Kegasus is dead. All hail Clyde the Thistle!
Preakness organizers recently pink-slipped Kegasus, bare-chested centaur and advocate for drinking irresponsibly, after just two seasons as the Triple Crown race's official mascot. Kegasus goes on to a life of celebrity interventions and walk-on roles in Narnia films, but there are plenty of wrong-headed sports mascots ready to take his place, from mislabeled moles to pathologically-lying puppets to yes, a giant, talking thistle.
The sports world is full of awful mascots, and the Internet is full of awful-mascot lists, most of which are compiled in the tone and spirit of Brutus the Buckeye is ugly and stupid. Go Michigan! But any giant buckeye or talking orange can be annoying. The mascots on this list are absolutely misguided: they draw attention away from the sporting event, send the wrong message (often exactly opposite the message they were designed to send), and evoke a mixture of sadness and shame instead of enthusiasm. Some are unofficial mascots, some are sponsor mascots, but all of them have strived to represent a team or a sport, whether that team or sport wanted them or not. One look at these guys, and even the Wolverine faithful will line up to give ol' Brutus a hug and thank him for not creeping them out.
10. Kegasus, Preakness Stakes (Half man, half horse, fully lit).
Give Kegasus credit: he stood for something other than naked commerce and pure brand extension. Of course, that something was binge drinking, so let's not give this future 12-stepper too much credit. Combining recognizable traits of other famous Baltimore icons like the crab (an excess of limbs), Cal Ripken Jr. (ancient and highly mythologized) and filmmaker John Waters (utterly bonkers), Kegasus bridged the gap between dignified jewel in the international horseracing crown and mosh pit at a heavy metal festival in a way few mascots would ever be asked to.
Kegasus became the official Preakness mascot in 2011, just as the combined forces of enhanced security, beer-license economics, and a crime-riddled city's understandable apprehension about promoting a 100,000 person bender were starting to make the Pimlico infield safe for people who do not consider the 30-pack a serving size. Kegasus told revelers that while wheelbarrows full of booze were no longer permitted, unlimited-refill mugs and other pricey, licensed libations still made blackouts and bad behavior feasible. Kegasus trumpeted a return to insanity, and he had the trumpet (and a creepy nipple ring) to prove it. It was a bold message, though not one race organizers precisely intended: this event is a cross between Altamont and the chariot scene from Ben Hur, and we like it that way.
It's surreal to imagine a major marketing firm green-lighting Kegasus and his message of Dionysian excess. He looked like the unholy spawn of Charles Manson and Secretariat. He's a Chelsea Handler morning-after nightmare, and he's waiting for you at the track. In a world where even Vegas emphasizes family friendliness, Kegasus was Mister Mephistopheles Stranger Danger, complete with cloven hooves.
Kegasus was a centaur out of time, touting a frat party whose heyday was a boozy, half-remembered yesteryear. Preakness organizers have replaced him with no mascot whatsoever, which is wise, and the event's musical headliner is PitBull, a dull, talentless, properly-sanitized exemplar of corporate-approved faux-edgy party-time product. Maybe Kegasus was trying to warn us about something. Unfortunately he first got us too stinking drunk to remember it.
9. Bullseye the Target Dog, Chip Ganassi Racing/Indy Cars/Target. (Corporate Bulldog).
Bullseye is a Target department store mascot, meaning she gets a lot of face time with the Ganassi racing team. Bullseye is also a real-life bulldog, and she is totally adorable. So adorable that she upstaged Dario Franchitti, the winner of last year's Indy 500, at what could best be described as a joint press conference after the race.
Franchitti plays along with the boss' dog. He notes that Bullseye "has been in the truck all day." It was about 175 degrees in the shade at the Indy 500 last year; let's hope someone cracked a window. No, no, the truck was certainly air-conditioned, but what made Bullseye extra frisky was the other dog that can be heard yipping in the background. Someone brought their dog to a press conference. A press conference at a race track, because the only things dogs love more than press conferences and high temperatures are loud noises. Maybe it is Roger Penske's dog, and there's an open-wheel racing canine Montague-Capulet situation going on under our noses. If so, Franchitti is now smack in the middle of it.
Ever the professional, Bullseye stays on message: Franchitti may have won a race, but the dog that pays the bills gets top billing. Nothing signifies the sponsor's power in the world of racing quite like a champion driver delaying his moment in the spotlight so he can let the company mascot take him halfway to second base.
8. The Baseball Bug, Cleveland Indians. (Kafkaesque Nightmare).
The Cleveland Indians have tried to have it both ways for decades. Chief Wahoo still grins deviously from the team's official logo, but team promoters wisely stop short of sending a cringe-worthy stereotype out to rain dance on top of the dugout.
Current mascot Slider is a big, lavender blob of inoffensiveness, but his predecessor was the stuff of nightmares. The Baseball Bug arrived in Cleveland in 1980, just after the San Diego Chicken became a national sensation. Ostensibly a ladybug, The Baseball Bug appeared to be constructed out of old carpet remnants. He is not well-remembered, but photos from the era show a hunched-over, world-weary bug unsure of its evolutionary niche. Later generations of mascot designers would figure out that children do not like insects. Nor do the folks in a sweltering stadium, especially old Municipal Stadium, with its legendary swarms of midges.
Chief Wahoo has his own problems, of course. The Indians gave away fleece blankets with pictures of Wahoo through the years as part of their 100th anniversary promotions. Forget for a moment that the images showed Wahoo growing less PC over the decades (from square-jawed brave to dignified chief to red-faced comic relief from a Saturday matinee western). When trying to downplay the history of European-Native American relations, the gift of blankets is not an image you want to invoke. Slider's greatest virtue, compared to other Indians mascots/promotions, is that he can never be accused of spreading a contagion.
7. Admiral Ackbar, University of Mississippi. (The Rich Kotite of Intergalactic Strategy).
If Chief Wahoo makes you shudder, Colonel Reb probably makes your skin crawl. Many Ole Miss students also have a hard time embracing the Colonel's antebellum charm, so in 2010 they started a movement to replace the Colonel with a more palatable pop-culture rebel: Admiral Ackbar, the commander of the forces who battled the evil empire in Return of the Jedi. Students designed logos of the squid-like alien in a modified version of the Colonel's uniform, held pro-Ackbar events, organized petitions, and used Ackbar's signature "It's a Trap!" catchphrase as a rallying cry.
There were several problems. First, the joke is a little wonky and inside; it's one thing to make Star Wars-meets-football jokes on the Internet (it's practically my job description) and another thing to explain to the alumni of the class of 1964 why their mascot is now a squid. Second, Ackbar is downright unattractive. Third, he was grossly incompetent in the movie, steering the entire rebel fleet into an ambush.
Finally, and most importantly, Ackbar is a licensed character, and LucasFfilm was not amused. The "Ackbar for Mascot" campaign got attention from ESPN and still lives on in tee-shirt form, but anyone who hopes to make a dime from the admiral's image can expect a call from LucasFilm (and now, scarier, Disney) lawyers. So Colonel Reb continues his battle for state sovereignty (yeah, that's it). Ackbar can only hope he gets promoted to a comfortable, trap-free desk job in the upcoming Star Wars sequels.
6. Clyde the Thistle, 2014 Commonwealth Games (Highly Invasive Plant Species).
The modern bad mascot often arrives with baggage. It may look ridiculous and confusing, but see, there's a mythology behind it, and it represents all of these wonderful things about the event and the host nation, and there's even a complex origin story to explain why you should love it! You can almost hear the brainstorming session when you look at a bad mascot. Give him a ball for a tail! And six stars on his belly to represent the six provinces. And he hails from Wicketonia, where the Wicket Witch has banned sports forever, and has come to discover wonderful new sports to bring back to his homeland!
A recent example of a mascot with too much backstory is Clyde the Thistle, mascot for the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. A human-sized, anthropomorphic sprig of groundcover is a hard creature to comprehend or love, so Commonwealth Games organizers hedged their bets with a seven-minute (seven minute!) origin story cartoon which plays like it was produced after the animators crushed Quaaludes into some Johnnie Walker.
The video moves at a pace that makes Thomas the Tank Engine feel like The Fast and Furious. Clyde does not even appear until the five-minute mark; before that, a kindly sea captain plants thistles all over the world, presumably so he can disrupt native ecosystems. At nearly six-and-a-half minutes, narrator Billy Connolly announces that Clyde must tell the world about the Commonwealth Games quickly, because "there's no time to waste." The lost irony is reminiscent of the 10-minute, 24-second Chicago song titled "It Better End Soon."
Connolly is so likeable that you could listen to him recite the Glasgow phone book; in fact, a giant phonebook in a kilt would be more interesting than not-so-wee Clyde. Instead of spending seven minutes explaining their mascot, Commonwealth Games promoters should have spent seven minutes thinking of a better mascot.
5. Digger, NASCAR (Underground fan).
Digger started as the mascot for FOX Sports' GopherCam, but with minimal burrowing he also came to represent NASCAR. Despite the GopherCam name and gopher-like features, Digger is often misidentified as a mole, bexause nothing represents fast driving or cutting-edge videography like a blind animal. The confusion may come from Digger the Mole, a character from the Shirt Tails cartoon of the early 1980's, but probably does not. NASCAR has always been progressive about varmint self-identification rights, and Digger can be a mole trapped inside the body of a giant gopher if he (she) wants.
Digger is not well-loved by racing fans, but he does his best to extend the NASCAR brand. He starred in his own comic book in 2010, reviewed in loving detail by the folks at Comics Alliance. Digger battles a police-critter who tries to keep him from digging beneath the track in the comic adventure, though it is hard to figure out who to root for. "Trying to keep a Caddyshackish rodent from building gigantic tunnels right underneath a track where 3500-lb. cars zoom around at 200 miles per hour actually seems like a pretty reasonable goal," reviewer Chris Sims writes.
Later in the comic, Digger and his woodland chums discuss the environmental impact of a nearby racetrack. Guess what? Woodland creatures prefer raceways to, you know, woodlands! Those Dumpsters and parking lots provide plenty of food, after all, but not for gophers, who cannot compete with raccoons. Maybe Digger is a mole trapped in a gopher's body who longs to be a raccoon.
Poor NASCAR. PIXAR poached their turf by creating a whole cartoon universe of animated racing cars and race-loving tow trucks. Any attempt to create a lovable automotive-themed mascot would draw instant comparison to Lightning McQueen and Mater, and no marketing-firm concoction stands a chance. But Digger is only slightly more lovable than FOX's ridiculous NFL robots, and the robots don't take to the comics to tell environmental whoppers that couldn't convince anyone old enough to read them. Digger's greatest virtue is that he is extraneous. It's also his (her, its) greatest vice.
4. Athena and Phevos, Athens 2004 Olympics (Ancient deities; a little too ancient).
Olympic mascots belong in a category all their own: mix international tastes with broad pro-social messages and worldwide scrutiny, and you are bound to create a creature that satisfies no one and horrifies a few. The organizers of the Athens Olympics deserve credit for steering into the heart of the maelstorm with Athena and Phevos: the figures evoke both ancient and modern art in their depiction of the gods Athena and Apollo the way they appeared in pre-classical terracotta daidala. This is the stuff of deep history, not mass marketing.
However … most people think of Classical art when they think of Athens. You know: columns, marble statues, and advances that marked a turning point in human history, not odd little carvings that looked like the "before" characters in antidepressant commercials when animated. The Athena and Apollo the world knows are powerful, athletic, and sexy, and Greece would have been well within its historical rights to unleash them as symbols of power and athleticism, with added sex appeal. Instead, we got droopy Modernist triangles.
Predictably, this nod to ancient civilization backfired. A group of Hellenic polytheists who revitalized Zeus worship in the late 20th century said that the figures "savagely insult" classic Greek culture. (They probably would have liked my idea better. Which is terrifying). Scholars also cringed when the daidala were referred to as "dolls," when they were actually worship icons. Athena and Prevos gave us an archeology lesson when we wanted a flying chariot, and they left the people who had the most invested in the resurrection of bona-fide Olympians completely dissatisfied. It's a shame, because Athens could have cashed in on the cultural cache those ancient Grecians earned.
3. Scrotie, Rhode Island School of Design (Longstanding Member).
Many mascots are obnoxious in their inoffensiveness: brightly-colored, fuzzy blobs that only appeal to Nick Jr.-aged kids. Inoffensiveness is not Scotie's problem: he is a six-foot tall bundle of male genitalia, rendered with a precision that would make Seth from Superbad … well, proud is not the right word. Impressed, perhaps.
Scrotie is not an official mascot. He has hung around since 2001, with school officials likely hoping each year that students will outgrow the joke. College populations don't mature, of course: workforce-ready seniors leave, and a new crop of 18 year olds arrive to breathe new life into the comic potential of a giant, dancing penis.
As befitting the output of a school of design, Scrotie is a marvel of engineering and attention to detail, which is precisely the problem. "Functionality was of paramount importance, so the team added adjustable straps for support and comfort, along with strategically placed openings that enable the wearer to sit down," wrote student Samantha Dempsey of a recently-enhanced version of the Scrotie costume. Fair enough: if a game persists through three overtimes without a chance to sit down, Scrotie might have to consult a doctor.
Somewhere between Edith Wharton and Dirk Diggler lies a level of decorum most Americans would prefer at a sporting event. Rhode Island School of Design does not exactly take sports seriously (the basketball team is coed and plays other art/design schools, intramural programs include JUGS women's soccer and the Seamen boating team), which is all the more reason to make the events as inclusive as possible. If the power forward's niece cannot go with grandma to watch her uncle crash the boards against Massachusetts School of Art, where can she go? Not every metalsmithing major who wants to work on his or her jumper after classes wants to deal with a pair of beach ball-sized, realistically-dimpled testes in the process.
Scrotie's biggest problem is that he makes campus sports all about Scrotie. Truly great design succeeds by not calling attention to itself. Perhaps that is covered at the graduate level.
2. Pinocchio, Italian UCI Road World Cycling Championships, 2013 (Unreliable witness).
If you know one thing about Pinocchio, it's that his nose grows when he tells a lie, which if often. There may be no more famous liar in world culture, at least outside the cycling community. So who better as the mascot for an event in a sport mired in credibility-devastating doping scandals? About the only symbol more disparaging than a liar is a puppet, readily manipulated by higher forces. Oh yeah, Pinocchio is one of those, too.
Pinocchio is not a Disney-licensed character, but a creation of 19th century Florentine writer Carlo Collodi. A translation of the UCI website explains that Pinocchio is "happy, athletic, and attentive," and also looking "at the horizon, expressing an optimistic attitude versus the future." Fair enough, but UCI's Pinocchio already has a pretty pronounced schnozola. Something you want to tell us, little wooden boy? He is also standing on a bicycle wheel, perhaps trying to figure out how to fix a popped chain when there are strings attached to his arms. As Jim Henson learned in The Muppet Movie, it is really hard to get puppets to ride bicycles, but Pinocchio will have even greater worries if called to testify.
The folks from Cricket Wireless should really explore cycling sponsorship opportunities. The sport needs crickets more than it needs puppets.
1. Izzy, 1996 Olympics
The worst mascots call attention to their own design process. They do not represent a sport, an event, or even a sponsor, but the market-research science of creating a mascot. They are supposedly-lovable characters formed by committee.
Izzy (short for Whatizit?) was developed for the Atlanta Olympics by DESIGNefx, a company whose name screams "cuddly friend for children." He was computer animated for his television appearances, which in 1996 meant glitches, hangs, and lags. Jerry the Mouse could dance with Gene Kelly through the miracle of hand-drawn animation in 1945; half a century later, Izzy could not be counted upon to respond to a cue from Bob Costas.
Izzy was allegedly designed according to the input of children. Have you ever listened to the input of children? My six-year-old is reliable for remarks like "wouldn't it be cool if a kangaroo shot death rays out its butt cheeks?" Izzy looked like it was designed by my six-year-old, but with his imagination limited by the technology and budgets of 1990s computer animation, and with no death rays or (thank heavens) butt cheeks. He resembled a blue droplet of some mysterious liquid, the Olympic rings strewn haphazardly around his body (as eyelids, tail rings, and the like) in a desperate effort to tie him back to the international event he theoretically represented.
Promoters retooled Izzy numerous times after his disastrous debut at the closing ceremony of the 1992 games. Animators took out the lower row of teeth which gave him a creepy smile. A nose was added, because children like noses. He became more athletic looking. If a focus group had decided he needed antlers, Izzy would have become a seven-pointer. Izzy had an animated special, an incomprehensible backstory (he lived inside the Olympic torch, an inhospitable habitat for a blue droplet of moisture if ever there was) and an unplayable video game. Kids supposedly loved him. More likely, he "tested well" with kids.
There were many theories about just what sort of liquid Izzy was, the most prevalent of which was neither charitable nor child-friendly. Looking back, it was obvious: Izzy was a droplet of flop sweat.