America’s favorite sports mascots

Ted Giannoulas was a student at San Diego State University in the early 1970s when he accepted a gig to don a chicken suit and hand out Easter eggs to kids at the San Diego Zoo. He was such a hit that invitations to larger events poured in soon after – concerts, charity events and, of course, sports.

Before long he was the official mascot of the San Diego Padres, cracking up crowds with on-field antics like hexing opposing players and swiping vendors’ Cracker Jack boxes. The Chicken’s popularity gained so much steam that he eventually outgrew the Padres – he’s long been a free agent, doing appearances at WrestleMania and other events, along with TV commercials and music recordings.

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In Pictures: The top 10 sports mascots

“His antics were memorable, and he was the first,” says Josh Willson, a designer of mascot characters for businesses and sports teams. Despite pushing 40, the Chicken holds up as sports’ favorite mascot. Along the way, he spawned copycats like the Phillie Phanatic and Billy the Marlin.

Forbes compiled a list of the 10 most-liked sports mascots in America through research by The Marketing Arm, a research firm that measures public attitudes toward celebrities and brands. The company polled the public on awareness, appeal and team recognition of over 50 major sports team mascots.

Old-school types took awhile to come around on mascots as part of the entertainment. A quarter-century ago, baseball broadcaster Joe Garagiola, who had played in the 1940s and ’50s, bemoaned to a national NBC audience that “baseball is being taken over by the Muppets.” Fiery players like Lou Piniella (now manager of the Cubs) sometimes got into spats with mascots they thought were bringing their hijinx a little too close to their territory on the field.

These days, the sports-as-entertainment philosophy has firmly taken hold. Between-inning entertainment is a given, the mascots leading the charge. No one thinks twice about the Phillie Phanatic zipping across the field on his motorbike or 7-foot tall sausages racing around Milwaukee’s Miller Park.

While baseball goes for Muppet-like characters, the NBA favors tough animals – bulls, mountain lions, coyotes, gorillas – acting goofy. At basketball arenas, timeouts are noisy, action-filled events these days. Music, dancing and acrobatic dunks off trampolines are part of the show. And for entertaining kids, it’s hard to miss with cartoonish versions of vicious characters. Just ask anyone still collecting royalties on Yogi Bear.

Making the game fun for casual fans and hooking youngsters has proved to be good business, for which the mascot fits the bill. Most help ingratiate the team into the local community with appearances at functions around town.

An effective form of marketing, a soft sell that’s fun for everyone,” says Willson.

The Phoenix Suns Gorilla was the first to be noted for an athletic brand of NBA mascot, his dunks showing up on ESPN highlight clips and even on Good Morning America. His antics have since been mimicked by the Chicago Bulls’ Benny the Bull and the Denver Nuggets’ Rocky, an off-beat mountain lion.

Referees aren’t always amused – the San Antonio Spurs Coyote was once ejected by an official for arguing a call – but the customers are. That’s what counts.

The list:

1. San Diego Chicken: Slideshow
2. Phillie Phanatic: Slideshow
3. Mr. Met: Slideshow
4. Racing Sausages: Slideshow
5. The Gorilla: Slideshow
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In Pictures: The top 10 sports mascots

Updated Thursday, Apr 29, 2010