There are few things in sports that excite fans as much as a mascot.
When the Philadelphia Flyers unveiled their mascot Gritty on September 24, 2018, the first 30 days of Gritty’s rollout garnered an overall national TV audience of more than 69.1 million viewers, according to the Shorty Awards. In terms of publicity value to the team – both online and off – his launch generated upwards of $151.3 million and $10.5 million, respectively.
Heading into 2020, Gritty has also gained traction on social media. As of December 4, he has accumulated more than 224,000 Twitter followers and 148,000 Instagram followers.
While he might not have the biggest TikTok following at roughly 13,300, his emergence was arguably the biggest catalyst for bringing mascots to social media platforms like TikTok.
“Gritty changed everything for mascots,” said Nick Cicero, vice president of strategy at Conviva, which specializes in global streaming and social media intelligence. “He became a worldwide viral sensation almost overnight. I think lots of teams saw this as an opportunity that their mascot can have a true brand of their own and social appeal outside a stadium.”
With Gritty’s status as arguably the most notable sports mascot reveal in recent memory, it’s paved the way for other teams to showcase these fan-friendly characters.
Although the NBA and TikTok formalized its content partnership in October 2018, the Chicago Bulls’ Benny the Bull didn’t make his TikTok debut until July 3. According to Bulls Director of Content Luka Dukich, the organization kept Benny away from TikTok because the team didn’t want to associate itself with chasing trends.
As brands began joining TikTok, Dukich likened their approach to that of youth soccer: when little kids play pick-up soccer, the ball goes in one place. Everybody runs past it, but they don’t know what they’re doing.
“It was really important to us to launch six months ago, in a way that was native to the platform and that made sense; that we had a strategy versus re-purposing other content or just kind of being there just to be there,” Dukich said.
With Benny, the things that have made him popular at the United Center have made him an ideal TikTok account, said Dukich. Whether it’s his expressive dance moves or his playful moments with Gritty, Dukich believes that Benny’s content is what other mascots should aim for on TikTok.
Since his introduction to TikTok, Benny has established himself as not only a leader for sports mascot but in sports as a whole. His 1.1 million followers and 13 million likes lead all mascots on TikTok, according to Conviva. It also makes him the second most-followed North American sports account, behind only the Golden State Warriors, who boast 1.3 million followers.
“It’s pretty incredible,” Dukich said. “That’s not the Chicago Bulls. It’s Benny the Bull, and that’s a testament to the work that those guys have done to create content that makes sense and people want to share.”
Having a mascot that’s viral by nature makes marketing it to the masses much easier. At Brigham Young University, mascot Cosmo the Cougar has seen his dance moves covered by publications like The Washington Post and ESPN.
As his stature has extended beyond Utah, BYU athletics is reaping the benefits of this on social media, said new media and digital content specialist Tyson Hutchins.
On TikTok particularly, Cosmo’s ability to be part of these viral moments has seen him become the second-most followed sports mascot account with nearly 782,000 followers – behind only Benny the Bull, which Hutchins has cited as an inspiration for Cosmo.
In an era where some college athletics departments prioritize providing just facts over entertainment on social media, Hutchins takes pride in Cosmo’s ability to differentiate himself using his extroverted persona.
“It’s not information, it’s not anything but purely entertainment,” Hutchins. “It’s been such a refreshing and exciting thing. The supply of content doesn’t meet the demand, which is really cool and it’s a great time to be on a platform where that is the case. I think that’s something that won’t last forever – but to be able to see some of those things have been fun and refreshing for those of us in the industry.”
Having the NFL formally partner with TikTok in September wasn’t the icing on the cake for the Houston Texans joining the platform, said mascot program manager Andrew Johnson.
The primary factor that led Johnson to create a TikTok for Toro, the Texans’ mascot, was Owen Conflenti, the on-air morning anchor on Houston’s KPCR 2. Normally a journalist’s social media expertise may be on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, but for Conflenti, he joined TikTok in November 2018. In 13 months, he’s not only surpassed 765,200 followers on the platform but has more than 15.1 million likes as well.
“It was just a friend of ours here in Houston that had found some success on the app and encouraged us to join,” Johnson said. “It was one of the best decisions we’ve ever made.”
On Tiktok, Toro’s job is to make people laugh on a national scale, said Johnson. While it’s unclear how expansive Toro’s overall geographic reach is, Johnson estimates that it extends well beyond Houston.
As of December 4, Toro has attracted more than 147,300 TikTok followers and 1.3 million likes. With viewership per Toro’s posts ranging anywhere from 1.2 million to 31,500, Johnson is transparent about not being fully aware of what works well on TikTok. Going forward, he does want to focus on content that can instantly catch fire – and stay consistent with TikTok’s reputation.
“There really is no rhyme or reason as to why these posts are doing better than others,” Johnson said. “But we found that the videos to do best on this platform are videos that were shot specifically for TikTok because it fits into the trends and everything that you want to do on the platform. Those are the videos that I feel like have been most successful – the ones that were intentional and we’re trying to create specifically for the platform.”
Since 2006, Blue has been the official mascot of the Indianapolis Colts. Before his arrival, the organization had challenges of reaching that middle-to-high-school-aged audience, said vice president of marketing Stephanie Pemberton. Over time, Trey Mock – the person playing Blue – began raising awareness by performing at school shows around Indiana.
In 2020, Mock will have appeared at 2,000 in-state school shows, but there was still a sense that there was more to be done in terms of finding a way into the minds of Indiana youth. He then reached out to close friend John Nuñez, the coordinator of entertainment for the Chicago Bulls who created Benny’s TikTok account. After seeing Benny eclipse 250,000 followers in only a few months, Mock saw the potential, and joined the platform on September 25.
Since late September, Blue has amassed the fifth-most followers among sports mascots at more than 245,200 TikTok followers, according to Conviva. While Mock too is learning what type of content provides consistent followers, the mascots of other NFL clubs such as the Atlanta Falcons, Minnesota Vikings and Jacksonville Jaguars have followed suit on TikTok.
“In the NFL there are 32 teams, but there are only 27 mascots,” Mock said. “Of those 27, there are only 15 full-time mascots, so you’re talking about fifteen characters that have access to this. When there are billions and billions of people that are on this platform, I think that just gives us a unique look and opportunity to provide content and that’s probably what separates our content from an everyday user.”
While Major League Baseball has a number of teams with mascots, few have found their way to TikTok, unlike the NBA or NFL. Of the league’s 13 official team TikTok accounts, only the Seattle Mariners have experimented with an account for their mascot Moose.
Launched on October 16, the Mariners are using this offseason to dictate the direction they take with Moose’s TikTok presence, said senior digital marketing manager Nathan Rauschenberg. Whichever route they go with Moose, Rauschenberg is happy to see another outlet for the Mariners to creatively interact with fans on.
“On a new platform like TikTok, with different capabilities and a different vibe than what the rest of these platforms have come to be, that to me is fun and interesting and exciting,” Rauschenberg said. “There are certain [platforms] where it feels like the areas have been mined a lot. People develop habits, but right now since it’s so new, everything that we’re doing is going to be a little different.”
With accounts like Gritty and Benny bringing more attention to mascots, it’s clear that they are a perfect fit for TikTok, said Cicero. Given their highly skilled nature as performers, he’s not surprised that content fit for a mascot – centered around things like comedy, stunts, and dances – are connecting well with TikTok users.
Heading into 2020, having more sports leagues and teams join TikTok is inevitable, Cicero said. However, sports properties need to make sure that – like they are with mascots – they’re maximizing TikTok’s entertainment potential to differentiate themselves from their other platforms, he said.
“They need to expand their content audience beyond the world of press conferences, gameday highlights, and news briefs and tap into the culture and lifestyle of their fans,” Cicero said. “TikTok presents a light-hearted way to showcase a different side of a team without having to worry about catering to hardcore fans first.”