In all of the news in the last few weeks regarding contractual issues in sports—the MLB trade deadline, holdouts in NFL training camps and the like—it may have escaped even the most discerning eye that the Philadelphia Phillies and the creators of the team’s mascot, the Phanatic, are involved in a lawsuit. According to the suit, the creators threatened to revoke the team’s rights to the mascot and place the Phanatic into the free agent market. The Phillies filed an injunction proceeding to try to prevent that from happening. While there are various aspects of copyright law at issue in the case, the battleground pits the ability of the Phanatic’s creators to sell the mascot to another sports team against the Phillies’ desire to “ensure that Phillies fans will not be deprived of their beloved mascot of 41 years,” as they say in their lawsuit.
The fascinating question to ponder, however, is this: Where does a mascot go if he/she/it is entitled to become a free agent? Would Ace the Blue Jay in Toronto really work as a mascot for the St. Louis Cardinals? How would Mr. Met go over in Kansas City? Would the celestial Orbit, the mascot of the Houston Astros, get traction as a symbol of the subsurface Miami Marlins?
The interesting thing about mascots is that their free agent market ostensibly is not limited to the sport in which they rose to notoriety. Some mascots might try to become the Bo Jackson or Deion Sanders of their species and cross over to another sport. But that doesn’t necessarily lead to a natural landing spot in the mascot free agent sweepstakes. I couldn’t really see the Miami Heat’s Burnie being courted by the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Boston Celtics’ Lucky the Leprechaun would be somewhat out of place as the mascot for the New York Giants. And the New Jersey Devil would surely have a hard time selling his services to the New Orleans Saints.
Colleges could get into the market as well. But could you picture a job swap between Bevo the longhorn at the University of Texas and Bucky Badger in Wisconsin?
There are exceptions, of course. The various bears out there (T.C. Bear of the Minnesota Twins for one) might find a home in Chicago. Any mascot that is red (Fredbird of the Cardinals, for instance) could at least get a meeting with the Cincinnati Reds. And the San Antonio Spurs Coyote could make a seamless transition to a hockey mascot in Phoenix.
In fact, there has been at least one instance where a mascot did successfully switch teams and sports, albeit in the same market. When the Montreal Expos left to become the Washington Nationals, their mascot Youppi! found himself in that rare free agent market. After some negotiation, reportedly in the six figures, he eventually found a new home with the Montreal Canadiens, trading his check swings for checks against the boards.
I ponder what the Philly Phanatic will do if it is successful in the lawsuit. Will it take its talents to South Beach? Will it become the Andy Messersmith of mascots and start a flood of mascot free agency? Is the Phanatic the Kevin Durant of the free agent process, or does he risk being Rudy, having to walk on to some playing field somewhere? Depending on the results, it could turn into a Homer-the-Brave new world.
Bob Latham is a partner at the law firm Jackson Walker, L.L.P., and a World Rugby board member. A compilation of his best columns titled “Winners & Losers: Rants, Riffs and Reflections on the World of Sports,” is available for purchase at amazon.com.