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Let Them Entertain You--It's What They Do

Marketing: The Famous Chicken set the standard. Now sports mascots Piranha Man, Zeus, Splash and others try to keep fans so happy they'll come back for more.

August 27, 1996|MARTIN HENDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's like Michael Keaton said about Batman: You have to work the suit.

--Nathan Wilson, mascot instructor

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Winning may be important, but it's not the only thing that matters in sports marketing. Nowadays, team owners want their fans coming back. They want to show them a good time. They want to give them . . . the Famous Chicken.

Or the Phillie Phanatic of the Philadelphia Phillies.

Or the Gorilla of the Phoenix Suns.

The Famous Chicken, who became famous at San Diego Padres baseball games as the (radio station) KGB Chicken, turned mascotting into big business, generating an annual income of $1 million or more. It spawned a generation of wannabes.

In Orange County, the Pond in Anaheim has become home not just to four professional sports teams, but also to their live-wire mascots.

Wild Wing, who has survived trial by both ice and fire, is a key front man for hockey's Mighty Ducks.

Roller hockey's Bullfrogs have Zeus, King of the Pond, to help rally fans.

Indoor soccer's Splash are in the process of giving Finley, the dolphin mascot, a make-over.

And arena football's Piranhas have green-headed Piranha Man.

While Wild Wing is the most famous--he is a Disney creation, after all--Piranha Man, the half-man, half-Creature From the Black Lagoon, is perhaps the least likely to kiss babies. The newest of the Pond's inhabitants, he looks more like a superhero--or villain--than do the others.

"I'm a real proponent of great mascots--I don't want any lame mascots," says Roy Englebrecht, president of the first-year Piranhas and a minority owner and vice president of the minor league baseball team Rancho Cucamonga Quakes, whose mascot is called Tremor.

"The standard we look for is the standard the Chicken has created, a mascot that's entertaining to the fans, who can ad-lib any situation, who can make adults, teenagers and kids laugh. Someone who can transcend all three age groups. There aren't many who can do that."

Although Englebrecht may be biased, he thinks Tremor, the Rallysaurus who entertains fans at Quakes games, also fits the bill. In fact, his popularity spawned Tremor Inc. More than $100,000 in Tremor merchandise was sold last year, Englebrecht says.

In fact, Tremor has ascended to the next level and been given an assistant: Aftershock was brought on to expand the skits.

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The Piranhas, like the Ducks and a number of other teams, keep the identity of the person inside the costume close to their vests.

In a previous incarnation, Piranha Man--who spoke on the condition of anonymity--was Hamlet, the sea serpent mascot of the Lake Elsinore Storm minor league baseball team, and Blooper, ( the Padres mascot under the Tom Werner regime.

"There are three things that make a good mascot," Piranha Man says. "A good-looking costume, a person who's going to make it work and, most important, a club, group or organization to back the person inside the costume who will give it the personality to make the costume work. If you don't have that triangle, I don't think you'll have a mascot."

Nathan Wilson, 23, who wears the 7-pound head of Zeus, was Tuffy Titan at Cal State Fullerton for two years. He is also a mascot instructor for United Spirit Assn., a summer cheer camp for high school, college and professional cheerleaders, based in Sunnyvale, but held on various college campuses primarily in the West.

He says Piranha Man has the most ideal setup at the 5-year-old arena because he can be on the field during play, and he admires Splash.

"You have to be pretty creative to be in a fish costume where you can only move your arms this much," Wilson says, holding his hands about a foot apart.

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