- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 16, 2009

It usually is not prudent to meddle with your mascot. } When an androgynous blob named Gunston is part of the only Final Four run in school history, perhaps it’s not best to spurn karma nor its fuzzy green incarnations for a sleek new look (see George Mason).

When a menacing, toothy Jack the Bulldog has perfectly mirrored your team’s relentless style since the beginning of Big East play, don’t be surprised when alumni cringe at the introduction of a kinder, gentler, smiling version of the canine (see Georgetown).

Believe it or not, these capering, furry cartoons have power. It’s called character branding. A good mascot engenders solidarity, inspires loyalty and provokes instant recognition. A bad one - or a poor tweak to an existing one - rankles an institution’s fan and financial base and provides spotlighted fodder for the competition.

David Raymond has been gamboling for a living since 1978, when as a young intern with the Philadelphia Phillies he became the first person to raise his hand as the original Phillie Phanatic.

“They needed somebody stupid enough to get in the suit and run out in front of the world’s most infamous fans,” said Raymond, who retired as the Phanatic in 1993 and opened up a mascot consulting and creation firm called the Raymond Entertainment Group in 2000. “The mascot or character-branding industry has come a long way since then.

“On the surface, mascots are all about entertainment. But they are also powerful marketing tools that build recognition and brand equity. A character often takes years to establish. And once established, it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to change. In that respect, character branding is a very delicate business.”

This is the unpredictable environment into which St. John’s will introduce a new mascot later this summer. Fifteen years ago, the university dropped its longtime nickname because of concerns over racial sensitivity, though the team was known as the Redmen only because of the color of the uniforms. In 1994, however, St. John’s became the Red Storm. And soon a cavorting creature will attempt to bring some substance to that abstract nickname.

More than 11,000 St. John’s fans participated in the online selection process between April and May, voting for one of six mascot finalists nominated and created by a collaboration between St. John’s students and faculty and mascot monolith Olympus Flag and Banner.

“We’re at the tail end of what has been quite a long process with St. John’s,” said Tracy Jones, product manager for Olympus, a Milwaukee-based company that has made more than 8,000 mascots over the last 40 years, including notables like Ronald McDonald and Tony the Tiger and college staples like Florida’s Al E. Gator and Wisconsin’s Bucky Badger. “It was very unusual for a client to come to us and request six or seven design concepts. Usually, they have a picture or a logo or one definite idea. But they have chosen one, and we’re in the process of completing the final tweaks on the costume.”

The smart money is on Thunderbolt, though the school’s Big East rivals are undoubtedly rooting for Thunder Horse or Storm Hero, either of which instantly could become one of the league’s most ludicrous mascots and an immediate, perhaps even justified, derision magnet.

From St. John’s perspective, notably absurd wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. Just ask Stanford or Syracuse, respective owners of the painfully amateurish student-built Tree and the giant orange (Otto) some long to punch. Not everybody can have Notre Dame’s Leprechaun or Michigan State’s Sparty, mascots that fulfill the holy trinity of character-brand cool by being naturally linked to the school’s history or traditions, respectably tough in appearance and sartorially resplendent.

“Sometimes being really outrageous works,” said George Mason senior associate athletic director Adam Brick, who was on the 2007 committee that supplanted Gunston with the Patriot. “Some people claimed that we retired Gunston because he was too off the wall. Actually, he might not have been ludicrous enough. If you’re not going to shoot for logical, which is what we did with the Patriot, you’re probably better off going the other direction with something way, way over the top like the Stanford Tree.”

Raymond agrees, citing both Western Kentucky’s Big Red and the Stanford Tree as whacky mascots that work.

“From a performance standpoint, Big Red is one of the worst costumes out there because it’s very restrictive,” Raymond said. “But they’ve done a great job of developing like eight signature moves for his routine. He swallows things. He does a floor slide. And Big Red works. The ESPN ad where he has an identity crisis and can’t decide whether to use the men’s or women’s restroom is a classic.

“And the Stanford Tree is brilliant. It’s probably the worst costume you’ll ever see because they let a student organization rebuild it every year. And it seems like someone is always getting arrested in it for performing while inebriated or harassing another mascot or fan base. But all that gives it a niche and an identity, which is the whole point.”

In most cases, however, a mascot needs a historical hook - a logical connection to its institution. The best mascots have a back story inextricably linked to the school.

“The critical step which is too often skipped is story,” the 53-year-old Raymond said. “We tell all of our college clients, ‘Take all of the ideas you brought with you and put them away for now. Spend a week researching the history of your school, its buildings, traditions, legends and community, and make a new list based off that.’ That process almost always gives birth to the character.”

Unlike larger companies like Olympus, Raymond’s firm prides itself in not just building costumes but creating characters.

For between $50,000 and $55,000, Raymond Entertainment will spend several days touring a college or corporate campus, engage in multiple creative brainstorming sessions with all interested parties, build a back story, create a character, copyright the design, supply two costumes (custom-made in New York and designed to last for seven years) and handle all of the post-design consulting work - from locating and training performers to educating you on proper payment and salary structure to introducing a party to a number of appearance-fee and marketing opportunities. The entire process takes about eight months from start to finish.

For as little as $1,800, Raymond’s firm will handle all the initial creative consulting and two-dimensional design. George Mason consulted with Raymond on its creation of the Patriot, and Raymond referred the school to AvantGarb in Indianapolis for a more budget-conscious set of costumes. The school was so impressed with Raymond and his ideas, one of which was to make the Patriot less sports-specific than the hoops-clad Gunston, that they still use his consultant services.

So who has the best mascot?

Though Notre Dame’s Leprechaun and Duke’s Blue Devil are perhaps more recognizable because of the overwhelming popularity or perennial success of the teams they represent, Michigan State’s Sparty was the only mascot everyone interviewed universally sanctioned. And he’s one of the most complex.

“We’ve made Sparty’s chest plates for a while now, and they posed some challenging problems,” Jones said. “They had to have the look of something very hard while actually being quite durable for the performers. Michigan State was unsatisfied with the traditional foam and plastic materials used in the business, so we came up with a carbon-fiber material painted with high-grade automobile paint. We have a lot of high schools call and ask us to make them something which looks exactly like Sparty. Not only is that impossible due to patent issues, people tend to choke when they hear the price. They have no idea about the cost of such a complex design.”

Interestingly, most of what were considered the worst mascots inhabit the high-visibility Division I marketplace. Regularly mentioned offenders were the Providence Friar, Saint Louis Billiken, Purdue Pete and Wake Forest’s Demon Deacon.

“The worst mascots are what we call ‘Frankensteins.’ Those are the bigheaded, pajama-wearing mascots which demonstrate little or no creative design,” Raymond said. “They’re very difficult to work in from a performance perspective because they are top heavy and offer extremely limited vision and ventilation. They are basically the scourge of the business.”

So how do the St. John’s candidates stack up? Well, Red Storm Bear, Red Storm Dog and Thunder Horse are obvious Frankensteins. Thunderbird is a rip-off of the famed St. Joseph’s Hawk. And Storm Hero has no logical connection to the university, though it might be amusing to see his powers of deflection in action against hot-dog projectiles at Madison Square Garden. Only Thunderbolt satisfies all the prerequisites of a solid mascot - logic, creativity, functionality and originality.

Prepare to be shocked… or at least entertained.

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