A career in cheer
Being a mascot for a professional sports team isn't all fun and games anymore. The jobs are highly competitive and command big salaries.
By ALAN SNEL
Published November 20, 2006
At 27, he's the Tampa Bay Lightning's newest rookie. To prepare himself for his debut this National Hockey League season, Matt Hitchcock honed his craft at two colleges in Florida and even paid his dues in the minor leagues.
So every time Hitchcock dons the Lightning's ThunderBug mascot costume, the University of South Florida senior is thankful he has a new full-time gig with a major-league sports team.
Here's why: The competition to become a full-time professional sports mascot is as intense as ever, as these "performers," as they prefer to be called, boast resumes showcasing communications, marketing, sales, promotions and even gymnastics and theater skills. Gone are the days when a pro team would enlist the office clown as its mascot.
"Anybody can put on a costume, but it's a matter of how much you can bring that character to life," said Hitchcock, who will graduate from USF with a degree in mass communications, with a focus on journalism, next month. "It's a very physically demanding job. You're running all over the place during the game."
As the Lightning's mascot coordinator, Hitchcock replaced former veteran mascot performer Jason Franke, who played ThunderBug for six seasons before he resigned this year. Franke works across the street from the St. Pete Times Forum at Andreychuk's Grill.
The career paths of Hitchcock and Kelly Frank, the 25-year-old woman who plays the Raymond character for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, are emblematic of the evolving sports mascot industry. Both are 20-something go-getters who enjoyed theater in high school, built their resumes by playing college mascots and toiled for minor-league sports teams before reaching the major-league stage.
Hitchcock started in the drama club at his Palm Beach County high school and played mascots for the University of Central Florida and USF football teams, and the Jupiter Hammerheads of the Florida State League. He also served as a back-up mascot for the NHL Florida Panthers.
Frank played mascots for the old Miami Fusion of Major League Soccer, the former Florida Bobcats of the Arena Football League, the old Orlando Miracle women's basketball team and the minor league baseball Brockton Rox outside Boston.
Both Hitchcock and Frank are full-time employees for their respective teams, which is not always the case for people who play mascots for professional sports teams. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, for example, pay two separate performers to play their Captain Fear mascot, but neither is a full-time staffer for the Bucs, Frank said. Bucs spokesman Jeff Kamis did not return phone calls for this story.
Frank said her job at the Rays became full time in December 2005. Her job title: buzz marketing coordinator.
Besides entertaining fans while in costume, Frank also worked on marketing projects such as a cowbell promotion at a Rays game last season. Rays fans rang cowbells whenever a Rays pitcher got two strikes on an opponent's batter.
Frank, who maintains a Raymond blog, offers mascot updates on myspace.com and posts Raymond videos on YouTube.com. She said her Raymond character costume is getting tweaked for the 2007 season, but it's too early to discuss the mascot's changes.
"It's just not a kid in a suit," said Dave Raymond, who played the original Phillie Phanatic for the Philadelphia Phillies from 1978 to 1993 and is owner and "emperor of fun and games" for Raymond Entertainment Group LLC in Newark, Del. His company creates mascot characters and advises teams on mascots.
"The mascot business is competitive. It's just like a comedian doing standup, and you're trying to set yourself apart from the rest," said Raymond, no relation to the Rays' mascot or Darcy Raymond, who is the Rays' vice president of branding and fan experience.
"The skills they need are marketing and sales. They have to offer more than just being good in the costume," he said.
Raymond Entertainment Group was hired by the National Basketball Association's Miami Heat to hire a new staffer to perform in the Burnie mascot costume this season. Playing an NBA mascot is the most coveted job in the sports mascot industry because of the creative, high-flying showmanship - and the corresponding higher salaries that come with the NBA gigs, Raymond said.
About 80 percent of the NBA teams, including the Orlando Magic, hire full-time employees to play mascots, with the starting annual salary in the $40,000-$45,000 range, Raymond said. About half of the teams in the other major sports leagues hire full-time workers, and half pay their mascots on a per-game basis, with payment in the $100-$200 per-game range, he added.
"We're looking for the best performer," said Matt Biggers, the Magic's director of marketing, who oversees the team's mascot, Stuff the Magic Dragon.
"Much like college athletes, they're building skills. It's very competitive in the NBA because there are not that many (mascot) jobs. It's a demanding job, physically," he said. "Because of the physical nature, they're much like an athlete. They push the limit of entertainment and take more physical risks, whether they're on roller blades or being in a giant slingshot and being shot down the court."
Frank said she is one of 11 full-time workers as mascots in Major League Baseball, with the others making a living from working part time for their teams. The annual starting salary for a recent new full-time MLB mascot job was $28,000, she said.
A handful of performers work into their 40s. But John Routh, a South Miami man who used to play the Billy the Marlin mascot for the Florida Marlins, acknowledged, "There is kind of a youth movement in mascots. ... People expect mascots to do more, whether it's dunking in the NBA or rappelling from the ceiling in hockey."
In 2002, the Marlins let Routh go when he was 43 and hired a much younger performer at a lower salary. Two years earlier, the same thing happened to Wes Lockard, who played the Burnie character for the Heat. Lockard said at the time that he was making $100,000 annually.
These days, Lockard, 50, works as a special-events coordinator for the city of Plantation's parks office in Broward County.
"Being a mascot used to be more of a Three Stooges kind of entertainment. Now you have to be more spectacular," said Routh, 47, Lockard's friend in South Florida. "Wes and I would do skits and make people laugh. Now it's all about the spectacular dunk."A menagerie of mascots
Tampa Bay Lightning: ThunderBug
Tampa Bay Devil Rays: Raymond
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Captain Fear
Tampa Bay Storm: Storm Dawg
Clearwater Threshers: Phinley
University of South Florida Bulls: Rocky the Bull
Dunedin Blue Jays: B.J. the Blue Jay
University of Tampa: The Sparta
Thunderbug: The man behind the costume
Name: Matt Hitchcock
Education: Will earn a bachelor's degree in mass communications from USF in December
Hometown: Palm Beach Gardens; resides in Tampa
Favority hobby: "When I have time, photography."
Best part of the job: "The thing I get a kick out of is getting the kids to smile, especially the ones very timid at first."
Worst part of the job: "The heat. That's something you learn to live with."
Weight of the costume: About 10 pounds
Time it takes to get dressed: 10 minutes
Hours: 40 hours a week as a full-time employee
Pay range: Within the average for NHL mascots - between $30,000 and $40,000 annually
Goal: "I want to do this as long as my body can handle that. After that, I'd like to stick with game operations or using my degree (mass communicatons with a focus on journalism)."
Why he does the job: "I enjoy performing. It's a way to show my personality without having to reveal myself. There's no greater stage than this area (of sports)."