On Monday the Cubs shocked the baseball world by introducing Clark the Bear, the first official mascot in modern team history. The Twitterverse exploded with Poochie and Kit Cloudkicker references. Deadspin launched a "do something horrible to the Cubs new mascot" photoshop contest, and a Chicago Tribune poll showed 76% of respondents don't like Clark.
But I'm going on record as being a fan. As a former MLB mascot, the owner of a mascot costume design company, and a Wrigleyville resident, I can tell you that this is a smart move by the Cubs marketing department. Mascots are living, breathing brand extensions that allow teams to connect with their fan base in a personal manner while adding value. And as Will Leitch discusses at Sports On Earth, a successful proof of concept already existed: Billy Cub, the unofficial "Cubs mascot" who walks around outside Wrigley with a tip jar.
Fans seem to like Billy Cub. Some days, up to four Billys with tip coolers will be stationed at the corners of Addison, Clark, Waveland, and Sheffield, all coordinated by the original Billy, and each making up to $400 a game. That's why the Cubs made headlines last summer when they demanded that Billy Cub cease his "unabated Mascot Activities." The team cited copyright infringement and the multiple complaints they've received from fans thinking Billy was affiliated with the Cubs, but there isn't much they can do about it: As long as he's not wearing any of the team's trademarks or on team property, the team can’t stop him. Street performers in Chicago are licensed and regulated, requiring a $100 fee for two years, and Billy Cub complies.
I first encountered Billy Cub in 2008, when I was the mascot for the Rays. Visiting Wrigley for the first time, I saw Billy begging for tips and immediately felt that Cubs fans deserved better. A mascot should serve to strengthen the bond between team and fan, not to profit off that encounter. Two years later, while visiting a former Rays employee in Chicago, we created and introduced "Harry Bearay," a Phanatic-inspired blue bear with glasses (The frames unfortunately weren't painted black--who knew you couldn't buy spray paint in Chicago?) I hopped in the suit to see how Cubs fans would react to a real mascot, and they loved it:
That's why all the knee-jerk hatred being directed toward Clark is misguided. (For the Billy Cub apologists: The team didn't try to get rid of him to clear a path for Clark. It was about controlling the brand, and not having a panhandler masquerading as a mascot. In any case, he's not going anywhere.) While some fans are against it, a mascot is unquestionably good for business. The cry of "baseball sells itself, we don't need gimmicks!" doesn't stand up with both the Yankees and Cubs at 80% capacity, the Red Sox losing their sellout streak, and MLB attendance being down 3%. If you're not selling out, you need to market, and mascots are marketing and revenue machines.
Take a look at Chicago's sports landscape alone: SouthPaw, the White Sox mascot, does 200+ paid appearances a year and is the head of the White Sox Kids Club, sponsored by a local hospital. The Bears mascot, Staley, offers four different shows that have generated hundreds of thousands in sponsorship and appearance fees. Benny the Bull gets up to $850 an appearance, has a full time assistant/booking agent, and was recently named the most recognizable mascot in sports by Forbes. Even the Blackhawks, who have no problems selling out, have Tommy Hawk, who serves as an additional revenue source through paid appearances, sponsorship, and the kids club.
With the average price for MLB mascot appearances hovering around $400, 300 gigs a year by Clark will net the Cubs a quick $120k, without factoring in sponsorships and merchandise. Clark already has an official website that promotes the Cubs Kid's Club, paid appearances, and merchandise. The Cubs were proactive about not offending Wrigley traditionalists by announcing that the bear would not be dancing on dugouts, riding around on an ATV, or tossing t-shirts. They made the mascot for the proper audience: young Cubs fans and community/charity events.
And while there are a few things I'd tweak about the design (turn the hat around, change the eyes), overall it's a fine start. MLB mascots tend to evolve over time. The Nationals mascot was likened to a chicken hawk when he first debuted. Now he's svelte and more stylized. The Rays mascot went through changes with the rebranding. The Red Sox mascot used to be skinny. Orbit, of the Astros (which, disclaimer, I helped produce), has had several looks before his latest incarnation. It's likely that Clark will go through similar growing pains and subsequent changes.
For those who continue to believe Clark is a bad idea, think of the Red Sox and Wally the Green Monster. Originally booed by the Red Sox faithful in his '97 debut, Wally is now so popular he's like the Mickey Mouse of New England. Being in the mix when the team won three World Series titles has cemented Wally as a beloved part of the Red Sox Nation. When the dust settles and Clark gets into his groove, I know that the same will be true of him. Of course, the Cubs winning a World Series or three would certainly hurry things up.
Kelly Frank has been performing as and designing mascots since 1998. She spent five seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays and parts of three seasons with the Tampa Bay Lightning. She owns and operates AMAZING!! Mascots, Inc. a mascot design and branding firm. Follow her on Twitter @amazingmascots.