The growing influence of mascots: a short history of Benny the Bull

In addition to providing fun and distracting from what may be poor play by the team, sports mascots are important brand symbols. The symbolic nature of their existence and their importance in developing and sustaining a brand is highlighted in this summary of Benny the Bull’s life:

Benny accompanied Richard M. Daley to China. Benny has been sued and Benny has been ejected from games. Benny has topped the Forbes list of the most popular sports mascots and Benny has been arrested at the Taste of Chicago. Off the court, the people who played Benny didn’t get health insurance from the Bulls until the Jordan era (or a 401K plan for even longer). One owned a deli in Skokie, another was an evangelical Christian…

I know who Benny has been since he was born; seven people (and countless understudies) have slipped into Benny’s shoes since he debuted Oct. 17, 1969. I know the name and job title of the person playing Benny right now but agreed not to reveal it, because, well — for the sake of the children. The Bulls want to retain some mystery with Benny, so we will honor that — to a degree. As Benny developed as a brand, the Bulls have treated him increasingly as Disney treats Mickey: No one plays Benny! No one is inside Benny! Benny is Benny! That is, a cottage industry, and like any mascot, the face of a franchise. Players come and go, but only Benny remains….

As the Jordan era waned and the business of the Bulls rolled on, Benny gained new relevance. He acquired an entourage — including Lil’ Benny, Mini Benny, and, notoriously, Da Bull, Benny’s angrier brother. Bring up Da Bull to the Bulls today and they look at you as if you asked for a loan: The Chicago man who played Da Bull was arrested in 2004, near the United Center, for selling 6 ounces of marijuana (and later received probation)…

And so this summer Benny — who is being inducted into the new Mascot Hall of Fame in Indiana and getting a new van for appearances — also will be busy. The Bulls say he gets a work-life balance; and he is paid well (low six figures, whisper some close to the job). But the job itself never ends. Asked if he can relate to workaholic Benny, Landey Patton, the first Benny, said he couldn’t dribble, never mind dunk. He said, “It’s all razzmatazz and dancing now. And so corporate, you know? When I was Benny, families could afford tickets. And what are Bulls tickets now — $10?

Four quick thoughts:

1. This relatively recent emphasis on mascots mirrors big shift in sports in recent decades: it is big business and big entertainment, in addition to being about winning games. The mascot can be an important part of the show that needs to go well to help enhance what are booming values of teams. The most recent valuation by Forbes suggests the Bulls are worth $2.9 billion and Benny is part of a well-oiled machine.

2. The article hints at this but I have to think much of this is about attracting kids and hoping they become lifelong fans (and customers).

3. Sports run on certain schedules, usually emphasizing the games, but mascots help the teams and sports stay in the public consciousness all year round. These are now year-round activities, even if the games stretch from late October to early June.

4. I have not attended many Bulls games over the years but I have always been partial to the Benny the Bull blimp who had plenty of airspace to navigate when the team moved to the more expansive United Center in the mid-1990s.

No, the Milwaukee Bucks’ new arena will not solve residential segregation in Milwaukee

The CEO of the Milwaukee Bucks says their new arena may or may not help the city:

Perhaps no NBA city is in greater need of a melting-pot meeting point than Milwaukee…

Feigin told the Wisconsin State Journal in 2016 that Milwaukee was “the most segregated, racist place I’ve ever experienced.” While he didn’t want to revisit those comments this week, Feigin said the new arena could help transform the city’s downtown.

“I don’t think this (arena) is a solution for racial harmony,” he said. “But Milwaukee doesn’t have a centralized meeting place. There are no parks in the middle of the city. By building this plaza, you’ve kind of orchestrated a meeting place.

“There are certainly obstacles and certainly a long way to go, but our message is this is a wonderful city. We are an organization that will speak out about injustice, and we are also an organization that is focused on how we can solve problems.”

It sounds like the Bucks CEO hopes the stadium becomes a cosmopolitan canopy site where people of different backgrounds can gather together and find common ground around the city’s basketball team. I am generally skeptical of claims that sports teams can help revive cities or heal cities. See this earlier post about whether the Cleveland Cavaliers winning an NBA championship would revive the fortunes of Cleveland. For an arena, will a few hours of watching basketball help fans truly cross race and class boundaries? A general civic pride might develop but I would guess many sports fans can compartmentalize their love for a winning team and their relationships, abstract or otherwise, with the other.

Bringing art and renovation to outdoor basketball courts

Project Backboard seeks to both renovate and bring public art to urban basketball courts:

The transformation of mural-style courts across America has its roots in Memphis, where Daniel Peterson noticed the majority of courts had fallen into disrepair. It was then, in 2014, that Peterson founded Project Backboard, a nonprofit that has renovated public basketball courts in cities from Los Angeles to St. Louis. More renovations in Memphis, Maryland, and New Rochelle, New York, are underway, and Peterson has consulted on projects in Oregon, Virginia, and Belgium, and talked to several other urban parks departments.

In Memphis, where one in four residents lives beneath the poverty line, Peterson found in 2014 that around two-thirds of basketball courts across the city didn’t even have basic lines: foul, three-point, or out-of-bounds. Backboards were tagged with Coke logos or vinyl stickers. The courts just didn’t work. Today, mostly teen boys and young men play on more than 20 renovated courts, whose 30 public works of art include whimsical silhouettes on Lewis-Davis Park, bright profiles and symbols in Chickasaw Park, and geographic shapes in Pierotti Park.

All of this is in the context of making basketball courts more inviting spaces. This is not necessarily easy to do when some residents dislike outdoor courts:

Fear-driven efforts to shut down outdoor courts seem to disproportionately affect people of color. A so-called “kill-the-hoops movement” has spread across small towns and cities, including Chicago, Cleveland, and Los Angeles, as a maneuver against guns, noise, fights, and drugs. In 2016, a neighborhood group in Brooklyn proposed replacing basketball courts with tennis courts to curb crime, and was accused of racist motivations.

“Obviously, I don’t subscribe to the belief that inviting more people into an area is going to have a negative impact on your community,” Peterson said. “We think the more people you bring into the community, into public spaces, the more positive impact it’ll have in the community.”

See these earlier posts from 2011: Thinking about the lack of outdoor basketball courts – Part One and Thinking about the lack of basketball courts – Part Two. Compared to some other park options, basketball courts can be relatively low maintenance (concrete, poles and backgrounds, replace the nets fairly regularly) and they require participants to bring little more than a basketball (and you may only need one for a large group). Yet, basketball courts tend to attract young males and this may not be welcomed by nearby residents.

The idea of infusing public art with outdoor courts is a clever one but I am curious about the long-term effects. Do the courts help attract a broader range of nearby residents? Is the artwork maintained? Does the artwork change behaviors on and near the court or perceptions from insiders and outsiders about the neighborhood? I could see some interesting opportunities arise with artwork and competitions; NBA and college teams have similar gotten into some crazier court designs in recent years to create a home court advantage as well as attract attention.

The most important annual statistical moment in America: the start of March Madness

When do statistics matter the most for the average American? The week of the opening weekend of March Madness – the period between the revealing of the 68 team field to the final games of the Round of 32 – may just be that point. All the numbers are hard to resist; win-loss records, various other metrics of team performance (strength of schedule, RPI, systems attached to particular analysts, advanced basketball statistics, etc.), comparing seed numbers and their historic performance, seeing who the rest of America has picked (see the percentages for the millions of brackets at ESPN), and betting lines and pools.

Considering the suggestions that Americans are fairly innumerate, perhaps this would be a good period for public statistics education. How does one sift through all these numbers, thinking about how they are measured and making decisions based on the figures? Sadly, I usually teach Statistics in the fall so I can’t put any of my own ideas into practice…

John Starks’ 1993 dunk and New York exceptionalism

John Starks had a memorable dunk against the Chicago Bulls in the 1993 NBA Playoffs and one writer argues this illustrates the city’s belief in its own exceptionalism:

New York exceptionalism — the belief that, as Joey Litman once wrote at FreeDarko, “everything must be the best because it is of New York, and, naturally, it is of New York because it is the best” — isn’t just something people here feel; it is literally the name of an e-seminar produced by Columbia University, one where “Professor Kenneth Jackson establishes the ways in which New York City is unique,” and argues that “when we look at New York, we are not just looking at another place. We are looking at a very special place.” (Columbia sits at 116th Street and Broadway in Manhattan. Naturally.)

This exceptionalism extends to local sports fandom. There’s long been a sense among New Yorkers that New York’s teams are just supposed to be good because they’re New York’s teams. And when they’re not, which is often, the anger gets as big as the payrolls: “How can a team that makes that much, that spends that much, that charges that much, and that is from New York be that bad?” (The answer is typically “mismanagement.” New York sports teams, especially the one that employed Starks, often have that in spades.)…

Yes, Starks would eventually become an All-Star and Sixth Man of the Year, but he was never a Jordan- or Reggie Miller-esque star; he always had to punch up when it mattered. And yes, he was a gunner making six (and eventually seven) figures to jack jumpers and occasionally boil over, but he always seemed to be doing stuff like kissing the Knicks logo at center court or saying “someone would have to tear the No. 3 jersey from his chest before he was traded to another team.” Starks treated New York like the exceptional thing New Yorkers believe it to be, and in so doing gave the forever-bigging-itself-up big city a little-guy underdog to rally behind.

As the article goes on to note, this memorable moment came at the end of Game 2 of a series that the Bulls won by beating the Knicks in the next four games. So, even though New York City can lay claim to being the number one global city, the sports teams can’t exactly make that claim. It takes a scrappy player like John Starks to rally the fans even as the teams themselves fall short. Yet, in the 1994 NBA Finals, Starks was blocked at the buzzer of Game 6 as the Knicks lost and then Starks shot 2-16 in Game 7 as the Knicks lost to the Houston Rockets.

It would be interesting to ask residents of the top global cities about whether they consider their city to be the best. Is this a unique property of New York, a city that can back up its claims with a powerful finance sector, lots of celebrity, and a big population? Going back to the e-seminar mentioned above, here is the course description for New York Exceptionalism:

Professor Kenneth Jackson establishes the ways in which New York City is unique, laying down the essential arguments for what one might call “New York exceptionalism.” His thesis for the e-seminar, indeed for the whole series of e-seminars, is that “when we look at New York, we are not just looking at another place. We are looking at a very special place, and in some ways [New York City] is certainly unique in the United States and in many ways [New York City] is unique around the world.” How is it unique? Professor Jackson begins with geography, discussing how New York City is a good port and a natural transportation break, in other words, a place where you switch modes of transport. He describes the founding of the city by the Dutch West India Company and explains how the commercial focus of the company, and of the Dutch in general, made New Amsterdam different from Puritan Boston or Quaker Philadelphia. People came to New York to succeed. Finally, Professor Jackson discusses how all these factors (commerce, geography, and religion) produced a greater willingness to accept those who are different, a tolerance for diversity that makes New York exceptional.

It is one thing to say a city is unique – which all cities are –  and another to say it is exceptional.

Lorde observes NBA game as an objective observer

Music star Lorde attended a recent Chicago Bulls game and sent these tweets while at the game:

i am at a bulls game this is so intense how does everyone in this room not have a stress ulcer

— Lorde (@lordemusic) March 18, 2014

i am such an outsider to the world of sport but i feel very proud of all playing

— Lorde (@lordemusic) March 18, 2014

the cheerleaders are doing synchronized movements to small pieces of drum-based instrumental music

— Lorde (@lordemusic) March 18, 2014

in the break they rolled out a red carpet on the court and a man did some tricks with his dog

— Lorde (@lordemusic) March 18, 2014

This presents an intriguing opportunity to compare how the average American sports fan would view things opposed to an outsider. For sports fans, it is easy to think of all they see as “natural:” the players just do what they do, the fans respond in certain ways, and the stadium experience is fairly similar across the United States. However, it is easy to forget that all of this “natural” behavior or knowledge is all learned. The whole American sports/entertainment package has a fairly set course from sports talk radio to how it is presented on television to how it is experienced live.

In her first experience at a NBA game, Lorde was simply describing what she saw. None of it is wrong and she is making “common sense” observations that might make little sense to non-fans. Why would there be a man with a dog doing tricks during the break? Why are stadium experiences in the US so intense (loud, constant videos)? Why do cheerleaders do what they do? The average sports fan may not even have good answers to these questions; those things happen because that is the way it has always happened. Of course, that is not true: sports experiences can differ widely based on contexts and history.

In this way, an outsider can bring needed perspective to a social norm many of us just take for granted. Is Lorde’s view of the NBA game more objective than those who have lots of basketball knowledge and experience?

Long tail: 17% of the seven foot tall men between ages 20 and 40 in the US play in the NBA

As part of dissecting whether Shaq can really fit in a Buick Lacrosse (I’ve asked this myself when watching the commercial), Car & Driver drops in this little statistic about men in the United States who are seven feet tall:

The population of seven-footers is infinitesimal. In 2011, Sports Illustrated estimated that there are fewer than 70 men between the ages of 20 and 40 in the United States who stand seven feet or taller. A shocking 17 percent of them play in the NBA.

In the distribution of heights in the United States, being at least seven feet tall is quite unusual and at the far right side of a fairly normal distribution. But, being that tall increases the odds of playing in the NBA by quite a lot. As a Forbes post suggests, “Being 7 Feet Tall [may be] the Fastest Way To Get Rich in America“:

Drawing on Centers for Disease Control data, Sports Illustrated‘s Pablo Torre estimated that no more than 70 American men are between the ages of 20 and 40 and at least 7 feet tall. “While the probability of, say, an American between 6’6? and 6’8? being an NBA player today stands at a mere 0.07%, it’s a staggering 17% for someone 7 feet or taller,” Torre writes.

(While that claim might seem like a tall tale, more than 42 U.S.-born players listed at 7 feet did debut in NBA games between 1993 and 2013. Even accounting for the typical 1-inch inflation in players’ listed heights would still mean that 15 “true” 7-footers made it to the NBA, out of Torre’s hypothetical pool of about 70 men.)…

And given the market need for players who can protect the rim, there are extra rewards for this extra height. The league’s median player last season was 6 feet 7 inches tall, and paid about $2.5 million for his service. But consider the rarified air of the 7-footer-and-up club. The average salary of those 35 NBA players: $6.1 million.

(How much does one more inch matter? The 39 players listed at 6 feet 11 inches were paid an average of $4.9 million, or about 20% less than the 7 footers.)

Standing as an outlier at the far end of the distribution seems to pay off in this case.