Native American Mascots in Sports

MascotValue

When we started this endeavor, we had no intention of spending time thinking and writing about mascots.  What we did plan on, was writing about sports marketing assets such as team brands.  However, as we have progressed we have found ourselves going beyond measurement of team brands to also look into how valuable brands are created.  Since mascots are an element of teams’ brands it makes sense for us to spend time on the topic.

We have been surprised by the interest generated by our previous work on mascots.  This interest is likely due to the fact that we go beyond emotion-based arguments, and try to examine how mascots affect the bottom line.  We should also emphasize that this is a statistically “tricky” area.  In general, there just isn’t enough variation in the world for us to perfectly identify how a specific or even a type of mascot impacts the fortunes of a given team.  For example, in the case of Native American themed mascots our perfect “data” would include examples of teams switching back and forth between Indian and non-Indian mascots.  This doesn’t mean that it is impossible to study how different types of mascots impact financial performance.  It just means that we have to make some assumptions and we have to make clear how these assumptions limit our results.

Today’s post is a bit more long-form than our usual entries.  This is because we have multiple issues, and because we want to be transparent regarding our assumptions.  The two issues that we address in this post arose from conversations with readers of our previous mascot analyses.  The first was a question related to some work we did related to the financial value of Native American mascots in professional sports.  In the previous work, we had simply looked at how teams with Native-American mascots performed relative to all other mascot types.  Our readers were interested on the impact of other classifications of mascots.  The second question was related to our previous work on college mascots.  Specifically, the interest was in the financial impact of using ‘live” animal mascots.  Frankly, this was a controversy of which we were unaware.

Why do Mascots Matter?

Before we get into the analyses, it may be useful to make a couple of comments regarding why or why not mascots matter.  There are a variety of theories about sports fandom, and almost all emphasize the importance of factors such as team history and fan community.  These are related because it is often the historical accomplishments of a team that provide a basis for fan communities.  For example, in Chicago fans still talk about the 1985 Bears, and it is doubtful that you can find many Steelers fans that don’t know about the “Steel Curtain.”

Mascots provide a symbol that can be a focal point for a fan community.  At a very simple level, when fans wear a jersey with a Redskins or Cowboys logo they are identifying themselves as part of a fan community.  There is research in psychology that that has studied the wearing of team symbols following wins and losses.  Researchers, unsurprisingly, find that team logos are worn more frequently after victories than after losses.  The term “Basking in Reflected Glory” has been used to explain this phenomenon.

Mascots may play a similar role in that they provide a shared experience.  When the University of Illinois dropped the “Chief,” t-shirts that commemorated the “last dance” of the Chief quickly appeared.  Illinois students witnessed the Chief’s halftime dance for decades, and this experience has therefore been shared across generations of students.

Teams’ and fans’ reluctance to drop or change mascots may be based on fears about how losing a focal symbol will alter the fan community.  In our first analysis of “Native American” mascots we looked at college basketball revenues for schools with and without this type of mascot.  We also included time since mascot change in our statistical models.  The key result was that switching away from a Native American mascot didn’t have a long-term negative effect.

Classes of Mascots in Professional Football and Baseball

But the college environment is unique in that we have a fair number of schools that have made switches.  At the professional level there isn’t a similar body of data that exists.  Not having perfect data doesn’t mean that we can’t study an issue (though many unimaginative academics might say so).  We just need to use a bit of theory to structure the problem and then be clear about the assumptions to avoid over-interpretation of the results.

We did perform a preliminary analysis related to the financial impact of Native American themed mascots.  That analysis was based on the simple idea that we could build a statistical model of team box office revenues as a function of team quality (winning percentage, playoff participation, etc…) and market potential (market population, median income, stadium capacity, etc…).  We included a binary (i.e. dummy or indicator) variable in these regressions to indicate if the team had a Native American mascot.  We also included an interaction variable between the Native American dummy variable and the year to account for changing consumer preferences.

One common response to this analysis was to ask how other types of mascots influence financial results.  We thought this was an interesting question.  But it was also a question that wasn’t straight-forward to address.  Our first stumbling block was how to determine the different mascot categories.  For example, we could have a classification of “human” mascots but then the question arises of if we should differentiate between aggressive humans such as Pirates or Raiders and the gentler Padres or Saints.  Similar questions occurred with animal mascots: should we have a separate category for birds and what about aquatic animals?

To get a handle on these questions we created something called a perceptual map.  Perceptual maps are used in marketing to visually display the perceptions of customers or potential customers along a number of dimensions (e.g. affordability, social appeal, etc…).  For our mascot study, the map was based on survey data that asked subjects to rate the similarity between team names.  The survey involved 18 team names split between the NFL and MLB.  We tried to assemble a cross section of names that included different types of animals (Tigers, Bears, Dolphins, etc…), humans (Rangers, Packers, Pirates, etc…), miscellaneous names (Rockies, Giants) and a split between baseball and football.  The technical term for the procedure is Multidimensional Scaling (MDS).

MDS is great in that we allow subjects the freedom to rate items however it makes sense to them, but this freedom comes with a cost: the perceptual maps generated do not come with labeled dimensions.  We generated a three dimensional perceptual map (using SAS software).  Dimension 1 (the horizontal axis in the chart below) seems to roughly correspond to human versus animal mascots.  We say roughly because Cardinals are rated more “human” on this axis than Packers.  A potential issue with our study is that subjects are rating the team names based on factors beyond the literal meaning of the name.  This is probably unavoidable given the focal nature of sports teams in American culture.  The second dimension (not displayed) was difficult to interpret.  At one extreme we had the Padres and Rockies.  At the other, it was the Dodgers and Packers.  One thought was that this dimension was about historical success.  However, the Steelers were in the middle of the scale.

The third dimension (the vertical axis in the chart below) was also difficult to interpret.  The Redskins and Indians are at the top of the scale while the Tigers, Cardinals, and Dodgers are at the bottom.  While we will not try to name this axis, it is interesting that the two Native American mascots were viewed as extreme on this dimension.

MDS Mascots

The fundamental point to the MDS exercise was to develop an understanding of how fans perceive different types of mascots.  Based on the preceding, we decided to evaluate four mascot types: Human, Native American, Animal and Other.

We conducted statistical analysis separately for the NFL and for MLB.  Our logic is that because the games are very different and played at different times of year, the effect of different types of mascots may vary.  For each league, we created statistical models of revenue as a function of winning percentage, winning percentage squared, playoff participation, relative payroll, population, population squared, median income and stadium capacity.

A baseline model (without mascot dummy variables) for the NFL yielded an R-squared of 0.44.  R-squared provides information about the goodness of fit of a model (the higher the R-squared the better the model fits the data).  This model was estimated using data from the 2002 to 2012 seasons.  In addition, all coefficients were of the expected sign.  For example, winning percentage was positively correlated with box office revenue.  We next estimated the same model but included the mascot dummy variables.  Including the mascot dummies increased the R-squared to 0.51.

The coefficients associated with each class of mascot are provided in the table below.  The model suggests that over this time period, having a Native American mascot had a significant positive revenue impact relative to the “other” category of mascots.  Animal mascots had a negative impact.

Mascot Type

Coefficient Value

T-Stat

P-Value

Native American

12,117,107.2

4.86

<.0001

Human

1,353,243.8

0.83

0.409

Animal

-3,567,963.7

-2.49

0.013

However, as we noted above, our analysis includes some strong implicit assumptions.  In the case of the NFL results above, the Native American variable is associated with just two cities: Kansas City and DC.  The danger is that this variable may be picking up some common trait of the two cities other than the mascot.  An additional concern is that the preceding model treats the mascot issue as static.  It seems more likely that opinions change over time.  To account for these issues we next re-estimated the model but now included interactions between time and the mascot indicators.  This model yields an R-squared of 0.55.  Again all of the control variables (win percent, population, etc…) are of the expected signs.

This model is the most instructive of the three models as it allows for both dynamic effects and lessens the concern about a shared latent factor between Kansas City and Washington DC.  The key result is that there seems to be a shift in preferences.  In particular, the Native American mascots seem to be becoming less popular over time.  Historically, the Chiefs and Redskins have been strong franchises so it makes sense that the static Native American indicator would be positive.  Given the increased scrutiny applied to Native American mascots it also makes sense that we observe a negative long-term trend.

Mascot Type

Coefficient Value

T-Stat

P-Value

Native American

21,861,806.2

4.89

<.0001

Human

-2,924,904.4

-1.19

0.234

Animal

-6,616,731.1

-3.32

0.001

Native American*YR

-1,636,981.4

-2.6

0.010

Human*YR

722,698.9

2.31

0.021

Animal*YR

508,348.0

2.15

0.032

In the preceding model the dependent variable is box office revenues (in constant 2008 dollars).  The interaction between time and the Native American dummy variable suggests that the value of having a Native American mascot is dropping by about $1.6 million per year.  Again, we fully admit that this is a messy statistical problem and readers may be able to construct alternative explanations for the findings.  But the KEY point is that we have intentionally performed a simple analysis in an effort to just let the data speak.  The data seems to be saying that considering mascot type significantly improves model fit and that Native American mascots are becoming less valuable brand assets over time.

In the case of MLB we executed a similar procedure.  The baseline revenue model for MLB used the same variables as the NFL analysis.  The R-squared of the baseline model was 0.627.  In the second analysis, we added dummy variables for the three classes of mascots: Native American, Human and Animal Mascots. In this case, the improvement in the model is minimal as the R-Squared increases to just 0.631.  None of the mascot dummies are significant.

Mascot Type

Coefficient Value

T-Stat

P-Value

Native American

-8,494.4

-1.64

0.1015

Human

-2,822.0

-0.92

0.360

Animal

3,782.2

1.22

0.224

 

However, adding the interactions between time and mascot type produces an interesting set of results.  In particular, we find the same pattern of results for the Native American mascot terms.  In both leagues these mascots have positive coefficient associated with the static dummy variable but a negative interaction between the dummy for Native American mascot and time.

Mascot Type

Coefficient Value

T-Stat

P-Value

Native American

24,567,815.9

2.34

0.0196

Human

697,834.0

0.11

0.909

Animal

22,957,750.4

3.48

0.001

Native American*YR

-2,675,563.5

-3.6

0.000

Human*YR

-260,405.6

-0.59

0.555

Animal*YR

-1,523,533.9

-3.28

0.001

In the case of MLB, the model results suggest that having a Native American is also driving lower box office revenues over time.  The effect is bit higher in MLB with the trend being a loss of about $2.6 per year.

Despite the limitations inherent to our analyses, the consistency between the NFL and MLB findings is in accordance with a trend of growing opposition to these mascots.  However, we do acknowledge that our claim of a trend of “growing opposition” is based largely on anecdotal data such as retirements of prominent Native American mascots in college sports, journalists dropping the use of “offensive” nicknames and politicians beginning to weigh in on the issue.  Our results imply that fans are also becoming less enthusiastic about these mascots.

To be blunt, the implication is that the trends suggest that keeping a Native American mascot is reducing financial performance and harming team brand equity.

Live Animal Mascots in College Football

We also had a brief correspondence from a reader asking if we had ever investigated the financial consequences of “Live” animal mascots.  At the time of this question, we were basically unaware of the controversy surrounding the use of this type of mascot.  We were familiar with some of the more spectacular live mascots such as Bevo, Uga and Ralphie.  In hindsight, it does make sense that animal rights activists would be concerned about the welfare of these living symbols.

For this study, we used publically available data on college football team revenues.  We decided to restrict the analysis to football because many of the most notable animal mascots only appear during the football season.  But, we should note that we do not know if Colorado has ever run Ralphie across the basketball floor.

For this analysis, we used relative revenue as our dependent variable.  This was computed by dividing each team’s self-reported football revenues by the overall average for each season.  Relative revenue was modeled as a function of AQ (automatic qualifying conference) status, winning percentage, level of bowl game participation, local population and student body size.  We included a dummy variable for a “live mascot” and an interaction variable between AQ status and having a live mascot.  The interaction is included to account for the possibility that live mascot effectiveness varies across level of competition.

Mascot Type

Estimate

Standard Error

t-Value

Pr>|t|

Live Mascot

0.018

0.072

0.25

0.1015

Live Mascot*AQ

0.369

0.086

4.28

<.0001

In order to interpret the preceding results we need to remember that the statistical results were generated using relative revenues as the dependent variable.  Again, these coefficients are easily translated into dollars.  In 2010, average revenues across the FBS schools were about $23 million and about $35 million for members of the AQ conferences.  The model therefore suggests that on average an AQ member school with a live animal mascot generates about $8.5 million in incremental revenue!  However, the net effect for a non-AQ school is negligible.

This is an amazing number, but it does have some logic, as live animals may be exceptional community builders.  In the case of mascots like Reveille or UGA it is almost as if the entire student body and alumni base co-owns a dog.  And in the case of Bevo or Ralphie, it is hard to imagine a more spectacular halftime display.

These results highlight the tough battle that PETA and other animal rights organizations fight.  Unlike the Native American mascots, the data suggests that live mascots drive incremental revenue and brand equity.

Conclusion

The preceding analyses will hopefully generate interest and debate.  From our perspective, this type of work is a lot of fun.  We are able to investigate the topic using data and analytical techniques without having to endure a multi-year journal review process.  As we have noted, our work does include assumptions but we have tried to be as transparent as possible.

In our minds, what we have produced are data driven and unbiased analyses of how mascots affect brand equity and revenues.  Could we extend the models?  Absolutely.  We could find more data, we could use more categories of mascots, and we could use a more sophisticated statistical model.  But for now we have put a stake in the ground, and have hopefully provided a basis for extending the conversations surround these two mascot controversies.

 

A few days ago I came across an article in Forbes that discussed the continuing controversy surrounding the Washington, D.C. NFL franchise’s use of “Redskins” as a team name.  As a University of Illinois graduate and fan, the issue of Native American mascots is something that hits close to home.  As many may know, the University of Illinois dropped the “Chief” in 2007 while keeping the Illini name.  There are many Illinois fans that view the decision with derision, and think of it as political correctness gone wild.

One nice consequence of the Emory Sports Marketing Analytics (ESMA) project is that we have assembled a significant amount of data that provides opportunities to address many topical questions.  The issue of how Native American Mascots affect a team’s revenues and brand equity is (almost) one such question.  I say almost because while the team name currently in the news belongs to an NFL franchise, the most relevant data we have available comes from NCAA basketball.

Here’s the upshot of our study examining the impact of changing the Native American mascot: Schools experience a very short (1 or 2 years) negative financial impact and then quickly recover.  Furthermore, in the long-term, the shift away from a Native American mascot yields positive financial returns. Now, an examination of our study, and all of the caveats associated with it.

NCAA basketball includes numerous examples of teams that have dropped, kept or adapted Native American mascots.  For example, St. John’s and Marquette have dropped Native American mascots and changed the team nickname.  Illinois and Bradley have retained their team names but dropped all Native American imagery.  Other schools such as Florida State and Utah have received permission from tribal representatives and made no changes to their mascots or team names.  But, it is not perfect data because there are only a relatively small number of examples where teams change names (and as noted above there are a large number of special circumstances such as the Seminole tribe’s embracing of FSU).  The approach we have taken to analyzing the impact of Native American mascots and switches away from using a Native American mascot therefore requires some creativity and several assumptions.

Our first analysis involved predicting men’s basketball revenues as a function of a wide variety of factors including: season winning percentage, tournament success, stadium capacity, enrollment, historical successes (championships, final fours, tourney appearances), and conference affiliation.  For this analysis, we also included variables related to the school’s history and current status with regard to Native American mascots.  Specifically, we included a variable that indicated if the school had ever had a Native American mascot, the time since a change had been made and whether the school had kept a Native American mascot (for this analysis we treated Bradley and Illinois as having dropped the Native American mascot).  This analysis yielded a marginally significant negative term for the variable that indicated if the school had ever had a Native American mascot, and a significant positive term for the time since a shift away from a Native American mascot.  (We should also note that as always we experimented with a large number of alternative specifications, such as log transforms of time since shift and quadratic formulations.  The findings we report are robust in that they occur across these various specifications).

In terms of financial impact, the model results suggest that school’s experience a very short (1 or 2 years) negative impact and then quickly recover.  The results also suggest that in the long-term the shift away from a Native American mascot yields positive financial returns.  As a follow up, we used the brand equity measures created here as a dependent variable and regressed this value against the previously defined variables related to the school’s use of a Native American mascot.  In this analysis we found NO significant effects.  The key implication is that switching away from a Native American mascot has no long-term negative effect on brand equity.

The preceding analysis requires a fair amount of caveats.  For instance, it may not be reasonable to assume that findings from college basketball translate to pro football.  College fans often refer to their teams based on the name of the institution (Illinois beats Maryland) while pro fans might more often refer to team names (The Bears crush the Redskins).  It should also be noted that the data available for studying the effects of mascots is limited.  For example, there are only three schools that have received permission to use tribal names.  This is too small of a sample to make conclusions about the effect of tribal permission on the outcomes generated by Native American mascots.

All that said, we believe that our findings have a great deal of face validity.  While the use of Native American mascots is controversial, it is not clear to us that the consequence of a shift away from a Native American mascot is that big of a deal.  While some fans may complain, it is not clear that these fans actually change their behavior or their shopping habits.  It might also be that merchandise sales become more appealing to segments that did not like the previous Native American mascot.

 

Deconstructing the use of the “Chief” as a marketing tool (Native American Mascots Part II)

Of all of our posts on the Emory Sports Marketing Analytics website, we have been most surprised by the reaction to our work on Native American Mascots.  We have gotten a good deal of feedback regarding the use of Native American mascots by professional franchises in general, and the Washington Redskins in particular.  We have wanted to revisit the issue to make a couple of additional points.  A recent “minor” controversy regarding a group of University of Illinois’ football team members dressing in headdresses provides an opportunity to revisit the topic.

In 2008, the University of Illinois bowed to pressure and retired its long time mascot who was known as “Chief Illiniwek”.  This decision was, of course, a controversial one.  A vocal group of alumni has been very clear in their dissatisfaction and efforts to reinstate the Chief continue.  This latest incident involving “Chief” related imagery was a recent charity “strongman” event during which multiple Illinois football players donned headdresses and war paint.  Given our earlier material on the economic value of “Indian Mascots” we decided to spend some time deconstructing this story.

First, it is important to note that the event was run by a group of players rather than the university.  This is important because I suspect that the issue of Native American mascots is not a significant issue to players in their late teens or early twenties.  I also suspect that these players view a lot of what has occurred with the Chief as political correctness gone wild.  So from the players side, and this is really just my speculation about the players motives, the use of Indian imagery has two main benefits.  First, they realize that using Chief-like symbolism will give the event a higher profile.  Second, it is a somewhat rebellious decision to use these images.  From the players perspective this is likely a win-win proposition.

From a marketing perspective, there are some interesting issues at play.  There still exists a sizable group of alumni that are very pro Chief.  For these fans, the Native American imagery is very much appreciated.  These fans are likely to be extremely vocal in terms of their opinion.  However, I think we need to be careful with how much importance we place on this vocal segment.  Our earlier analysis of mascot economics suggested that replacing Native American mascots has a negligible impact on revenues.  Our results mean that, despite what this segment says, when it comes to attending games and spending money there is little impact.  Of course, we can’t say whether the pro Indian mascot fans fail to follow through on their threats, or if these fans are replaced by other fans that previously stayed away because of the mascot.

One objection to our results was that the University of Illinois fundraisers have noted increased difficulty in raising funds since the Chief was retired.  And while we don’t doubt that fundraisers hear the retirement of the Chief as an excuse, I do know that all university fundraising has become more difficult since the economic slide of 2008, and I feel very confident in stating that if the football and basketball programs had not imploded at Illinois, that the “Chief” issue would be heard less frequently.

Thus far, I am not placing any blame on the student athletes, and I am suggesting that the use of Chief like symbolism can have a positive marketing impact.  So what is the issue?  While it isn’t an issue that can be addressed using data it is useful to consider why Native American mascots are important to fans and why they create anger or sadness in groups that want to see these mascots eliminated.  I would conjecture that in the case of fans, these mascots are associated with instances of team success or to memories of past enjoyment of games.  In the case of the University of Illinois it is the alumni and local community members that continue to lobby for the Chief.  I believe that they are fighting for an image or symbol that brings back happy memoires of their time on campus.  In the case of the Redskins, when fans think back to happy memories of watching games with friends, tailgating or championships these memories could be linked to the team name.  It’s not too far away from the old Seinfeld bit about how fans are really rooting for “the clothes.”  It’s not that fans care about the clothes; it is that the clothes trigger associations that bring happiness.  The relevant question is that if the team mascot is changed, will fans no longer have these memories?

For anti-mascot foes, I think the concerns move in the opposite direction.  By and large these anti-mascot advocates are concerned about how Native Americans are viewed by other segments of the population.  In this case the use of a Native American Mascot, and particularly a slur like Redskins, it is viewed as dangerous because they feel it associates a real population of people with a negative image.  This is important because it means that the anti-mascot forces are largely concerned about these mascots having a negative effect on current and future Native Americans while the pro mascot forces are mainly focused on preserving an element of their memories.

So where does this leave the University of Illinois or the Washington Redskins? For Illinois, the problem is that this mini-controversy results in an embarrassing and predictable course of events for the football team, and therefore the school.  Coach Beckman has promised to speak to the team about the issue and has stated “When dealing with the Chief and things involved in this program, in this university, we need to make sure we understand everything that’s involved in that. When making decisions on this, we need to make sure we’re making it in a way that’s right for the university. Everything we do, we do for the university.”

This puts Beckman in a no win situation.  He is placed squarely between the pro- and anti-chief segments.  He is either an insensitive, out of touch middle aged Caucasian male; or he lacks a backbone and he is just giving in to political correctness.  I have sympathy for Coach Backman and Chancellor Wise on these issues. Not because this is a difficult decision in that they are, guaranteed to offend a segment of the Illini nation with any decision, but because of the pointlessness of the discussion.  We just don’t have any evidence that it is worthwhile for Universities to fight this battle.  Retaining a Native American mascot seems to offend a portion of the community without providing any real benefits.

For the Redskins, our guess is that a change will eventually need to done and it is just a matter of when.  The tides are only moving in one direction as no new professional franchises have selected Native American mascots and college programs are moving away from these mascots as well.  It probably is a matter of whether the Washington NFL franchise wants to get ahead of the issue or if they want to have changed forced on them.