November 30, 2012

Don’t be fooled by the bloke in a silly suit: The serious side of sports mascots

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Most professional and indeed many college sports teams have one, but how many use their mascots effectively? And are those who don’t, or worse, those that don’t have one, missing out on a golden opportunity?

Mascots have been around for a long time. The first college mascot was an English bulldog named “Handsome Dan” who was adopted as the Yale University mascot in 1889. They have always been considered a bit of fun and a useful distraction for fans during ‘down time’ in the course of a game.

However, astute marketers at sporting organisations realise their mascots are much more than that. Not only are they an extension of the club’s brand, and an important one at that, but they can be used as an extremely effective tool for engaging fans, building brand awareness and developing team loyalty among the extremely important and impressionable youth market.

In the U.S. mascots took their roles and their entertainment value to new levels in the 1990s. The NBA’s Phoenix Suns Gorilla was one who garnered a huge cult following around the world due to his antics, which included death defying slam dunks from the top of the key using a mini tramp to launch himself high in the air.

A mascot’s effectiveness in America is now even rated via fan surveys to record its Davie Brown Index, which measures people’s perceptions of celebrities and their influence on brands. Measurements used by the DBI for sports mascots are awareness, likeability and breakthrough, the last of which refers to the degree consumers take notice of the mascot when it appears at the stadium and on television, plus the degree to which people are able to match a mascot to his team.

This year’s favourite sports mascot in America, according to the DBI, is Mr. Met – no prizes for guessing which sports franchise he belongs to! Although Mr. Met isn’t your typical modern mascot who performs acrobatic feats, the NY Mets have used him more and more during the club’s struggles at the gate in recent years. Mr. Met has become active on television, starring in a series of ads where in one example, he distracts a couple of young corporate staffers from a boring meeting with a “Let’s Go Mets” clap. No wonder his DBI rating has skyrocketed…

Mascots are starting to be used more effectively by some Australian sporting teams too in recent times, especially off field, with appearances at hospitals, schools, in the community and and at events. This not only helps promote the club’s brand, but is also comes in handy for teams whose players aren’t readily available due to travel schedules and limited appearance agreements in their contracts.

Many of the Big Bash League teams have cottoned on to the advantages of mascots over athletes for these exact reasons, as well as the massive appeal they hold for the younger audience. While players will come and go, a mascot can be there for a team’s fans forever. This connection shouldn’t be underestimated, especially if it is developed properly and fans are able to engage with their club’s mascot regularly.

The Melbourne Stars were so happy with their mascot’s effectiveness in their first season, that they will unveil a female counterpart for StarMan in the upcoming BBL2. The Sydney Sixers are also wanting to reap the benefits a mascot can bring and have launched a competition to name their new mascot as a way to kickstart the engagement process with fans before they’ve even had the chance to meet the club’s new ambassador.

When it comes to using a mascot to promote an organisation’s brand, it’s hard to go past the brilliant initiative employed by Super Rugby’s ACT Brumbies when they introduced their mascot to the world. They concocted a scenario where a horse mascot was left wandering the streets of Canberra. This scene was covered as news by the local media to generate huge public interest.

The wild horse was then found by the Brumbies and adopted as the team mascot. Nameless and wearing a only a t-shirt and board shorts, the horse was taken to the Brumbies training centre where he was outfitted in the Brumbies playing kit, including specially designed rugby boots.

As the Sixers have recently done, The Brumbies decided to take a public vote on a name for the new team mascot. More than 10,000 people took part in the vote, where five names were chosen before the people of Canberra eventually decided on the name ‘Brumby Jack’. Since then Brumby Jack has become the most popular member of the Brumbies squad. No surprise, when there is that kind of publicity and buy in from the fans from the get-go.

It is amazing that there have also been instances where an organisation’s board has decreed that a mascot doesn’t fit the club’s image and isn’t desired by the club’s fan base. Interestingly, these decisions were made by mainly 50+ year old men – not exactly the target audience for club mascots, but still extremely short sighted considering the endless possibilities and opportunities a well used mascot can offer a brand. If fans are the lifeblood of a club, then once again, the engagement a mascot offers 5-10 year old fans and the possibility of hooking these kids in as lifelong members because of it, surely it is an investment worth making.

You only have to go to an AFL game to see how entranced people of all ages are with mascots and the effect they have on the fans’ experience, particularly those who get the opportunity to interact with them, to realise the power these cartoon-like characters wield.

Their popularity is such that there is even a Sports Mascot Hall of Fame in the U.S., which further indicates how seriously they are considered as not only part of a team’s brand, but also as a part of sport in general. To be eligible for nomination the mascot must must have had, or continues to have, a major impact on their sport, and/or community.

In that case, if Australia had its own Hall of Fame for mascots, then it’s first inductee would have to be the legendary Boxing Kangaroo. Although images of boxing kangaroos date back to 1891, it was 1983 when the current version received national and international prominence, when it served as the symbol for the successful Australia II challenge for the America’s Cup. The image was later bought by the Australian Olympic Committee from Alan Bond and is used as a mascot to represent the Australian Olympic team and to promote sport and fair play in schools. It is also still often displayed at various sporting events around the world where Australian athletes and teams are competing.

The boxing kangaroo is a fantastic example of how a mascot and its image can be utilised to maximise brand identity for a sport and sporting organisations. They just need to be taken seriously from within…



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