A Hero's once and future story

It’s late August. NFL pre-season is underway. Major League Baseball is in full swing. Yet the No. 1 topic across American sports talk radio, just as it has been seemingly all summer, is the NBA, now whether the Lakers and Magic Johnson have nefariously been up to no-good in flirting with Paul George.

The NBA — and by extension, basketball, which is huge internationally — is doing a lot of things right. It has stars. It has personalities. A game is an experience. You go expecting buzz. There's music, lights, cheerleaders (Lawrence Tanter, Showtime, “Laker Girls …”), a kiss-cam and, if a team gets it right like the Chicago Bulls did, a super-cool mascot.

This brings us to track and field, the just-concluded IAAF world championships in London and Hero the Hedgehog.

 Hero with American sprint hurdles silver medalist Dawn Harper-Nelson // Getty Images

Hero with American sprint hurdles silver medalist Dawn Harper-Nelson // Getty Images

Those championships were, by virtually every measure, the best-ever: ticket sales, thrilling performance, fan engagement. Hero played a key role in London 2017’s success.

Sometimes something is so obvious it just needs to be put out there: Hero should be the IAAF’s — no, more broadly, track and field’s — brand ambassador.

Instead of creating a new mascot each and at every major IAAF championships, Hero affords the IAAF and the sport a huge — indeed, unprecedented — upside.

 In the sand pit // photo courtesy Ian Mollard

In the sand pit // photo courtesy Ian Mollard

In considering how Hero came to be and why Hero proved so successful at those championships is to understand why London 2017 marked merely the tip of the possibilities in event presentation, marketing, branding, entertainment and social media.

Don’t laugh at any of this.

Mascots are big stuff.

 Signs, signs, everywhere signs // photo courtesy Ian Mollard

Signs, signs, everywhere signs // photo courtesy Ian Mollard

The Tokyo Summer Games, for instance, just drew 2,042 entries for the mascot design for the 2020 Olympics: 1,174 individual applications and 268 group entries.

Connecting with young people is vital. In particular, this is what track and field is so keen to find a way to do.

And this is what Hero did — does — so well.

Hero’s story begins with another mascot contest.

The summer of 2017 saw both the IAAF competition at Olympic Stadium and, before that, the World ParaAthletics Championships run by the International Paralympic Committee. Those two organizers, in concert with a BBC children’s program, Blue Peter, ran a contest for mascots for both events. It drew 4,000 entries.

The winner: a 9-year-old girl from Britain’s West Midlands region who designed ‘Whizbee the Bee’ (who had a prosthetic leg) and ‘Hero the Hedgehog,’ telling the BBC, “Bees are really important because they make the world go around and hedgehogs are determined and brave.”

For Maria Ramos, London 2017’s head of brands, the question on the table was elemental: “How do we shake things up and present athletics in a different way?”

At the 2009 championships in Berlin, a mascot had been more than just smile-and-wave. Berlino the Bear had memorably hammed it up with Usain Bolt.

 With the photographers // photo courtesy Ian Mollard

With the photographers // photo courtesy Ian Mollard

“Berlino was great,” Ramos said, adding, “We did have it in the back of our minds: ‘Berlino was the best mascot. Let’s see if we can beat Berlino. It’s just a London thing.’ “

It was also a recognition of where the sport is, and where it could go — in particular under the direction of new IAAF leadership, a president, Seb Coe, and chief executive officer, Olivier Gers, who encouraged precisely this sort of initiative.

How to bring “determined” and “brave” to life?

Ramos brought on board Ian Mollard, director of a company called Curiosity 360 Productions, who has been in sports marketing for more than 25 years, a veteran of the past two Summer Games as well as of the Invictus Games in Florida, an international Paralympic-style multi-sport event created by Prince Harry.

In Britain, and especially in comparison to American counterparts, mascots had tended to be on the boring side. As Mollard put it with a laugh, “They’re all fat, they’ve got giant shoes, they’re being led around by the hand and they wave at people.”

Compare that to an NBA mascot, say, doing a backflip off a ladder. Or a dunk off a trampoline.

Or, perhaps best, Chicago’s Benny the Bull. Who can forget Benny on The Jerry Springer Show? Do not snicker at Jerry Springer as so much American trailer-park trash, London and overseas friends. We refer you to “Jerry Springer: The Opera,” which played at, among other venues in London, the National Theater.

Moving along:

Mollard convinced the London 2017 folks of the notion of a dynamic NBA-style mascot. Along with “determined” and “brave,” Hero also had — as a Twitter post would later relate — “agility, strength, passion and fur of steel!” (Over the course of the championships, it should be noted, Hero racked up more than 4,700 Twitter followers.)

The time frame proved tight. Turnaround from contract agreement to finish, Mollard said, was June 1 to July 26. Another company in the UK had already made Hero into a physical presence — the challenge was to take that existing character and give it a dynamic personality and, moreover, in a stadium, obviously a far-different stage than a basketball arena.

“The sport had to be protected,” Ramos said, meaning (again, obviously) the competitions themselves couldn’t be disturbed.

“But other than that," she said, "they had free run to do great skits.”

In bringing such skits to life, Mollard reached out to some American contacts with experience in exactly this sort of thing.

Show business demands that some mysteries remain just that, eternally behind the curtains, especially when it comes to mascots. Let’s just say that it’s something of an open secret in certain circles who is who and what what when it comes to Hero -- but why ruin anything for 9-year-olds or, for that matter, anyone and everyone who, in person or online, saw Hero do his thing during the 2017 IAAF championships?

As Ramos said, “There’s no curtain inside the costume. It’s just Hero.”

Which Hero skit was the best?

Come on. Who's better, Kobe or MJ? Wilt Chamberlain or Bill Russell? Which dunk is better -- Darryl Dawkins' Chocolate Thunder old-school blackboard-breaker or Blake Griffin's over-the-Kia Optima?

Who's the best 007? Sean Connery? Roger Moore? Daniel Craig?

With Hero, was it the slip ’n slide run on a pink-and-yellow plastic inner tube in the rain? Hero's many encounters with Bolt? The droll signs, among them: “You are beating the person behind you!!!” The offer of free doughnuts to the sprinters on their way to the track? The zip-line into the stadium? The somersault into the picture with the winning British 4x1 relay team? A cannonball into the steeplechase water hazard?

Given the tight time frame with which everyone had to work, London 2017 has to be just the beginning.

Now that everyone better understands how to work NBA-style in a stadium instead of an arena — how to connect costume, field of play, jumbotron and more — Hero's impact could be all that much more: skits, ad-libs, interaction with athletes.

Like basketball, track and field needs to be more of a show.

Traditionalists may cringe but this is the case: the past several decades have proven, unequivocally, that just running, jumping and throwing is not enough to get butts in seats, keep them there and, most important, get them back again.

Especially the backsides of younger people for whom Carl Lewis and Michael Johnson are figures from a time when teenagers did not have cell phones.

Already, as Mollard said, Hero has “turned upside down” the potential for merchandising, deeper brand development, social media engagement and more.

The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, on Twitter: “… best mascot ever!”

BBC: “Hero the Hedgehog, you’re a hero!”

CBS Sports: “… he has been an absolute show-stealer”

Runner’s World: “No athlete from any nation put forth a performance quite like Hero the Hedgehog. It took me a few days to realize that Hero had a name and wasn’t an armadillo, but no matter — that was one entertaining mascot. Hero needs to become a regular at every track meet.”

Exactly.

More Runner’s World: “Let’s face it: Hero added some character and levity to a sport that desperately needs a good laugh.:

Precisely.

“As it pertains directly to track and field,” Mollard said, “there is always a link between a host city and a federation, and the hope is that Hero will help close that gap — a city such as London with its history of innovation on the world stage wanted to make a mark ith the introduction of a dynamic and creative Hero within the stadium and although perhaps only dancing around the edges of what could be achievable, the impact was huge on an audience largely new to this kind of mascot.”