What some may see only as two-metre-high plush animals who do cartwheels on top of dugouts, sports organizations see as ambassadors and key elements of their marketing and branding.

To reach the youth market - and the future adult market - and to keep the fans rallied even in bad times, a mascot is necessary. And to get the right mascot, it helps to turn to the professionals.

Among the industry leaders is Sugar's Mascot Costume. Tucked inconspicuously into a loft space in Toronto's theatre district (they share real estate with companion company Sugar's Costumes and a few related businesses) is a foam-and-felt paradise of mascot creation.

Sugar's Mascots entered the business nearly 20 years ago as an outgrowth of their costume business when they were approached by Zeller's to make 200 mascots for store promotions. The more than $400,000 project convinced Sugar's there was a market opportunity.

Liz Clayton, Business Edge
Sugar's Mascot production manager Pam Chappell and director of marketing Peter de Vita realized the potential nearly 20 years ago and have become sports mascot industry leaders.

"We kinda looked at it and said, 'There's a business here,' " says Peter de Vita, Sugar's director of marketing and design.

The company soon began producing mascots such as Ryerson University's Ryerson Ram, as well as representatives for the Peterborough Petes and the Mississauga Ice Dogs hockey teams, and dozens of other college and professional teams - including the World Series champion Boston Red Sox's mascot, Wally the Green Monster, and the Toronto Blue Jays' Ace and Diamond.

Going from drawing board to the top of the dugout is a complicated climb, however, and it is up to a mascot company to figure out exactly what the client needs.

"It can be that you're starting off with a really strong existing character," says Pam Chappell, Sugar's production manager. "Or you can have somebody that wants a mascot, but has no idea what it looks like or has a drawing that doesn't translate into an actual physical thing."

The range of client types also is as varied as the range of what they want.

"For the most part with high schools you're dealing with children, versus professional sports you're dealing with marketing managers," de Vita says.

Once a client has established what kind of mascot they want, it is up to Sugar's to create it - from drawings to sculpture to literally gluing on the fur and designing the character's wardrobe.

Specific concerns are addressed, such as shoes or feet, which tend to be the most important elements of a mascot's construction since they dictate how a character will be able to walk, jump, flip or skate while performing. Often working in conjunction with the talent who will wear a mascot costume, Sugar's is able to innovate and do such things as make a helmet lighter or improve the ventilation system based on direct user input.

While the company is sometimes called on just to update a mascot, it has also worked from elaborate specifications - and, occasionally, thin air.

"We had to actually build a reindeer mascot for a pony (to wear)," Chappell says. "And we didn't see him, we just had to sort it out. We got measurements and then we used the form for a carousel horse."

The process of "birthing" a Sugar's mascot, from design to delivery, can take anywhere from six to 10 weeks, since the mascots are entirely custom-made. Clients are not always prepared for the time and money needed for their new walking, dancing, cheering brand extension.

"There's a lot of people that know a good mascot is going to cost in the $4,000-to-$5,000 range," de Vita says. "But there's a lot of people out there who want a mascot for $1,200 in a week or two."

Chappell thinks the misunderstanding stems from the fact that not all mascot companies are created equal. Many offer a basic template, such as a bear, and simply tweak it for a customer's requirements.

"If you order a beaver, a dog or a moose it's really all going to be the same thing (from some companies)," Chappell says. "Some will just add lumps to it. Whereas we're more precise and concerned with not violating the image we would give to someone else."

Brennan Anderson, a former mascot actor for the Toronto Blue Jays who now works as a sales manager for Sugar's, believes completely in the branding value of a mascot.

"If you add a mascot to your team and build it properly and promote the character, the kids will buy the merchandise and the parents will buy the merchandise as well," Anderson says. He adds that other in-stadium opportunities abound, such as branding meals or special events with the mascot character.

A more grassroots mascot design firm operates across town in the Etobicoke home office of Tara Wilkinson and Andrew Csafordi, otherwise known as Fire Engine Inc.

The couple, who specialize in corporate identity, logo design and image development, are responsible for the design of a handful of mascots, including Carlton the Bear of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Wilkinson handles the publicity and media relations side while Csafordi specializes in design. Production is outsourced.

"When I design a mascot, it's a labour of love, where there are hours of developing the personality," Csafordi says.

"It's not a costume, it's not really a mascot, he or she is a real person.

"Mascots have an odd history of messy, dirty chickens handing out flyers on the street," Csafordi says. But "whether it's a sports team or anything, they become part of your staff, part of your marketing staff. We go to great lengths to design personality into the detail."

Like Anderson, Csafordi and Wilkinson are emphatic about the importance of what they call the "back-room" side of using a mascot.

"It has to have a budget and a team behind it, it's not just a matter of someone jumping in a costume and running around," Wilkinson says. "The whole infrastructure has to be there to support it. And it does end up in a bag in the corner if you haven't put a serious marketing plan behind it."

Successful mascots end up with busy itineraries off the field as well as on, often appearing at promotional mascot days, civic events or visiting children in the hospital.

The activities are intended to engender good community feelings and raise brand awareness for the sports team they represent.

"I think bottom line is it attracts, it brings some kind of relief and lightness to the air to have a little bit of animation happening around us," de Vita says.

"We're very much a visual world and people never really grow up, whether they know it or not," he says. "Other than maybe lawyers and stockbrokers, they're kids inside, at heart."

(Liz Clayton can be reached at clayton@businessedge.ca)