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.

A new MLS team will “lift a community and drive a civic renaissance”?

I’m a little skeptical of the claim that adding a Major League Soccer team will have a tremendous impact on a city:

Here’s what Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores and Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert said in their joint announcement that they had partnered up to bring an MLS franchise to Detroit:

“Detroit is rising and we know firsthand the power of sports to lift a community and drive a civic renaissance. We are very excited about the prospect of bringing Major League Soccer to Detroit and building an ownership group that represents a cross-section of investors.”

You could swap out “Detroit” in that paragraph for any number of cities and it wouldn’t seem out of place. Sacramento, St. Louis, and the other cities vying to get in on the next wave of MLS expansion have all used the language of revival and civic pride when announcing their MLS intentions. This tracks with MLS’ twin desires to get teams and downtown stadiums into midtier cities throughout the nation and attract a younger, hipper crowd to full those seats.

The article is more interested in whether having so many teams is good for MLS but I would want evidence for the other part of the claim: how do we know that sports “lift a community and drive a civic renaissance”? Do cities without major sports franchises have less civic pride because of it or miss out because have this kind of economic engine?

Remember: academics have consistently found that it is sports team owners who benefit the most from stadium deals as residents will spend their entertainment dollars elsewhere if there are not sports teams to support. Additionally, bigger thriving cities tend to lead to sports teams, not the other way around. Yet, this sort of language is common among sports owners as they try to demonstrate a broader value beyond entertainment. And recent plans for new stadiums – such as the proposed NFL stadium in Los Angeles – are partly about the sports venue and also about a package of commercial and residential space that will in use throughout the year.

Finally, if a soccer team is considered the means by which to turnaround Detroit, it is likely going to take a lot more than that…

In economic terms, 1 baseball team = 1 midsized department store

Following up on the academic consensus that sports do not economically benefit communities, one economist notes the economic impact of sports teams:

“If every sports team in Chicago were to suddenly disappear, the impact on the Chicago economy would be a fraction of 1 percent,” Leeds says. “A baseball team has about the same impact on a community as a midsize department store.”

The reason?

Economists say the biggest reason sports teams don’t have much impact is that they don’t tend to spur new spending.  Most people have a limited entertainment budget, so the dollars they are spending when they go to a game is money they would have spent elsewhere, maybe even at a restaurant or small businesses where more money would have stayed in the community. Plus, Matheson says, rather than draw people to a neighborhood, games can actually repel them.

Don’t underestimate the money generated by large retail stores. When I worked a short stint at a local Target at the end of high school, I remember seeing the board in our office that listed daily sales. The figure was typically around $100,000. That generates a lot of tax revenue through sales taxes and property taxes.

This is more evidence that the more important feature of sports teams in major cities is their social and cultural value. Teams provide something for a city to rally around and contribute to the city’s collective identify. In major cities with millions of people, it is difficult to find features or events that can bring large numbers of people together. Sports teams also provide opportunities for leisure, whether through enjoying the stadium experience or experiencing the game from afar. Now, if only we could find politicians that would admit the taxpayer money going to stadiums or teams was due to the interest in having a common sports identity and leisure experience rather than some grand economic impact…

Obama administration proposal to limit tax-free government bonds for stadiums

Federal policy might change how sports teams and municipalities negotiate stadium deals:

That’s what the Obama administration proposed in its budget last month: to end the issuance of tax-free government bonds for professional sports facilities, a practice that has, according to research by Bloomberg, siphoned $17 billion of public money into arenas for NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL franchises over the last 30 years and cost Americans $4 billion in forgone federal taxes on top of that. It’s too late for residents of Cobb County, but Congress might yet save the rest of us some dough…

So how did we wind up in this situation? Local authorities have long used tax-exempt bonds to raise money for certain private uses—whether factories, train stations, or home mortgage loans—in addition to schools, sewers, and other infrastructure projects. In most cases, the ensuing economic growth was at least intended to pay back the municipal investment. Sports stadiums were no different: Governments could raise money in exchange for a share of future revenue…

Much of the rest of the article summarizes the research that shows cities and taxpayers tend not to come out ahead in these deals. So, this new policy might solve the problem?

Still, it wouldn’t stop cities from paying for stadiums. The last time Congress made public financing more onerous, in 1986, the result was a disaster: Cities jumped to meet the new, harsher terms, opening a three-decade stadium construction spree.

In other words, the policy might close the loophole for this particular financial instrument but there are other ways to make such deals. As I’ve said repeatedly, few politicians are willing to let the big team get away. Of course, the historical record suggests that everything does not necessarily fall apart when teams move. Many of the cities since the 1950s that saw teams move away later saw new teams take their place. Sports teams only have limited numbers of places they can move to make the kind of money they want; this is the reason Los Angeles looms so large right now in the NFL’s urban landscape because the next options are not very good.

The bigger question may be whether cities and suburbs can stop themselves from making bad deals, even with federal policies that take away some of their options.

British soccer team not happy at serving as the site for college field trip on gender

One British sociology class plans to visit Millwall FC to examine how gender is performed. The club is not happy:

Varndean College in Brighton is offering AS-level sociology students the chance to watch Brighton and Hove Albion take on the “notorious” Millwall Football Club at their home team’s American Express Community Stadium…

There will also be a chance to observe “issues around sexuality, race and ethnicity,” “women challenging gender norms” and to “even talk to football fans,” it promises.

A schedule of planned trips on the college’s website says the football excursion would help teach students about class, leisure and masculinity, and possible racism and homophobia as well.

But Millwall FC appeared less than happy with the idea of being studied as a sociological phenomenon.

“It does make me wonder why they chose Millwall for that,” a source at the club said.

One Varndean sociology student and Millwall fan said describing the club as notorious was “a bit outdated as we’re no longer in the 1980s.”

Sounds like an interesting exercise in seeing gender in action. I understand that few teams would want to explicitly be charged with racism or homophobia but such attitudes are certainly expressed at sporting events. Soccer has a particular history with racism (see a brief overview here) and even with explicit efforts and sanctions from professional associations, racist actions still occur. And professional sports tend to invoke commentary from some fans about masculinity, which in soccer can be associated with toughness, body times, and typical actions off the pitch (such as using their status to pursue women, drink, etc.).

I wonder if any teams would be willing to take part in such field trips because they had such confidence that students and observers wouldn’t see racism or homophobia. Imagine Millwall said, “Sure. Come observe and you won’t see anything like that” and then the observations backed that up. But, even inviting this sort of opportunity would probably be too risky in the eyes of most teams.

Using algorithms for better realignment in the NHL?

The NHL recently announced realignment plans. However, a group of West Point mathematicians developed an algorithm they argue provides a better realignment:

Well, a team of mathematicians at West Point set out to find an algorithm that could solve some of these problems. In their article posted on the arXiv titled Realignment in the NHL, MLB, the NFL, and the NBA, they explore how to easily construct different team divisions. For example, with the relatively recent move of Atlanta’s hockey team to Winnipeg, the current team alignment is pretty weird (below left), and the NHL has proposed a new 4-division configuration (below right):

Here’s how it works. First, they use a rough approximation for distance traveled by each team (which is correlated with actual travel distances), and then examine all the different ways to divide the cities in a league into geographic halves. You then can subdivide those portions until you get the division sizes you want. However, only certain types of divisions will work, such as not wanting to make teams travel too laterally, due to time zone differences…

Anyway, using this method, here are two ways of dividing the NHL into six different divisions that are found to be optimal:

My first thought when looking at the algorithm realignment plans is that it is based less on time zones and more on regions like the Southwest, Northwest, Central, Southeast, North, and Northeast.

But here is where I think the demands of the NHL don’t quite line up with the goals of the algorithm to minimize travel. The grouping of sports teams is often dependent on historic patterns, rivalries, and when teams entered the league. For example, the NHL realignment plans generated a lot of discussion in Chicago because it meant that the long rivalry between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Detroit Red Wings would end. In other words, there is cultural baggage to realignment that can’t only be solved with statistics. Data loses out to narratives.

Another way an algorithm could redraw the boundaries: spread out the winning teams across the league. What teams are really good tends to be cyclical but occasionally leagues end up with multiple good teams in a single division or an imbalance of power between conferences. Why not spread out teams by records which then gives teams a better chance to meet in the finals or other teams in those stacked divisions or conferences a chance to make the playoffs?b

Discussing why a professional sports team would adopt the name the Pelicans

It appears the New Orleans Hornets will adopt a new name: the Pelicans. Here is some discussion on TrueHoop about the meaning of the name and other names that were in the running:

And yet, if you put a gun to my head and said: Come up with a funny name for a minor league baseball team I’d say “Pelicans” and I’d worry that it wasn’t realistic. Like, what owner would name his team for an unathletic bird noted for how much marine life it can carry in its big mouth?

In terms of specifically dissecting the Pelican and noting its awkwardness, I think that is fair, but I think the qualities of the bird do not necessarily translate into the perception of the team. Magic is not the “sportiest” of names. It’s either weak in some sense or cheating (is there a rule against sorcery?), right?

Not to pick on the Magic, of course. The Celtics aren’t meant to be pagans. The Knickerbockers don’t have people’s unsundry parts in them. Those names are “made” by their legacies. It is the duty of every franchise to build that legacy to overcome all of these, at first, imperfect names. And upon the fanbase. They have to “own it,” to use the parlance of our time.

People in New Orleans dislike change, but they love New Orleans. There’s nothing like some hate from north of I-10 to get some New Orleanians to love what those “Yankees” hate.

It’ll work.

And a quick look at three other possible names:

The colors were purple, red and black primarily, they had the voodoo dolls, the graveyard, bones and mojo for mascots, and more. It was fantastic, local, recognizable, edgy. Voodoo is currently owned by the new AFL, as Benson folded his team prior the older AFL folding. The Shreveport-Bossier City Battlewings (north Louisiana for those playing the home game) moved here, donning Voodoo garb. This was at least one obstruction to this…

Krewe was another good choice. “Krewe of X” is used to describe the people in parades in many cases (I was Krewe of Endymion after the Super Bowl, for instance). This has clear cultural relevance and built-in mascots, branding, etc. It would be a beacon for those three people who’ve never heard of Mardi Gras. Krewe of New Orleans … the party has arrived.

Brass was another good name. It’s evocative of Jazz, and was the name of an ECHL team (minor league hockey) here in New Orleans (yes, really) that folded shortly after the Hornets relocation. You can write the branding for it quite easily.

I suspect this analysis is right: local fans could get used to all sorts of names over time. I would assume that winning more would make a sports team name more permanent. While there may have been other reasons for these switches, think of the Charlotte Bobcats and the Washington Wizards. Perhaps some cities are even better suited than others to adopt stranger or more local names. And yes, a number of professional pro sports team names don’t make a lot of sense given their current context and era. For people who like local color, it is almost too bad sports teams aren’t required to have names that match their current community. Finding the best local names could be a fascinating exercise…

But I wonder if this is part of a larger shift in the names of sports teams away from fierce animals or creatures. Just as first names in the United States can change (here is a sociologist talking about the decline of the name Mary but the resurgence of the name Emma), the names of sports teams can change. Think of the new team names in the four major sports in the last two decades and it is an odd collection of old-style and new names. This may have to do with branding: new kinds of names offer new opportunities. Take the Oklahoma City Thunder. Their name is not shared by another team in the four major sports and is not found too frequently elsewhere. It could lead to all sorts of new marketing opportunities though it might be difficult to come up with appropriate mascots and train copy editors to use the name correctly.

Of course, one innovation of the future could be that more American sports team adopt corporate names. This could be a lucrative revenue stream.