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.

Did Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg learn coaching from his sociologist father?

When the Chicago Bulls played a preseason game in Lincoln, Nebraska, the local paper dug up this tidbit about the new coach’s father:

Fred Hoiberg, born in Lincoln, was 2 years old when his father received his doctorate in sociology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

At that point, Eric Hoiberg had job offers to be a sociology professor at Iowa State in Ames, Iowa, and Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas.

“I’m forever grateful he picked the right one,” Fred Hoiberg said with a grin.

Hoiberg is making the jump from being a college coach to the NBA this year, a difficult transition that many good coaches have had a hard time making. But, what might he have learned from his sociologist father that could help? Hoiberg could have learned how to holistically develop his players as athletes and humans. Perhaps he uses some important piece of sociological theory to help him understand the game of basketball. Maybe he connects better with his players and others in the organization because of his knowledge of the social forces that influence people’s lives.

If I was in the reporter’s scrum at a press conference, I would ask this question. Perhaps no one else would care – Hoiberg has some connection to sociology? – but the answer could provide some insights into how he coaches.

The conservative musical selections at Chicago Bulls games

While I think this Chicago Tribune piece about the DJs at Chicago Bulls games was supposed to provide a behind-the-scenes look at how musical selections are made, the real crux of the story seems to be that the music selections are quite conservative:

Every Bulls game at the United Center has its own soundtrack. Just as each game is different, roller coasters of emotions and shifting fortunes, the music and sound effects roll with the changes. A team of about 20 technicians plays DJ each night at the United Center, accenting the ebbs and surges on the floor.

The head DJ is Jeff Wohlschlaeger, the Bulls’ senior director of game operations, who sits courtside and communicates on a headset to music and scoreboard operators to wed sounds and game action. There are cavalry-charge bugle calls and countless ways of imploring “De-Fense,” but there are also more than 1,000 songs and song snippets available to enhance every movement and mood…

When the home team has the ball, just about anything goes. Nothing is explicitly banned, but all teams know they’re programming for a family-friendly event, so songs deemed the least bit salacious or provocative won’t be tolerated, the NBA says. Teams that bend the rules often end up paying for it. The NBA’s “Game Operations” department monitors every game; one source in the office said that at least two NBA franchises were fined in the last month for inappropriate sound and video while the visiting team was on offense.

The Bulls don’t push the envelope by design, Wohlschlaeger says. The music selections are “conservative,” reflecting a mix of classic rock and contemporary pop hits that is determined by audience surveys. During Game 2 of the Hawks series, songs leading out of timeouts designed to get the crowd pumped included the Beastie Boys’ “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party!),” AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck,” John Mellencamp’s “Authority Song” and Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels’ “Devil With a Blue Dress On.”…

Mostly, it’s about what the paying customers want, Wohlschlaeger says, “tried and true stuff that you or I would never listen to in a car, but that gets a positive reaction from the fans.”

On one hand, the article suggests that the DJs have a lot of music and sound effects at their disposal and try to respond to the action on the floor. On the other hand, it sounds clear that the actual music/effects played is quite limited in order to please the NBA and the fans. I can’t quite say why I find this depressing: it still sounds like an intriguing job but at the same time, much of it sounds scripted. For example, the article mentions the playing of U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name” which every Bulls fan who has watched a game this year or in recent years knows is played during a timeout with about 4-6 minutes left in the game. So all of this is simply canned, fan-friendly entertainment?

I wonder if there are any pro sports teams who are known for pushing the envelope a bit more in their musical selections. Does everyone play the same stuff that the DJs “would never listen to in a car” but they think is safe for fans? Having attended a number of San Francisco Giants games over the last 10 years or so, I know they play a lot more salsa music, fitting in with the atmosphere of the Bay Area. Some baseball stadiums have music for individual home team players when they come up to the plate. There may not be the same opportunities for other sports though perhaps music could be introduced in situations when they make a reception or step up to the free throw line or at other points.

Of course, perhaps this is just good business: don’t alienate your fan base that can afford to go to NBA basketball games. Change up the music too much or make it too edgy