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For Aspiring Performers, The NBA Is The Best Place To Be A Mascot

When the NBA regular season resumes later this month, the entertainment product will look markedly different. In its restart will be a rich irony: A sport that long ago went all-in on in-game entertainment will begin operations in a climate that requires none.

Gone will be the pregame pyrotechnics, midquarter dance breaks and four-barreled T-shirt cannons meant to entertain boisterous crowds — since, of course, there won’t be any boisterous crowds within the Walt Disney World bubble.1 But perhaps the most conspicuous absence will be that of the fuzzy creatures that usually roam the arena.2

If you’ve attended an NBA game in the past few decades, you’ve probably noticed the anthropomorphic creatures that regularly steal the show and sometimes your significant other. They are intentionally difficult to miss, interwoven in the fabric of game presentation and the contemporary fan experience. All but four teams3 feature a mascot, and of the current crop, only a handful have been around for less than a decade. A few — Benny the Bull, Bango the Buck and Sir CC — predate the 3-point field goal.4

Of course, mascots aren’t exclusive to the NBA nor to athletics. And seldom, it seems, do they share much connective tissue with the names of the teams or logos that they represent. This isn’t a recent development,5 but it looks like one that’s growing.

Most recently, that disconnect between a team’s name, logo and mascot returned to the national discussion, including President Trump railing against the notion of team name changes.6 Cleveland’s baseball team — which pulled the Chief Wahoo logo off its uniforms before the 2019 season — has been represented since 1990 by a purple, spotted creature named Slider.7

The divergence is often more humorous: Why are the Minnesota Twins represented by a bear or the Phoenix Suns by a gorilla? Why are the New York Islanders represented by a dragon or the Tennessee Titans by a raccoon? In some cases, these are tactical decisions, the result of hours of market research and focus groups and refinement. And sometimes they’re the result of a viral singing telegram or a college student showing up to a baseball game dressed like a chicken.

Occasionally, designers are granted the creative latitude to create mascots from the ground up, in any shape or taxonomy.

“When people start with us, we always tell them that we’re building a program from scratch,” said David Raymond, who served as the Phillie Phanatic for more than 15 years beginning in the late 1970s and now owns and operates a mascot company. “They go, ‘Well, what should it look like? What should it be?’ And I tell them, ‘I don’t care.’ That’s like fourth on our list. First we have to figure out its story. And then eventually it might be mostly rubber. It might have a tongue. Or it might be the logo. Each project is a uniquely creative one.”

Consensus can be difficult to come by in the world of fabric and foam. But most agree that there likely isn’t a professional sports league that invests more in mascots or shines a brighter spotlight on their work than the NBA.

“The NBA does a lot of great things,” said Trey Mock, who performs as Blue, the mascot of the Indianapolis Colts. “That league puts a lot into entertainment. I’m not trying to compare one league to another, but they have been plugging millions and millions of dollars into the entertainment side of the operation for a long time.”

Case in point: The Colts hired Mock in 2006 to be the team’s primary performer and to build a mascot from scratch. He drew Blue on his parents’ dining room table.

“The NFL has way more money,” said Rob Wicall, who served as the San Antonio Spurs Coyote for nearly two decades. “But it’s the NBA that invests and has them center stage. They have mascots commanding the crowd.”

What once was a part-time afterthought has evolved into a full-time focal point. The former auxiliaries are now fully fleshed-out character brands and the marketing cornerstones of billion-dollar franchises.

“They understand the mascot’s value and they care,” Raymond said of the NBA. “They support it both from a financial and a marketing perspective. They recognize its power and how to leverage it.”

Not only do mascots cultivate the next generation of fans, they also generate millions of dollars in revenue for their teams. When Gritty, the mascot of the Philadelphia Flyers, exploded onto the scene in 2018, online publicity of the googly-eyed orange creature was valued at $151.3 million in just its first 30 days. And then there’s Benny, the mascot of the Chicago Bulls. “Benny’s popularity at games is proven in his merchandise sales, which are among the top 10 items sold in the team store,” said Michelle Harris, Chicago Bulls senior director of entertainment and events, in 2016.

“Mascots were somewhat of a precursor to selling your branded logos in all kinds of different colors, all kinds of hues that you never would’ve seen otherwise,” Raymond said, pointing to the rise of St. Patrick’s Day-themed retail specific to mascots. “It’s been a revolution in sports marketing.”

Mascot salaries are beginning to reflect that return on investment.

One current NBA mascot performer — who, like other working mascots, talked to us on the condition of anonymity — said he first learned of the pay disparity among leagues at a summer camp. “Hockey, baseball and football do a decent job of compensating mascots in the $30,000-to-$50,000 range,” the mascot said. “But the NBA is this whole other world.”

The NBA can offer a lucrative career, current and former mascots told FiveThirtyEight. They estimate that roughly one-third of leading performers earn six figures annually, making it the gold standard among professional leagues.

“You make more money in the NBA,” Raymond agreed. “But you probably need to be more physically skilled and talented to get a job.”

No longer is a gymnastics background and an energetic disposition sufficient. The modern-day mascot must be proficient in choreography, comedy and skit ideation, among many other skills. Critically, a performer must embody the character and its brand, which means bottling the culture of a city and exhibiting it as an oft-dopey avatar in a poorly ventilated suit.

“It’s extremely difficult,” Raymond said with a laugh. “Unfortunately, even at the highest levels in certain sports, there are people that think, ‘You go over there and work with the kids while we take care of serious business over here.’”

More than one mascot said they had been asked to serve as a pallbearer.

A single home game might involve waving a flag at center court as the starting lineups are introduced, weaving through multiple outfit changes8 and numerous rehearsed skits, discharging silly string into the face of an unsuspecting fan and gyrating in concert with the dance team. In rare instances, an ejection might be part of the evening’s festivities.

More than a handful of current NBA mascots have trainers and dieticians working to keep them on the court and off the training table. Performances have resulted in torn Achilles tendons and broken backs. Some injuries have ultimately forced performers into early retirement.

“I’m screwed for the rest of my life,” Wicall said, half-joking. “My body is broken.”

Current NBA performers told FiveThirtyEight that while teams play only 41 regular-season home games per year, mascots log hundreds of additional events — community outreach opportunities, internal holiday parties, hospital visits, fundraisers, weddings and funerals. “Funerals are about as weird as you’d expect,” one mascot told FiveThirtyEight. More than one said they had been asked to serve as a pallbearer.

No public database is available for industry demographics, but current and former mascots gave us a picture of the people underneath the outfits — young, white and male.

Typically, NBA performers are between the ages of 25 and 50, although there are a few performers north of 50, one mascot told FiveThirtyEight. “There’s actually probably less physicality now,” Wicall said. “There used to be more tumblers and that kind of thing in the early 2000s.” The average career is roughly 15 to 20 years.

Roughly six teams feature a Black leading performer, and only one leading mascot is portrayed by a woman. That performer, now in her fourth season, is the only female mascot at the NBA level that one longtime mascot could recall. “She does a phenomenal job,” the mascot noted.

Mock agreed that the mascot industry is dominated by males. “I absolutely don’t want it to be a boys club,” Mock said. “I think a lot of us who are mascots never necessarily fit into any club. It takes a very unique personality to become one of us and that has nothing to do with gender or race. I’m doing everything I can to make sure we get the best performer in the suit.”

The lack of diversity among pro mascots is glaring and has been an issue for a while, according to Wicall, though he said the college ranks are currently populated by extremely talented female leads. “There are plenty of women who are much stronger and in better shape than me,” he said. “But even the design of the costumes are masculine. I’ve never even seen a female at an audition.” Lightning, the pegasus mascot of the WNBA’s Dallas Wings, is one of the few female-specific mascots in sports.

Like other industries, the mascot profession can be a family affair. There’s currently an NBA Western Conference mascot in what’s believed to be his final season after nearly 30 years beneath the suit. His son is a lead mascot in the Eastern Conference. His other son is expected to assume his role when he retires.

The humans inside the costumes come in different forms, but what about the mascots themselves? Is any one type more frequent in each professional league?

FiveThirtyEight analyzed each primary mascot in five North American. sports leagues — the NBA, WNBA, NFL, NHL and MLB — to get a sense of what type of creatures populate the sideline. For this exercise, we considered only the leading, most public-facing mascot for each team, and if a team has multiple signature mascots, we used the one with the earliest origin year. It also had to have a human inside the suit, so unfortunately Al the Octopus didn’t qualify.

We classified each mascot according to where it could be found: on land, in the sea, in the sky or in the world of make believe.

The NBA is smitten with mascots native to land, the most popular classification across the board. Seventeen of the league’s 26 primary mascots can be found on land — the highest number of mascots in that category across the five leagues. Half of the WNBA’s 12 mascots9 come from the world of make believe, the highest share of that category among the five leagues. MLB shares that preference for the world of fantasy, with the most make-believe creatures to its credit (10), while the NHL has the greatest affinity for sky-bound mascots (six). The NFL features a wide assortment but also includes the most teams without mascots (five).

“What’s great about each league is that they’re different,” one mascot told FiveThirtyEight. “But we know one league is paving the way.”

Like the league in which they operate, NBA mascots have embraced digital media with open, fuzzy arms.

In an effort to turn the sport into a global game, professional basketball has long catered itself to a younger demographic. And no league has embraced social media more than the NBA. With 49 million followers on Instagram, the NBA has a digital audience nearly double that of the NFL, NHL and MLB combined. The English Premier League is no doubt the most popular league of the world’s most popular sport, but it has roughly 10 million fewer followers on Instagram and 8 million fewer followers on Twitter than the NBA.

That passion for social media extends to the whiskered world.

All but two of the NBA franchises with a mascot have an active, dedicated Twitter account for it.10 The Cleveland Cavaliers have two, for Sir CC and Moon Dog. Most NBA mascots have Instagram and Facebook accounts, and more than one-third are now on TikTok.11 NBA mascots have embraced social media in ways no other league has — and they have larger followings to show for it.

More NBA mascots are on social media

Social media followings in five North American professional sports leagues, with number of accounts per platform and total followers

Facebook Twitter Instagram
League Accounts Followers Accounts Followers Accounts Followers
NBA 14 382,624 24 283,002 20 771,849
NHL 15 188,908 25 697,167 18 612,936
MLB 8 87,423 21 502,221 16 453,619
NFL 7 180,359 14 270,721 12 245,756
WNBA 1 827 4 2,670 3 1,663

Follower counts as of July 2, 2020.

Gritty, of the Philadelphia Flyers, accounts for nearly half of the NHL’s followers on Twitter and Instagram.

Sources: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram

Once an afterthought, social media has rapidly become an essential responsibility for most performers. “Everything we are doing is content,” said one NBA mascot who estimated that he was churning out five video projects per week during quarantine. Another mentioned that he had converted the entryway of his home into a TV studio. It’s not uncommon for mascots to expense thousands of dollars per month on materials for skits featured both during games and across social media. “Amazon Prime has been a lifesaver,” one NBA mascot said, noting that the closure of Toys R Us was devastating to the community.

“I think the sport sells itself to the entertainment side,” one NBA mascot said. “Our entertainment team really looks at what we are doing and what we can be doing differently. How can we innovate? What’s trending? There’s a big emphasis on staying current across the league, and that goes all the way up to [Commissioner] Adam Silver.”

“Amazon Prime has been a lifesaver,” one NBA mascot said, noting that the closure of Toys R Us was devastating to the community.

In terms of reverence and popularity, everyone is chasing the bull. From being a featured guest on Jerry Springer to producing a soundless podcast titled “Between Two Horns,” Benny the Bull has pushed the envelope for the industry, both on the court and online. “His full body of work has enabled him to become one of the most iconic mascots in sports,” Harris said. Benny was born a few years after Jerry Colangelo — then in marketing — had someone drive a flatbed truck down Michigan Avenue with a literal bull in a vehicle in an attempt to sell season tickets. Named after Ben Bentley, the team’s first public relations man and public address announcer, Benny has grown into perhaps the most well-known sports mascot of all time — and certainly the most-followed.

Benny, who celebrated his 50th birthday last year, leads the league in followers on Twitter (39,300), Instagram (299,000) and TikTok (2.4 million).12 Chicago’s loveable bull isn’t just successful by mascot standards: Benny has the most-followed North American professional sports TikTok account and the second-most followed sports account on the planet.

While Benny undoubtedly has benefited from performing in the third-largest media market in the country, other mascots have found success with smaller backdrops. Relative to market size, there is perhaps no mascot in the NBA that has amassed a larger social following than Coyote of the San Antonio Spurs. The 7-foot, bat-catching, pants-losing dork ranks among the league leaders in followers on all platforms while performing in an average-to-small media market.

“I couldn’t be prouder of Coyote,” Wicall said. “And what it has become.”

But mascots’ use of social media is hardly flip: They aren’t just uploading memes or tapping into the latest dance craze; they’re issuing support for Black Lives Matter and encouraging mask-wearing practices, celebrating medical professionals and fallen veterans.

After Mock posted on Blue’s social media platforms in support of Black Lives Matter, he said that other mascots reached out to him and asked if the posts had been cleared by the Colts organization. Some asked why he published the posts.

“I’ve heard mascots say, ‘That’s not a place for mascots.’ But I very much disagree,” Mock said. “I always tell students that everyone has a story that needs to be heard and a platform and to use that platform for good and to help others.”

Blue is among the most-followed mascots in the NFL, with more than 65,000 followers across its social media channels.

“If it’s going to be just trick shots and slapstick comedy, but not something that’s inspirational and can be impactful to change lives, I think that’s a misuse of the platform,” Mock said. “I think mascots go a lot deeper than just what people see on game days. They run much deeper than just making someone laugh. I think mascots can be a part of all emotions, and hopefully emotions that stand for love and change.”

Some NBA mascots admit they are stuck in a bind.

“I would say most of the time mascots avoid any type of ‘real’ issues, but I think [racial injustice] is near and dear to a lot of the organizations and the NBA,” one mascot said about the mascot community’s response to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. “I have a lot of political opinions, but personally I think statements should come from the team account.

“However, I will say that once in the past 37 years our mascot has said something serious, and it was last week. I think that actually means a lot.”

Nearly three decades after his tenure as the Phillie Phanatic, Raymond helped open the Mascot Hall of Fame in Whiting, Indiana. It was a dream of his, born from the moments he spent bringing joy to countless others. “I take such pride in seeing the current generation perform,” he said, drawing a line from the San Diego Chicken to Gritty.

That generation includes Blue, who was a member of this year’s Hall of Fame class. “In college, really for the first time, I saw a mascot who was super athletic and hilarious and doing things that most people get arrested for,” Mock recalled. “And I was like, what is this? I’m doing it.”

Blue joined Boomer of the Indiana Pacers, The Oriole Bird of the Baltimore Orioles and Youppi! of the Montreal Canadiens in this year’s class, inducted last month. For those behind the mask, the virtual ceremony was the culmination of a life’s work of double-knit screens and spotters, cardboard and padding, weekends at Chuck E. Cheese and endless wash-and-dry cycles.

For the NBA, this year’s class was yet another reminder that the league’s mascot community remains strong. Boomer is the seventh NBA mascot to be enshrined. No other professional league can say the same.13

“I knew from an early age that I wanted to be an NBA mascot,” one current performer told FiveThirtyEight. “That’s the pinnacle of this career. Basketball is kind of where everyone wants to end up. It sets the stage. It creates stars.”

Wicall finds himself reflecting more these days. He misses the energy of the crowd; he said that this is the first time since he was 4 years old that he isn’t performing something.

His career includes five championship rings and a whole lot of memories. But the smaller moments — the ones that extended well beyond the field of play — are the ones that left a mark.

Over his tenure, Wicall took Coyote on hundreds of trips to the children’s hospital in San Antonio. He’d carefully make the rounds, maneuvering around ventilators and webs of wires and hoses, doing anything he could in the minutes he had to lighten the load, if only briefly, for suffering families.

Maybe he’d crack a joke or give out a hug. Maybe he’d conduct a magic trick or comically walk into a sliding glass door. Wicall remembers that he always liked to place the Coyote’s paw on the cheek of a sick child. Always the side with the softest fur.

“Bye-bye,” whispered a 3-year-old girl one day as Coyote left her room. Moments later, Wicall looked down and was surprised to see two arms clasped around Coyote’s waist. It was the child’s grandmother, in tears, thanking him and explaining that the girl hadn’t spoken in two weeks.

“It just blows you away, the power of a mascot,” Wicall said. “It’s those things right there that were truly monumental.”


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Footnotes

  1. Walt Disney World and FiveThirtyEight are owned by different divisions of The Walt Disney Company.

  2. Even though the most famous mascot of all time works just down the road.

  3. The Brooklyn Nets, Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks.

  4. This isn’t to say that all concepts pan out: After an expensive consulting deal with Marvel, the Brooklyn Nets mercy-killed the BrooklyKnight, adding his remains to an infamous pantheon that includes Sam Dunk and Hip-Hop.

  5. The Phillie Phanatic and the San Diego Chicken are mascot royalty and ostensibly had nothing to do with the original branding of their respective organizations.

  6. Washington announced Monday that it will be retiring its team name and logo.

  7. Washington doesn’t currently have a mascot, thankfully.

  8. “Sure, Benny the Bull could be launched into giant bowling pins without an Elvis costume on, but what fun would that be?” former Bulls mascot assistant Tom Sargent told me a few years ago.

  9. Including Star of the Atlanta Dream, who retired before the start of the 2020 season.

  10. Burnie of the Miami Heat and Champ of the Dallas Mavericks being the lone exceptions.

  11. Some mascots without social media presences have been told not to distract fans from official team accounts, current mascots said.

  12. He ranks a dull second in Facebook likes (128,000) to the Houston Rockets’ Clutch.

  13. Though eight of the 24 enshrined mascots are from the college ranks.

Josh Planos is a writer based in Omaha. He has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

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