacifier and out flow the tears. I lower my gator head in dismay. Thankfully, things can move pretty quickly for a mascot, and here comes another family looking for a photo op. A mom takes a couple pictures of me with two young boys, they slap me high-fives, and off they go. The whole interaction takes about 30 seconds, and no tears are shed. But Josh does politely give me some photo etiquette: When I’m having a picture taken, don’t look at the camera, he says. That’s right; I forgot. When my eyes are looking out of Tim E. Gator’s mouth, that means Tim E. Gator’s eyes are looking to the sky. Josh, portending to offer more inside-the-mascot info, instructs me to cast my eyes toward legs and shoes when it
    comes time for pictures. So I’ve bungled my first two fan interactions, but at least I’ve learned some secrets of the trade.

    ■ ■ ■

    Mascot suits vary widely in their design. Gator tails and hoop bellies, for example, can make acrobatics difficult. Thunder, the dog created by Raymond Entertainment as one of the mascots of the Class A Lake Elsinore Storm, rides out on the field and does a backflip off an ATV to open every home game. Ike the Spike of the Class A State College (Pa.) Spikes was designed by San Diego-based Brandiose and built by Alinco to do the same, despite having long antlers. One of the most restrictive suits is the one for Snappy D. Turtle, with the Class A Beloit (Wis.) Snappers. Made by Olympus Group in Milwaukee for approximately $4,000, Snappy’s suit includes a shell, which makes many movements (and cleaning) a challenge.

    And just as mascot designs and costs vary widely, so does the compensation for the people who spend their days and nights inside the suits. Some lower-level minor league clubs hire multiple high school drama students or gymnasts for minimum wage. Barlow, with Kannapolis, will rake in about $3,200 for his season this year. Big league mascot employees, working full-time jobs, can make $50,000 and up.

    ■ ■ ■

    Tim E. Gator usually dances on the home dugout leading into the bottom of the first inning, but given my rookie status, the Intimidators thought they would wait until the professional was back in the suit for that part of the night’s festivities. I actually begin to think about asking them if I could try it. Other than the severely limited vision and the sweat dripping off me like Robert Hays in the cockpit of “Airplane,” the only other challenging part of the costume at this point are the feet. I had already begun to revert back to my high school marching band days, lifting my knees so I would not drag my front claws. Otherwise, I feel that I am getting used to the suit.

    Then again, navigating down the stairs to the field-level seats becomes more an adventure than I envisioned it would be. Josh quietly instructs me on the distance I have to reach for the handrailing and on the length of each stair. I make it down the stairs to the walkway behind the field-level seats. The majority of the fans there are older adults who are clearly regulars. The only photo ops come when my own kids come up to me.

    As I begin to adopt my alter ego’s identity, I start to realize that I have not seen a single fan wearing anything with my likeness on it. There are plenty of fans wearing apparel adorned with the team’s logo, but what about me?

    ■ ■ ■

    Albuquerque Isotopes general manager John Traub frequently begins his talks at local events by asking attendees to raise a hand if they attended an Isotopes ballgame recently. Then he asks anyone from that group to name the team’s starting second baseman. He rarely gets an answer. But when he asks who can name the team’s mascot, Orbit?

    “Virtually 100 percent of the people in the room raise their hand,” he said. “That tells us two things: that we need to realize our mascot program truly is the face of the franchise, and that if we are going to have someone keeping our team brand in front of people year-round, it has to be someone dynamic and vibrant.”

    Orbit debuted in 2003 along with the Isotopes, and the costume was designed and is maintained by Raymond Entertainment, the same company that makes Thunder for the Class A Storm. While Orbit merchandise accounts for about 5 percent of the Isotopes’ total merchandise sales, he accounts for about 75 percent of the kids’ merchandise. Similarly, about 5 percent of the Intimidators’ merchandise sales are related to Tim E. Gator. At the other end of the spectrum, nearly 100 percent of the Beloit Snappers’ merchandise sales incorporate Snappy, said the club’s general manager, Matthew Bosen. Game-worn jerseys are about the only thing that do not have Snappy’s image, he said.

    SBJer Broughton gained 20 pounds of costume and a new generation of fans.
    Photo by: RAY MARSDEN / KANNAPOLIS INTIMIDATORS
    Most clubs report that their mascots provide for between 15 percent and 35 percent of merchandise sales.

    ■ ■ ■

    The home half of the second inning begins, and I get the hook. I start thinking about giving my Pedro Martinez-to-Grady Little speech: Let me stay in a little longer. But then I remember: I can’t talk, and I know sponsor promotions have to be carried out. For example, I can’t run with a Pizza Hut box (a third-inning promotion), and there is still that dugout dance that fans know is part of the nightly routine.

    As I head to the changing closet, I hear the unmistakable “thud” of a baseball hitting concrete. Josh jumps in front of me and chases a foul ball for a few feet. I turn and look down at the batter and give him the evil gator eye and point at him. I see my family in the stands laughing. Apparently, it missed me by inches. I could have been a YouTube sensation.

    Back in the mascot room, I unsnap the headstrap — and I am soaked. And I stink. I apologize to Josh when I turn the suit over to him. He’s only been on the job a couple months, but he knows that because Tim E. Gator entertains at approximately 130 games and events per year, his won’t be the only sweat coating the inside of the suit. But I realize when I got back outside that I could have at least given it a shot of Febreze before I handed it back to him. Oh well.

    Rookie mistake.

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