Stop Selling Out University Mascots

University athletic programs should not put their school mascots to work off the field and the court selling commercial products, argues Bill Mahon.

March 15, 2018
 
 
The Penn State Nittany Lion mascot

When I was in grade school in the 1960s, my dad took me to a few Penn State football games. And then in the 1970s, I was back in Beaver Stadium as a reporter hanging out in the press box. For a few games, I roamed the sidelines as a part-time sports photographer.

Later, I had the good fortune to work for Penn State. For half a dozen years while serving as vice president overseeing university communications, I watched the games from the luxury suites with donors, politicians, alums, special guests and senior administrators.

All that time, the Nittany Lion mascot was an important part of the game-day experience. In fact, the mascot has held his job for more than a century. And he has been a vital contributor to Penn State’s reputation around the world. The furry mascot is one of the single most valuable images of the 100,000-student school.

When I oversaw the marketing and branding efforts at Penn State, our staff conducted national public opinion surveys to get a good sense how Americans viewed the university. Year after year, the Nittany Lion mascot was always one of the very top mentions by people around the country. We regularly used him in TV, print and social media advertising encouraging high school students to enroll.

And it worked. His image, and the overall marketing program, attracted more applications to Penn State than to just about any other higher education institution in the country.

I don’t go to games any longer, but I do follow the university and the team, and I don’t like what I see the beloved Nittany Lion mascot doing these days. He’s sold out. Literally, he is sold out to commercial companies.

In addition to being one of the key images for one of the largest, most well-known universities in the nation, the mascot now sells coffee and doughnuts in his spare time. He has joined with mascots of other major universities across America to sell home mortgages. And he appears in television commercials selling beef jerky with Sasquatch.

The mascot can be seen in advertisements aired around the country during college and pro football games, as well as on social media platforms like Facebook. The Nittany Lion mascot is not alone in selling out. He appears in the 30-second beef jerky commercial with the University of Iowa’s Herky the Hawk. They are having their portrait painted by Bigfoot. You can view the commercial on YouTube.

And the mascot is showing up on TV and online, promoting Rocket Mortgage by Quicken Loans. He is in good company. In the 45-second version of the ad that you can view on YouTube, he appears with a tiger, elephant, duck, bull and other major university mascots. They are doing flips, giving high fives and executing their trademark moves every student and alum of their institutions memorized long ago.

The YouTube description says, “When it comes to leading cheers and one-handed push-ups, mascots have all the confidence in the world -- except when it comes to mortgages. Luckily for them, there's Rocket Mortgage by Quicken Loans. Now they're confident on and off the field. Get your own mortgage confidence at RocketMortgage.com.”

The Nittany Lion appears several times in the ad. Early on, he is seen running past a crowd of cheering fans in Beaver Stadium. He carries a blue-and-white Penn State flag with the university's sports logo past a blue wall also emblazoned with the logo. Fans in the background cheer, “We are Penn State!” In another quick scene in the ad, we see the lion crowdsurfing over a group of fans. In a third scene, he does a backward flip in front of a crowd of fans and the sports logo. The ad ends with a group of about a dozen college mascots, and there again is the Nittany Lion doing his famous (at least among Penn Staters everywhere) frenzied ear-scratching move.

You can even watch a special two-minute behind-the-scenes video that explains how all the mascots were flown in from around the country to film the commercial.

The university mascot has also been deployed to sell coffee and doughnuts. He popped up as an ad in my Facebook news feed last fall clutching Dunkin’ Donuts cups in his paws, promoting $1 cups on Mondays following a Penn State football team win. You can see a photo of the mascot with his coffee standing in Beaver Stadium in news coverage of the deal.

While all this may make for fun television, it is doing the Nittany Lion and Penn State a big disservice. Athletic departments should not be selling out their university mascots. I realize hiring multimillion-dollar coaches and building and operating expansive facilities to train, feed, entertain, tutor and pamper athletes is expensive. Penn State’s athletic budget was $144 million for the 2016-17 fiscal year.

But a mascot has a bigger role to play for an institution, especially for the best-known institutions. They are a symbol of pride and tradition.

The Nittany Lion mascot has been a central image for Penn State since 1904. He’s wildly popular with students, alums and residents of the state. By any measure, he has been a successful mascot for the institution. He was recently named a new inductee to the Mascot Hall of Fame, a multimillion-dollar facility being built in Whiting, Ind.

If you are an alum or a super Penn State fan, you can book the lion for an appearance at your wedding. I’m fine with that because the lion is doing what he was originally created to do: help promote school spirit.

A good mascot is priceless for a brand. Mickey Mouse, Tony the Tiger, Mr. Clean, Captain Morgan, the Geico Gecko, Colonel Sanders, the Jolly Green Giant and even Burger King’s creepy looking king are tied inextricably with their brands. They are pure pop culture icons.

In higher education successful mascots are a key part of our institutions’ brands. They should not be pitching beef jerky and home mortgages on their days off.

Bio

Bill Mahon is president of Ground Zero Ready Communications, a former vice president of university relations at Penn State and a partner of the Ketchum University RepProtect suite of services.

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