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January 18, 2017

Infrequently Asked Questions: Where do mascots originate?

The Phanatic is actually considered the most interesting or unusual of the mascots in all of U.S. professional sports

Few elements of sports culture rival the oddity of mascots. 

Whether they're spurring controversies, dancing about the periphery of a stadium or scaring children, they endure as a staple of most baseball and football experiences. (In Philly, especially.) But where do they come from?

Curious, we asked Thilo Kunkel, assistant professor of strategic management in sports at Temple University's School of Tourism and Hospitality Management, to explain. 

When did we first start using mascots? Where'd they originate?

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So, the history looks to the late 18th-century France -- 1880 -- and the word in opera 'la mascotte,' which means the 'lucky charm,' and that is the origin of the word 'mascot.' That was adapted to 'mascot' in the last 160 years for short. And then in the early 1900s, some sports teams used people with interesting features. For example, a boy born with teeth -- they used these individuals to provide luck to the teams during the games. Mascots started out as humans providing that lucky charm to a sports team, and I guess the modern version of mascots is how we see any type of dressed-up costume, animals or [mascots with] specific features, that started in the 1970s. So, it has a long tradition, but the way we know mascots today is not that old.

Sounds like it was a superstitious thing to start.

Oh, absolutely. It is linked to superstition. Superstition is widely spread in sports. Some players enter the field with their left foot, others need to have their shin guards, the next person needs to follow a specific ritual before a game and so on. Mascots are no different than other superstitions used in sports. So it all starts with superstition, ritual.

Do you know what the first instance of mascots was in the '70s?

The Mets, to my knowledge. I think the Mets were the ones who had Mr. Met. And then afterward, then San Diego had an announcement for drawing -- basically a [competition] for who can draw the best mascot for the Chargers, I think it was. And from there the mascot was drawn and it was so well done they decided to fit someone out in a costume. And that person was going around the city of San Diego and was so engaging with the fans that the team actually decided 'Oh, we should bring them dressed up -- bring that person into our stadium for a game.' The San Diego chicken didn't even originate from the team.

Has it always been a purposeful mystery of who's behind the suit?

Yes, that's one thing that people want to find out -- who's behind it. But the sports team is quite strategic about not revealing that identity because that person would then gain star power, and then without star power, you can pay them a lot less. But you can also interchange mascots. For several teams, there are a few people who fulfill the role of mascot. Teams have several people who are behind the mask. And by revealing who is behind it, they wouldn't be able to interchange the mascots. I think that's more a strategic decision by the team.

On a local level, when did the Phanatic first appear?

The Phanatic was actually one of the earlier ones. He entered in 1978. And what's interesting about the Phanatic is that he is considered the -- he's constantly rated as the most interesting or 'best' mascot in professional sports in the U.S. There's a mascot power ranking, and the Phillie Phanatic constantly rates at the top. So that's an interesting one. And I guess what you'd call his 'unruly' or 'unusual' behavior, it's led the Phanatic to be the most sued mascot in all of professional sports because sometimes the Phillie Phanatic gets a little out of hand.

That's very Philly.

[Laughs] It is very Philly, but it's playing along with the reputation of the city. But yeah, that was 1978.

What do you think is the significance of mascots in a sports teams?

It definitely helps sports teams connect with an audience to which they don't reach out purely through a sport and its players. They can relate greatly with less loyal fans or casual fans who attend the game for the entertainment aspect. They are engaged by mascots and they can drive crowds and provide additional associations that we link with the team. So, whether that's the logo, or the color or the mascot -- anytime we think of the team, the brand association for the organization, mascots add to brand association...[Especially] when they are as unique as the Phillie Phanatic.

Anything to add?

I think one aspect that's interesting is how Major League Soccer traditionally doesn't have mascots because they want to break away from the American side and make it more European, but now several MLS teams have introduced mascots over the past few years. Philadelphia is thinking about introducing one or having that discussion over the past few years. They have strategically not introduced them, but now they're coming into more teams, seeing the value of mascots.