SBJ/July 22-28, 2013/Franchises

It’s not easy being green: An inside look

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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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