New Mascot, New Opportunities

By Staff

Athletic Management, 17.5, August/September 2005, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1705/wumascot.htm

As the controversy over Native American imagery in athletics continues, the NCAA remains undecided about any potential penalties for schools that keep their Indian logos and mascots. Earlier this year, the 30 schools that still use Indian logos or nicknames were asked to provide self-evaluations to the NCAA’s Minority Opportunities and Interests Committee (MOIC).

According to Robert Vowels, Commissioner of the Southwestern Atlantic Conference and Chair of the MOIC, about a third of those schools have already begun modifying their nicknames and mascots. In June, the MOIC met to discuss the other two-thirds, and after deciding against a ban, forwarded its recommendations to the Executive Committee’s Subcommittee on Gender and Diversity, which meets in August.

“Emotions are running high on both sides of this topic,” says Vowels, who declined to provide any details on the meeting. “Our recommendations were developed with the goal of making some change, and hopefully they will act as a guide to move things forward.”

For schools considering a nickname change, Southeast Missouri State University has some advice. In January, 20 years after unofficially retiring its Native American mascots, Southeast renamed its teams the Redhawks and introduced Rowdy the Redhawk, a six-foot tall red-tailed hawk with a golden beak and red sneakers.

Athletic Director Don Kaverman says the key in developing a new nickname and mascot was including the greatest number of people possible in the process. “We were very deliberate in making the two most important decisions: whether we should change and what we should change to,” he says. “We were careful to get a lot of input in developing our new identity. It was an open process, and we involved a lot of people in the experience.

“We thought of it not just as an athletics change, but as an institutional change,” he continues. “It’s really been embraced by both the university community and the off-campus community. The response has been very positive.”

Since 1922, Southeast had used Indian nicknames, mascots, and logos, which were originally intended to honor the region’s connection to Cherokee history and created with Native American input. But in 1985, the university administration decided the nicknames had become a liability. Though off-campus media continued to call the teams Indians (for men) and Otahkians (for women), the athletic department quietly discontinued the use of Indian mascots and redesigned its logo. Southeast briefly experimented with a non-Indian cartoon character named Big Red and a mascot costumed to look like the rising sun, but neither lasted for very long.

By mid-2003, as it became clear that the NCAA planned to address the issue of Native American nicknames, the university set in motion a multi-year process to involve students, faculty, staff, and alumni in the transition to a new athletic identity. After much debate, the alumni council and student government voted in favor of creating a new nickname. The university then created a Web site to receive input from the community. 800 suggestions for a new nickname were whittled down to five following a series of public forums, and the finalists were sent to the Board of Regents, which unanimously approved the name Redhawks in April 2004.

“We worked with representatives of the various interest groups,” says Kaverman, “and we spent a lot of time educating people, which made it easy for even our most diehard boosters to understand why we needed to move forward with some new traditions.”

Rowdy and a pair of new logos—a soaring redbird with outstretched wings and a redbird head in profile—received final approval from the regents. Then the old nicknames were formally retired in a ceremony on the steps of Academic Hall.

Once the designs were chosen, the media blitz began. The department unveiled its new Redhawk merchandise in a fashion show that featured about 40 new items of clothing and sold 500 items in an hour and a half. In the days leading up to Rowdy’s first public appearance, the department gave away thousands of T-shirts and decals and bombarded the media with advertisements for a family-friendly inaugural that included men’s and women’s basketball games against Austin Peay, an MP3-player raffle, halftime entertainment by an elementary school jump-rope team, and an actual red-tailed hawk.

“We put out so much hype for the event that 6,500 people showed up at four o’clock on a Saturday afternoon,” says Charles Wiles, Director of Marketing and Promotion for Athletics. “We passed out balloons, and when we took pictures of the kids with Rowdy, you could see the response immediately. We made sure to design a very lovable character—the kids just love to hug him—and we’ve been getting tremendous exposure in the media.”

Since the event, requests for Rowdy have poured in from campus and community groups, and he made about 70 appearances in his first five months. Over the first quarter of 2005, sales of Redhawk souvenirs surpassed licensed merchandise sales for all of 2004, as well as annual sales for every other year on record. And for the first time, Southeast merchandise is available at 15 to 20 large off-campus outlets, including Wal-Mart. In all, Wiles expects to quadruple last year’s merchandising revenue.

“Having a new mascot opened a gold mine for us,” says Wiles. “It’s just a wonderful marketing opportunity, and schools that haven’t changed yet don’t know what they’re missing. They’re fighting to hold onto a tradition that’s no longer useful in today’s marketing world. What good is it to have a mascot that you can’t send anywhere? It’s better than not having one at all, but not much.”