Thanks to pioneers like Mr. Met in the 1960s, few sports teams have felt complete without the presence of a mascot. These larger-than-life animated characters rally hometown crowds, work with charities, and can occasionally make baseball seem exciting.
To get a better look at what goes on under those mounds of fur and sweat, mental_floss spoke to several current and former mascots about the tricks of the trade, from scaring small animals to how they fit their massive frames through doorways. Here’s a little peek behind the mask.
1. THEY CAN GET FLEAS.
“This happened while I was in college,” says Erin Blank, a former mascot for the Detroit Tigers and a trainer with Keystone Mascots. “A rival school had a situation where their mascot costume got infested with fleas. They actually dipped it in a flea bath. All of the fur fell off. And they only had one costume.” The faux fur used in many costumes also leads mascots to use pet grooming tools to keep their coats clean and shiny.
2. THEY’RE NOT ALLOWED TO TALK.
Mascots are masters of gestures that need to be big enough to be noticed from the rafters. Since vocalizing can't travel far, most major mascots abide by a no-talking policy. “I never spoke when I was in character,” says Kevin Vanderkolk, who spent 14 years portraying Bango for the Milwaukee Bucks and now owns the SOAR Adventure Tower near Nashville. “You don’t want to humanize him.” Instead, Vanderkolk hoped for a lot of yes-or-no questions or mimed a response.
3. THEY LIKE A GOOD VODKA SOAK.
While costumes have come a long way from the suffocating and heavy designs of decades past, there’s still no getting around the fact that many of them aren’t machine-washable. To try and fight off the permanent funk, many mascots use a tip first recommended by Bonnie Erickson, a former Muppet Workshop employee and creator of several legendary mascots including the Phillie Phanatic: a spray bottle full of vodka.
“That’s still applicable,” says Blank. “You want to kill the bacteria. Some mascots also use Listerine, but the problem there is the added flavor. The color can ruin fur.” (An alternative for the smell is Fur Breeze, a dog cologne that apparently works on fake fur.)
4. THERE’S A SECRET TO GETTING THROUGH DOORS.
Many mascots cut a recognizable figure thanks to massive heads and wide frames. The problem? The world was made for people with human dimensions, not 85-inch hips. Dan Meers, who performs as KC Wolf for the Kansas City Chiefs, let us in on an old mascot trick. “The hips are basically Hula Hoops,” he says. “You just pull up on the left and push down on the right and you can get through doors.”
5. THEY SOMETIMES NEED A COLLEGE DEGREE.
There’s no clear and singular path to becoming a mascot. Some are former gymnasts; others come from a theater or dance background. According to Blank, several pro teams are looking to formalize the hiring process by looking for mascots with college degrees in sports marketing. “The mascots are responsible for seeking sponsorships for teams,” she says. “It helps to pay their salary.”
6. THEY CAN UPSET FANS.
Despite the histrionics of Tommy Lasorda, most mascots get along with coaches just fine. The real adversaries can be fans. “Complaints never come from coaches,” Meers says. “It’s from the guy sitting behind someone who wanted to help me propose to his girlfriend, and I was blocking his view of two plays. He couldn’t see around me. That’s why we’re always moving and staying active.”
7. THEY FORGE THEIR AUTOGRAPHS.
Because no performer takes up permanent residence in a suit, it wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense to have them sign their “name” organically. Instead, mascots practice a kind of house style, using exemplars from previous actors in order to emulate the autograph of the character. “Some teams have developed very specific signatures for mascots,” Blank says. “It’s something that gets passed on down through the years.”
8. THEY CAN GET REALLY HURT.
As Bango, former gymnast Vanderkolk bounced off trampolines, did a back-flip off a massive extension ladder, and occasionally played with fire. It was all enough to get him on the injured list nearly as often as the players. “I’ve had a torn ACL, some pretty significant ankle and shoulder injuries, hand injuries. It was a big factor in my retirement," he says. Once, when an injury confined him to the sidelines, Vanderkolk rolled out in costume in a wheelchair. “Any time I was hurt, Bango was hurt. You want to keep the integrity of the character.”
9. FOOTBALL MIGHT BE A BETTER GIG THAN BASEBALL.
“It’s simple math,” Meers says. “I started out working for the St. Louis Cardinals out of college before the Chiefs contacted me. I could either do 81 home games in baseball or 10 in football. It didn’t take me long to decide.” Personal appearances, however, are a grind either way: between store openings, parades, and other events, Meers figures he makes up to 500 drop-ins a year.
10. THEY SOMETIMES LIKE TO SCARE DOGS.
PETA may not approve, but sometimes the temptation to annoy a dog while in a giant anthropomorphic animal suit proves irresistible. “I used to love making dogs bark and freaking them out,” Blank says. “I get it can be a little bit of harassment, so I don’t do it as much as I used to.”
11. THEY HAVE BIRTHDAY PARTIES.
Mascots rarely meet one another, with the exception of their birthdays: Pro teams often use a character’s birth date as an excuse to throw a public relations party, inviting four to six mascots from elsewhere in the league. “The teams embrace it as a marketing platform,” Vanderkolk says. In 2015, the Phillie Phanatic had an on-field celebration that featured a giant cake, a visiting Philadelphia Eagles mascot named Swoop, and an inflatable iguana that appeared to devour the umpire.
12. THEY GET PAID TO BE PATIENT.
If a normal person can walk a path in five minutes, it will take a mascot more like 30: Everyone wants to stop them, take a picture, or grab a hug. That’s part of the job, but Meers says the problem starts when people treat them like plush animals. “Mascots do not like having their tail pulled,” he says. As for hugs: no problem, but be aware their line of sight may line up with the costume’s neck. “Every now and then, I’ll catch a shot in the nose.”
13. THEY’RE NOT ALWAYS A FAN OF THEIR OWN TEAM.
“You don’t necessarily need to be a fan,” Blank says, “but you should check what you put on social media.” In February 2015, Darnell Enrique, a.k.a. Franklin the mascot, was caught ripping his Philadelphia 76ers and Philadelphia fans in general in messages that were excavated from tweets a few years prior to his hiring. On the Philadelphia Eagles: “WORSE [sic] TEAM EVER hhahaha.”
14. THEY DO WEDDINGS.
As part of their personal appearance rotations, mascots are often invited to private parties like birthdays and wedding receptions. As KC Wolf, Meers has walked three brides down the aisle. “I throw on a tuxedo over the outfit,” he says. “At the reception, it’s a half-hour of dancing with bridesmaids, taking pictures, and hanging out with grandma.”
All images courtesy of Getty.