If we want to talk mascots (and around here we do!) we’ve got to clarify some terms. The mascots I’m most interested in are sports mascots, of which there are four distinct expressions:
1) A live animal.
We’ll start with this one since it was technically the earliest use of the word mascot itself. A mascot refers to a live animal that makes appearances at sporting events, often as a kind of good luck charm. Most common at large colleges, this category includes bulldogs like Georgia’s “Uga” or Yale’s “Handsome Dan”, Colorado’s “Ralphie” the buffalo (see above), Colorado State’s “Cam” the ram, etc. Far less common in the pro ranks, though I believe Denver may have a bronco of sorts, and if Ace Ventura was accurate, Miami has a dolphin.
2) A nickname.
Nicknames existed long before animal mascots and came from a wide variety of places. Some were Pre-Civil War state nicknames (Tarheels, Jayhawks, Wolverines, and Badgers), while some (again, Georgia and Yale’s Bulldogs, for example) reflect the animal mascot itself. This is the understanding of the word used in popular “Mascotology” brackets (i.e. who would win in a fight between a Bulldog and a Buffalo), and therefore the most commonly used. The second most common is probably:
3) A performer.
My theory is that this was invented as a workaround when live carnivorous mascots like tigers and bears proved too much to handle. Throwing a cheerleader in a tiger suit was a lot less dangerous. This is also the part of the mascot world elevated to an art form by the San Diego Chicken and Phillie Fanatic (who were so popular they eventually transcended the teams that they initially represented). I think when most people today hear the word “mascot” outside the context of a NCAA tournament bracket, this is what they think of. Adults in fursuits, embodying the mascot of a college or pro team.>
4) A logo.
This one’s a bit of a stretch, but I think it bears inclusion. A team logo represents that team, and more often than not is a visual representation of the mascot itself. In many cases this is the last of the four areas to be developed, at least in an official capacity. Most colleges began with letter sweaters featuring simple block typography that defines the athletic aesthetic to this day (Michigan State’s “S,” and almost any collegiate wordmark), but later developed more complex, illustrative logos. Of the four, this is the one I find most fascinating because it intersects with my passion for cartooning.
In terms of popularity, every professional and college team has a nickname and a logo. That’s no longer negotiable. Almost all teams have human mascot performers of some kind. Very few have live animal mascots anymore.
The Mascot Constellation
It’s worth noting that especially in the college ranks, the organic and often haphazard development of athletic traditions mean that each school has their own unique combination of these four expressions, which I’ll call their “Mascot Constellation” for now. Sounds fancy right?
Some schools have what I’ll call a unity of expression, like the Air Force Academy, for example. Their sports teams are called the “Falcons,” a live falcon flies at halftime of home football games, a guy in a falcon suits prowls the sidelines, and their logo is an image of (what else?) a falcon.
But some don’t. The University of North Carolina’s nickname is the Tarheels, a nickname that predates the civil war. But their animal mascot, mascot performer, and mascot logo are all some version of a ram. And the Tennessee “Volunteers” have an obsession with coon hounds, both live and in costume form. And some of the most interesting mascot performers come from colleges with abstract nicknames, like the Crimson, the Cardinal, or the Orange.
It’s a complex and nuanced world which can be a bit of a rabbit hole. But I think its key to separate the four expressions in order to untangle the roots of the phenomenon and get a handle on its various origins.