Who Pissed Off All the Mascots? An Investigation
Teams have found out that angry mascots appeal more to fans than friendly mascots.
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
If you're a logo designer in today's sports world, your first duty is to make the mascot scowl—make him, as the press releases and ensuing analyses always put it, "fierce." Most recently the Milwaukee Bucks and Cleveland Browns have gotten the treatment, going from fierce to fiercer. In previous years it's happened to the UConn Huskies, Charlotte Hornets, and really pretty much any team with an animal mascot. In May, the Philadelphia 76ers even committed to an angry Ben Franklin. Whatever it takes to give a team an added touch of menace.
But why is the evil eye so sought after? When did we decide every team needed to be seething with anger? Who pissed off all the mascots?
I sought out someone who has recently overseen just such a redesign, Peter Sorckoff, the senior VP of marketing for the Atlanta Hawks. Last spring, he helped give the team's classic minimalist logo a few tweaks to turn it from sneering to murderous:
"The mark was a little benign in its original state," he said, "and we wanted to make it a little bit more aggressive, a little bit more piercing."
Before doing so, the franchise analyzed 1.6 million online conversations about the Hawks, revealing a high volume of what Sorckoff called "euphoric recall" around the 1980s team. So they set out to update that era's logo, to make it, well, fierce.
Not so simple, Sorckoff insisted. Even before the design, he sat down with coach Mike Budenholzer to make sure the logo would be "congruent with what he was putting out on the basketball side."
"We attack all the time, and we attack on offense, and we attack on defense," Sorckoff said. "Those were things that could connect the mark and our visual identity to the system of play that Bud is putting into place."
He believes their logo earns the right to be fierce. "Some people say 'angry'," Sorckoff noted, "although I don't choose to use that word."
I do, but we should probably get our terms straight. I wrote to Sonja Windhager, an anthropologist in Vienna who led a study a few years ago of the faces people see in cars. She found out that those rated as "angry" were more popular than friendly ones. Might her findings tell us something about these logos?
Maybe, but she had a different interpretation of the faces: "To me, the logos rather reflect determination and readiness to fight if you compare it to human and animal facial expressions (e.g., lowered brows, closed mouth). Thus, in a fight-or-flight decision, these expressions reflect the 'fight-mode' which likely is the socially-desired choice in a sports game."
I'll stick with "angry," since so many others read these faces that way. But her second point really gets to the heart of things. What is the socially desired choice in a sports game? More pointedly, what the hell do social desires have to do with a logo appearing on a helmet, jersey, or court at a sporting event?
Such desires must have been quite different decades ago. Look at the Bucks' original logo from 1968:
He'd be at home in a Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoon. Fierce? Try "insouciant."
A 1993 update gave him roid rage. Now the Bucks have tweaked him again with a look the designers called "fiercer and more aggressive" but might better be described as "dead inside/possibly possessed."
These are the new logo rules. But the old ones, up through the 1970s, had most mascots looking like the original buck. Across American sports, the Steelers, Falcons, Bengals, Cowboys, Broncos, Nuggets, Rockets, Knicks, Coyotes, and Bruins all had approachable, even adorable logos. So did many colleges.
Look at what the Browns used during their 1950s and 1960s heyday:
Jim Brown was represented by a sprite wearing a jaunty little crown. Even imposing mascots were often endearing:
The last two didn't appear on the field, but if you think football teams needed an intimidating face on their helmets, just consider the Raiders. You may remember that guy with the eye patch as fierce, but look more closely at the logo. Little has changed since the team's glory years:
Angry? The guy looks like he's suppressing a grin.
The Raiders won three rings with that look. So forget any thoughts that a mean mascot somehow correlates with better on-field performance, an idea the Wall Street Journal put forward a few years back. While certainly the Buccaneers improved after their 1997 shift to a tougher look, the New England Patriots didn't win their four Super Bowls until after becoming the rare team to move away from meanness in 1993.
But if logos have nothing to do with performance, they have plenty to do with performance goals. Teams often adopt them following the arrival of new management or to signal to fans that management has Changed The Culture. Things will be different now, the new look says.
And logos are all about telling the fans what they want to hear, which was just what the Hawks' internet study was meant to discover. And if you search online, what people desire in a logo becomes pretty clear. "Your logo is sooo scary!" people say, with absolutely brutal sarcasm. "Seriously, who is afraid of a Pelican?" others ask. List after list ranks the most and least "intimidating" mascots. Even the National Wildlife Foundation gets into the act: "A little tweety bird as a team mascot? That's not going to impress anyone on a basketball court!"
What we have here is nothing less than an ontological crisis. Rooting for laundry? Hardly. Apparently many people think that Marc Gasol isn't just a player on the Memphis Grizzlies but an actual grizzly, whose intimidation factor would vanish if—thanks to wizard-like shape-shifting powers privy to all professional athletes—he were traded to a team with a wimpier mascot.
These insecurities really come out with bird mascots, which is probably why some teams try to add menace by giving them muscles and even teeth:
But there's no need to anthropomorphize animals or zoomorphize players. In its original sense, the French word "mascotte" basically just means a good luck charm. The development of mascots in American sports is murky, sometimes applying to a team's clothing, regional history, or even performance, but it should be clear that opponents are intimidated by the muscles on an opponent's arms, not those of the bird on his uniform.
Yet the idea that a cheery logo undermines a team's performance has infected all levels. Small colleges and minor league baseball teams used to have fun with their humble aspirations, with silly names like the Artichokes and the Banana Slugs. Now they're all toughening up their logos:
Even self-deprecation has gotten self-serious.
Sorckoff thinks it's not that the culture has changed but that marketers today have a better read on it. "There wasn't as much emphasis on branding a long time ago," he said. "I think we just know a lot more about it now. And there's a lot more empirical data that actually supports the value of branding and how it resonates with people."
Mark Verlander, who did the redesigns that fierce-ified the Atlanta Falcons and Arizona Cardinals, concurs. A lot of old logos, he said, were likely done by "some guy with a pencil, probably sketching it out, going, 'Here. That's it. Let's go play some ball.'" Today, he said, the need for logos that will work in varying merchandising contexts means the "naïve art" of yesteryear won't do.
Verlander was discomfited by my suggestion that logos are getting meaner. "For me," he said, "it's about being friendly. I want to make fans happy." He said that when he began the Falcons re-design, he thought the original only needed some motion. But the NFL, which oversees team branding, pushed for more color and detailing. "The face of the bird is definitely fierce," he said, "and that was at a request I think of the NFL."
His Arizona Cardinal is more cartoony than the old one, but it's also more attitudinal. Owner Bill Bidwill said on its release in 2005 that the new mark was a "tough bird," to be worn by "tougher and faster and meaner players." Six weeks later, his team signed Kurt Warner, the Christian nice guy who'd never confuse humans with animals and who didn't need a scowl on either his face or his clothing to prove he was tough.
Yet fans apparently do. Sorckoff said he doesn't know why the average "30-year-old, multicultural millennial" whom his team gears its marketing toward wants the fiercer stuff; he just knows it's profitable.
Windhager said the fierce faces of cars and mascots "might help us to communicate who we are or would like to be." These logos are probably preferred for the same reasons the mostly male body of sports fans buys other things. From ads for trucks to erection pills, it's hard to watch an NFL game and not wonder if American men are deeply insecure about their virility. And in the culture more broadly, studies show product gendering is getting more pronounced. Men today need their masculinity affirmed in their soaps and even their sodas, so it's unsurprising they'd also expect the logos on their hats to offer a macho assist. That scowl isn't there to inspire a player or intimidate his opponent but to reassure the man on the couch.
Further questions follow: Has Major League Baseball's decline in popularity been caused by a failure to adopt fierce logos? Is the preference for mean logos related to players' tendency to snarl rather than smile after a big achievement? Why do people pull out their phones whenever I enter a room?
These questions are beyond the scope of the present study. But one thing is clear: if you're a goofy, fun-loving mascot who brings joy to the hearts of every man, woman, and child, watch out—a marketer is coming to ruffle your feathers.
Editor's note: Special thanks to Chris Creamer's www.sportslogos.net for many of the images used in this article.