SBJ/July 22-28, 2013/Franchises

Funny business: Mascots

An inside look at the costs, benefits and tales of team 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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