Monday, February 10, 2014
In exciting news for soccer fans all over the United States, the second tier professional United Soccer League is aggressively expanding, pledging to add a total of five more teams in 2014 and then adding another half dozen over the next three years. The North American Soccer League also has expansion plans and third tier Premier Development League has moved into smaller markets, making professional soccer even more accessible. The opportunities for families and especially youth players to be within easy distance of professional teams are rapidly becoming as good as Europe and South America. That exposure will help kids observe and rub elbows with a higher level of soccer that will also amp up their own game. Even more exciting, David Beckham announced that he will be bringing an MLS team to Miami. He has already lined up private funding for building a stadium, considered the most important first step in acquiring an MLS franchise. However, I would argue that an even more significant first step must be taken by all these expansion teams — the selection of a nickname and appropriate mascot.
We are mascot crazy in America. We identify with our sports organizations through their nicknames and mascots, sometimes even more prominently than through their actual names. Teams nurture their mascots as significant branding using them both at the games and at promotional appearances. Kids love to high-five, hug, and occasionally punch their favorite mascot, clamoring to get close to their beloved critters for a picture. Amazingly, many English, Brazilian, German and Italian teams have mascots that never really see the light of day. We don’t identify mascots with our favorite EPL teams. No one cheers Arsenal’s Gunnersaurus Rex running on the field, his spiky tail flickering in the bright lights as he urges the crowd into a frenzy. Sadly, as the number of teams increase, the field of possible mascot candidates narrows.
Beckham conceded that he and his investors still haven’t come up with a name for their proposed team, although he confirmed it wouldn’t be “Goldenballs FC” after his own famous nickname. In America the team name is important not only to establish the identity of the franchise but to determine the mascot to promote the brand going forward. People need to know what stuffed animal they will be buying their kids, what image will be emblazoned across their T-shirts, what loveable character will be making trick shots during half-time, and how they should be informally addressing their team. We depend on our mascots to serve as the intermediary between the team and ourselves. If we can’t have a picture with Clint Dempsey, then we settle for a picture with Gorilla F.C., the mascot of the Seattle Sounders (yes a gorilla is the mascot of a Pacific Northwest team on the shores of Puget Sound not in the mountains of Rwanda – go figure).
Seattle demonstrates how difficult it is to locate and select a mascot that makes sense. How did the entire culture of mascots begin? We actually have the French to blame even though America has embraced mascots with far more vigor than any other country. Edmond Audran wrote an opera in 1885, “La Mascotte” with libretto by Alfred Duru and Henri Charles Chivot. La Mascotte translates as good luck charm, and the tale was about a girl who brought fortune to all who came in contact with her. So the purpose of a mascot was to bring good luck. The first serious mascot in America was for the Chicago Cubs and was an inanimate taxidermy bear cub introduced in 1908. Early mascots were all “live” creatures (either caged or stuffed), but eventually they morphed into costumed mascots whose actors must remain anonymous and be mute for some reason. Many teams have had nicknames predating mascots, which did not lend themselves to physical characters, for example Alabama’s Crimson Tide and Indiana University’s Hoosiers. Alabama opted for “Big Al” an elephant, because as we all know, elephants are indigenous to Alabama. Indiana tried out a bulldog named Ox, a bison (not named Bulldog), and “Hoosier Pride” for a short period of time and then just gave up and, gasp, has no mascot. By the way, their school colors are white and crimson, so maybe crimson is a mascot curse. However, most schools with non-mascot evoking names have mascots. For example, Brooklyn College, known as the Bridges, has a bulldog, and Knox College, nickname The Prairie Fire, has a mascot called The Prairie Fire. I’m not sure what it looks like but I’m hoping it’s not a stunt person set ablaze right before the start of a game.
Knox College points out another difficulty with creating nicknames and mascots. In the past, no one thought anything of naming a team after Native American icons such as Seminoles, Braves and Redskins. Knox used to be known as Siwash, a name referring to certain tribes in the Pacific Northwest, even though the college is in Illinios. However, its French roots (those pesky French again) mean savage, so it became offensive. In 1993, the name was dropped in favor of “The Prairie Fire.” The controversy over names considered racially inflammatory has created serious clashes between fans, owners and the general public. These battles clearly indicate the level at which nicknames and mascots drive team loyalty. Marquette University dropped their Warriors affiliation in 1994 because it was considered to be disrespectful to Native Americans and opted for The Golden Eagles. However, 20 years later there is still a prominent and vocal group who want to return to the Warrior nickname and mascot, circulating petitions and appealing to the university Board of Trustees to approve the change. We have recently seen a tremendous backlash against the Washington Redskins with many sports reporters refusing to use the nickname in their writing, while the Washington front office refuses to consider a name change. Those who defend the names argue that they are honoring Native Americans and their proud history of strength and endurance, while distractors point out the stereotypical behaviors associated with these names such as the Braves’ “Tomahawk Chop,” which have no basis in ethnic traditions. These mascot battles will carry on even if all teams remove their Native American components as evidenced by long standing battles over previous changes.
With the Olympics in full swing, we are introduced to the mascots of the games. This tradition began with the introduction of mascots at the 1968 Winter Olympics in (wait for it) Grenoble, France. Now we are occasionally confronted with up to five mascots (China Summer Olympics 2008), made all the more confusing with names in the sponsoring nation’s language. The Olympics provide the only significantly recognizable non-American mascots, whose primary purpose is to sell merchandise and create a “cute” visual to promote the games. This policy has backfired several times. Fatso the Fat-Arsed Wombat during the Australian 2000 Summer Olympics was meant as joke and protest against all Olympic mascots yet ended up becoming more popular than Syd, Olly and Millie, the official mascots. People agreed that Nevi and Glitz for the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy were just plain creepy as a human snowball and ice cube.
Mascots can be so tricky. Just as some children have faces only a mother could love, mascots have constructions only a fan could appreciate. Stanford’s “Tree” looks like Tannebaum on drugs. I recently learned that the costume is homemade by a Stanford Pep Band member, so that may explain its disturbing appearance. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers have “Big Red” as their mascot, which appears to be a giant, gelatinous felt blob. This shapeless mass has a “head” demarked from his “body” by a black swash of a mouth extending clear around what would most likely be his neck. If I were under the age of 12, I wouldn’t want to get within 50 feet of this creature, much less pose for a picture with it. The Texas Christian University Horned Frogs mascot is a mix between the Teenage Ninja Turtles and “Child’s Play” villain doll, Chucky, complete with demonic grin. I’m sure I’m offending the fans of these teams, but if they could look objectively at their mascots I think they would have to agree with me.
Our family has strongly supported the University of Oregon with its engaging “Donald Duck” mascot. Up the road is Oregon State’s Benny Beaver, a bit less cuddly and the focus of any number of cheap jokes. But out there are worse mascots like a slug, a parrot, a shock of wheat, an artichoke, a spider and a hockey puck. As schools, professional teams, Olympic committees and club teams scramble to find distinctive and appealing mascots, the pool dwindles. It will be interesting to see how David Beckham decides to brand his new MLS team. He may hold a contest to find an appropriate nickname and mascot. I would like to humbly suggest that he stay away from some possibilities: The Daunting Dugongs, South Beach Southies, Flaming Flamingoes, Miami Sunstrokes, Reef Rowdies and Everglade Gladiators. The power of a good nickname and mascot to accompany that name can make or break a franchise. So avoid anything blobby, slimy and/or creepy.