Phila. Union weighs picking a mascot

The Phillie Phanatic arriving for spring training in Clearwater, Fla. He has proven the city's most popular mascot.
The Phillie Phanatic arriving for spring training in Clearwater, Fla. He has proven the city's most popular mascot. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 12, 2014

Five years after starting a team, the Philadelphia Union is contemplating a step that could boost or diminish its rising image:

Picking a mascot.

In recent months, team officials have used a survey and focus group to ask its fans about potential mascots.

Chief executive officer Nick Sakiewicz declined to share details from the discussions or describe the options, and said he was in no rush to do so.

"When it feels right and we can do it in a first-class manner, we'll do it," Sakiewicz said last week.

The decision is no small matter for the Union, which opens its home season this weekend. At risk is alienating the dedicated fans who have helped routinely fill the 18,5000-seat PPL Park in Chester.

The Union wouldn't be the only team with a character on the sidelines; 15 of 19 Major League Soccer clubs have mascots. Some overseas soccer clubs have them as well, including Manchester United's red devil, Fred the Red.

Sakiewicz said discussions with Man U inspired the Union to consider a mascot.

But the Union need only look a few miles up the road to see what's at stake. The Phillie Phanatic is widely popular - while the 76ers' HipHop was widely panned and has disappeared from the court.

Dave Raymond, the original Phanatic, said the mascot's most important job is outside the stadium, where it interacts with new fans. He said mascots can succeed in any sport.

"It's just like the power of fun, it's pretty universal," said Raymond, who retired as the Phanatic in 1993 and now runs Raymond Entertainment Group to help teams and companies create and improve their mascots.

During a soccer match, Raymond said, a mascot could play a role because only "a certain core group of fans" is focused solely on the outcome. The rest of the crowd wants entertainment, he said, and a mascot's ability to perform is more important than its appearance.

Research shows that the more associations fans have, the stronger their commitment to a team, according to Thilo Kunkel, an assistant professor of sports management at Temple University.

"So having a mascot is not only about the profit," he said, "but it's about strengthening a psychological connection to a team."

But Kunkel, who specializes in soccer branding, said it is also important for the Union to consider fans who "want their game to be more pure, so to speak, or to represent the game as it is played in Europe."

That's where the dilemma could be for the Union.

"There's the opportunity that it can kind of lead some of the team's efforts in community events when a player's not available," said Bryan James, a founder of the Sons of Ben, an independent group of Union fans that claims 2,000 members.

Still, the Sons of Ben is not taking an official position on whether the Union should launch a mascot.

"I think there's probably some people that are for it," said Kenny Hanson, the group's president. "There's certainly people that are against it, and then there's people that might be for it under certain stipulations."

Balancing the interests of serious fans with the need to entertain young fans and families is challenging, but is not new for the Union, said Jeffrey Bell, who has spent years filming Sons of Ben, a documentary about the soccer fan club.

"They're in a tough position," Bell said.



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