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When you go to a baseball game, there are a few things you can count on. You’ll hear the vendors hollering over the din of the crowd.

VENDOR: Crackerjack!

You’ll smell the peanuts, the hot dogs, the ludicrously overpriced beers.

VENDOR: Peanuts!

And, if you’re at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, you’ll see a six-and-a-half-foot-tall fuzzy, green beast, waddling across the field in search of trouble.

Even if you’re not a sports fan, you’ve probably heard of the Phillie Phanatic. Sports Illustrated called him the best mascot in history. He has sold millions of dollars worth of merchandise and he brings families to the ballpark at a time when fewer people are going to baseball games. How exactly does he do that? Well, it has a lot to do with the guy who originally wore the costume.

Dave RAYMOND: I could throw, I could catch, I could do cartwheels — not a lot of gymnastics, but I could dance, I could move really well. I kind of fancied myself as being the secret weapon.

For the Freakonomics Radio Network, this is The Economics of Everyday Things. I’m Zachary Crockett. Today: sports mascots.

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The “secret weapon” you just heard from — that’s Dave Raymond. His story starts back in the late 1970s. As a sophomore in college, he landed a summer internship with the Phillies.

RAYMOND: I was in the promotions office and, you know, my dad had said, “Look, when you get this job you do whatever they ask you to do. Don’t say no to anything.” So I was stocking shelves, I was cleaning bathrooms up in the executive offices, and then I might be taking the national anthem singer to dinner. But that all changed in the Spring of ‘78.

At the time, the Phillies had a problem on their hands: attendance wasn’t too hot. And the promotions department was trying to get more butts in the seats. On the other side of the country, someone had an intriguing solution.

ANNOUNCER: More chickening around here as we go to the bottom of the Sixth inning. The famous San Diego Chicken changing dancing partners here…

Out in California, a 20-year-old kid named Ted Giannoulas was making waves at San Diego Padres games by dressing up as a chicken and cavorting around the field.

RAYMOND: The chicken kind of had a raunchy routine. He actually chugged beer through his beak. This chicken character is just out of his mind. And people are actually coming to the game because they’re hearing about him.

Professional sports mascots were not a new idea. The Phillies even had their own — Philadelphia Phil and Philadelphia Phyllis, a pair of twins in Revolutionary War outfits. But they weren’t designed to entertain.

RAYMOND: They were more like walking logos or symbols. The performer would wear these big heavy body suits made out of some pieces of wood. They had no mobility.

The Phillies saw the impact that this chicken was having in San Diego, and they decided to up their mascot game with a new character. So they went straight to the best people in the business.

Bonnie ERICKSON: My name is Bonnie Erickson, and I was the designer of the Phillie Phanatic.

Erickson had been part of the original design team for The Muppet Show. Let’s just say, you’ve seen her work.

ERICKSON: The two old men, Statler and Waldorf. I also did George the Janitor. Probably the most famous is Miss Piggy.

She had just started a character design firm with her husband, Wayde Harrison. And the Phillies wanted some of that Muppet mojo.

ERICKSON: The rationale the Phillies gave us was they needed to encourage younger people to become baseball fans. I’d watched baseball games, but I certainly didn’t know that much about the whole process. So, one of the first things we did was go down to Philly and ask them about their audience.

Zachary CROCKETT: And what did you see?

ERICKSON: Well, we heard a lot about the fans. We heard that they booed Santa Claus, so that was pretty daunting.

Erickson mocked up some sketches of a curious creature. With a megaphone snout and a pear-shaped body, the Phanatic was designed to be on the move.

RAYMOND: He’s a green, flightless bird from the Galapagos Islands. He’s 300 plus pounds, depending on what day of the week you weigh him.

ERICKSON: I wanted something that would be funny if you just watched it walk. Mascots are non-speaking characters. They have to transfer everything that they want to say through their body motion.  That’s why the fanatic has feather eyebrows, feather tail — things that are showing some action.

When Erickson sold the character to the Phillies, she gave them a choice: they could buy the costume and the copyright to the character for $5,200 bucks, or they could buy just the costume for $3,900. Phillies executive Bill Giles chose the latter — saving his team a whopping thirteen hundred dollars. Now the Phillies had a costume. All they needed was someone to wear it. That’s coming up.

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So, once you have a bespoke mascot costume, how do you find the right performer to bring it to life?  Well, if you’re the Philadelphia Phillies, you ask the guy in the office who never says no to anything: Dave Raymond.

RAYMOND: I get a phone call. They said, “You need to go to New York right away and get fitted for the costume.” I went to West 39th Street. I walked into, you know, what I term as Geppeto’s puppets studio. There were disembodied arms and foam and eyeballs. And I just went, “Oh my gosh, I’m getting paid to be a Muppet!”

The Phanatic debuted on April 25, 1978 — the Phillies beat the Chicago Cubs 7-0. Maybe it was the win or the ballpark beer, but the fans loved him from the start. That first year alone, the Phillies sold plush toys, T-shirts, pins, coloring books. And he was making money from appearances off the field, too.

RAYMOND: A lot of car dealerships wanted me. At least for the next three years there were just enormous crowds at all of the local events.

For Bonnie Erickson, all of this was fantastic news. Remember, the Phillies had bought the costume, but not the rights to the character. Which meant Erickson got a hefty cut of the merchandising sales.

ERICKSON: I think the first year of merchandising we did over $2 million. 

Bill Giles, the Phillies executive who passed on the Phanatic copyright — he later called it the worst decision of his career. A few years later, the team bought the character from Erickson for $215,000 — that’s about $650,000 in today’s money. For Erickson, the Phanatic was the start of a very successful career in the mascot world.

ERICKSON: It’s a small group of people who own these baseball teams. So word gets around pretty fast. And once this was out, it spread beyond baseball.

She and Harrison went on to design more than a dozen other mascots across all four major sports leagues: Youppi! for the Montreal Expos, Big Shot for the Philadelphia 76ers, Stuff the Magic Dragon for the Orlando Magic, K.C. Wolf for the Kansas City Chiefs. Around half of their characters are still active today. But, not every team is suited for a mascot.

In 1979, the Yankees commissioned Erickson to make one — he was a bulbous pinstriped fellow named Dandy. According to Bonnie Erickson’s partner Wayde Harrison, Yankees’ owner George Steinbrenner hated Dandy so much that he was sentenced to roam the nosebleed seats.

HARRISON: They didn’t allow him lower than the second deck. And he stayed there for three years. He had a security guard with him because that could be a rough area sometimes. The performer came to us and said his mother would not allow him to do that anymore because they were going to take away the security guard. So we did not renew the lease.

Erickson eventually got out of the mascot business in the ‘90s. And after 16 years performing as the Phanatic, Dave Raymond moved on, too. He passed the duties to his backup performer and started his own mascot firm. Since then, Raymond has created more than 130 mascots from scratch — mostly for minor league and college teams. His biggest success came a few years ago, when he was hired by the Philadelphia Fliers pro hockey team. The result was Gritty, a 7-foot-tall orange brute with bulging eyes and a maniacal grin. One reporter likened him to a nightmarish frat boy on an acid trip. Raymond was undeterred.

RAYMOND: Overcome the negativity because there will always be negativity there. I mean, that’s what I told the Flyers to expect — I told them to expect six months! It took like three days for it to change. 

Philadelphia — the city that once booed Santa Claus —  embraced Gritty with open arms. In his first month alone, the character got the Flyers around $160 million dollars’ worth of media exposure. That makes the cost of a modern mascot sound downright reasonable. Raymond says the creative process of designing a character like Gritty might set a team back between $80,000 and $300,000 — that’s the base fee he charges. Then, there’s ongoing work: creating duplicate costumes, taking care of repairs, and — perhaps most importantly — regular cleanings.

RAYMOND: You want to try to to make sure that the body odor does not get, you know, in essence, baked into the costume. You mix one part vodka with two parts water. And at the end of every appearance, you spray the inside of the costume to kill the bacteria. The joke was, ‘Two for the costume, one for the performer.”

But Raymond’s core business is the thing he knows best. He is a bona fide mascot headhunter. Every year, he runs a mascot boot camp, where aspiring performers learn the tricks of the trade.

RAYMOND: A performer needs to have a full bio to work from. What motivates this character? What is this character scared to death of? What will this character always do? What would this character never do? And then you give them all that backstory and you say, “Go have fun.”

It’s not exactly that simple, though. For starters, you can’t be claustrophobic. You can’t be afraid of a little sweat. You need to be pretty physically fit. And, of course —

RAYMOND: You have to have either a natural ability, or a trained ability to communicate non-verbally, through movement and dance. The ones that are going to be ultimately a high level of success, you see that right away.

The chosen few that make it to the big leagues can do pretty well. Raymond says the N.B.A. pays most mascots a starting salary of $85-$100,000 dollars. There’s also incentive pay. According to the Sports Business Journal, mascots at the very top of the food chain — like the Denver Nuggets’ Rocky the Mountain Lion — can earn more than $600,000 per year. But those superstar wages are few and far between.

RAYMOND: It’s a minor fraction of 1 percent of the environment that gets those jobs. And there are many minor league characters toiling away for $50-100 a game and doing great work.

In his trainings, Raymond emphasizes good, clean, safe fun. It’s to keep the crowds, owners and sponsors happy, but also to ward off the threat of litigation. The same boisterous spirit that made the Phanatic an icon also got him in trouble. The Phillies have been sued at least 6 times over the years for Phanatic misbehavior including hugging a fan too hard, accidentally kicking a pregnant woman, and shooting a fan in the face with a hot dog gun. Settlements have set the Phillies back nearly $3 million dollars. And there’s one last thing that teams have to watch out for, when they buy a mascot.

ERICKSON: The copyright law says that after 35 years, if something is still viable, the original copyright owners have the opportunity to renegotiate. 

That 35-year clock recently expired on the Phanatic, and Bonnie Erickson came knocking. She and the team settled out of court.

ERICKSON: The Phillie Phanatic is still very dear to my heart. 

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For The Economics of Everyday Things, I’m Zachary Crockett. This episode was produced by Sarah Lilley — a Philly native — and mixed by Jeremy Johnston, with help from Lyric Bowditch.

CROCKETT: And what became of the Dandy costume?

ERICKSON:  I’m afraid we had a demise.

CROCKETT: Oh, no … And how do you dispose of a mascot costume?

ERICKSON: I don’t want to describe it. It’s a terrible process.

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  • Bonnie Erickson, puppet and mascot designer; co-founder of Harrison/Erickson, Inc.
  • Wayde Harrison, co-founder and president of Harrison/Erickson, Inc.
  • Dave Raymond, founder and emperor of fun at Raymond Entertainment; original inhabitor of the Phillie Phanatic mascot.


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