At some point during a game, we’ve all looked at the mascot and wondered: How did that person get this job? Maybe you’ve even gone so far as to wonder about the benefits package. In that case, you should definitely check out Hulu’s new documentary series Behind the Mask. The addictive half-hour show, which premieres on the website on October 29, offers an all-access pass to the lives of four mascots at four different levels of the profession.
At the top is Kevin Vanderkolk, who wows crowds of twenty thousand basketball fans as Milwaukee Bucks mascot Bango. Then there’s Chad Spencer, who plays Tux the penguin for a minor league hockey team; Jon “Jersey” Goldman, who spent six years performing frontiersman Hey Reb! for the UNLV basketball team; and high school junior Michael Hostetter, who nobly embodies the most unfortunate mascot in all of high school football, Rooty the Cedar Tree.
Watching Behind the Mask, it’s hard not to be floored by the level of dedication, prep work, and emotional investment each of these men puts into his mascot. It’s a world that has always been kept behind closed doors – and since the doors are now open, we decided to interrogate cast members Kevin Vanderkolk (Bango) and Jersey Goldman (Hey Reb!) about their life’s work. Here are ten things you didn’t know about being a professional mascot.
1. Secrecy is part of the deal.
An unofficial code dictates that mascots are never allowed to speak in costume, remove their heads publicly, or talk about their jobs. For ten years prior to making this documentary, Vanderkolk kept his identity as Bango a secret; his children were instructed to say that their dad “sells tickets for the Bucks.” He agreed to be filmed, however, in the hopes that Behind the Mask would bring credibility to the mascot industry. “A lot of people think, to have a mascot, you can just put anybody in a costume…and that’s not what being a professional sports mascot is all about,” he tells us. “The performer is the key to the success of the character.”
2. Mascots don’t make bank… unless they hustle.
Base salaries for the big leagues range from around $28K to $55K, with part-timers making between $100 and $200 a game. For the minor leagues, it’s significantly lower. (One of the documentary’s subjects, Chad, supplements his income by working as a children’s magician.) Mascots do have the option of bringing in extra money via appearance fees, which can add up; the San Diego Chicken claims that he makes up to six figures a year. Then again, the San Diego Chicken (who used to be affiliated with the Padres) is a free agent, which gives him unlimited time to seek out fancy events that require a giant chicken.
3. Being a basketball mascot is very different than being a football mascot.
Vanderkolk worked for the Arizona Cardinals prior to the Bucks, and while the qualifications are the same, the difference between working an arena and a stadium is huge. “In the NFL, the mascot kind of gets lost in the crowd and it’s not a focal point,” he says. “But in an NBA arena, you’re center stage. I think there’s something very powerful about being in center court with the players, then being able to run into the stands and give a kid a high-five. You’re that connection between the actual floor of the sport and the fans. And in the NFL, that’s just not possible.”
4. Mascots can be eligible for full college scholarships.
From the moment Goldman learned this fact, he was determined to channel his after-school job playing costumed characters into a free education. Once he settled on UNLV, “I just kissed everybody’s ass, anybody who had a title that was relevant to the mascot,” he recalls. It worked: The University of Nevada Las Vegas paid his tuition for four years, and when he couldn’t graduate, they spotted him for an extra two.
5. Being a mascot is a huge commitment—and the better you get, the bigger it becomes.
As it turns out, fuzzy characters with permanent smiles are pretty popular in a recession. Over the course of his six years playing Hey Reb!, Goldman went from doing 60 appearances a year to doing 300. (This explains, in part, why it took him six years to graduate.) Red Sox mascot Wally the Green Monster has said he does more than 300 appearances a year, sometimes working 80-90 hours a week.
6. What’s going on under the suit isn’t always pretty.
According to the performers, it is extremely rare for a professional mascot to have an understudy. “I can remember doing games when I had the flu—you go in the back, you throw up in the bathroom, you put the head back on, and you go back out there,” Vanderkolk says. Another challenge: because the heavy suit raises their body temperature, mascots are constantly drinking water, which means that they need to find quick and creative ways to pee. So if you’ve been taking smoke breaks underneath the bleachers, you may want to cut that out.
7. Getting your foot in the door can be a challenge.
There’s no one way to become a professional mascot. Vanderkolk was given his first audition on the recommendation of a friend, and found that his gymnastics training gave him a leg up. Goldman worked his way up the ladder by taking every mascot job he could get, performing as 42 different characters from the time he was 13. The usual hiring process is a straight-up audition, though the more competitive teams may narrow the field by looking at video reels. If you’re dying to throw your hat in the ring, you can attend mascot training camp, which is a kind of grad school/farm team for aspiring anthromorphic characters.
8. The suit may come off, but the character never leaves.
“When you spend six years with somebody, you start to develop, obviously, a strong relationship with them. I’d say Hey Reb! is just as much a brother to me, if not more so, than my actual brother,” says Goldman. For Vanderkolk, Bango is more of a personal brand than a family member, but he’s never far from his mind. “I’m constantly thinking about my job,” says Vanderkolk, who is married with five children. “You go to bed sleeping on it, you wake up in the middle of the night thinking about it—whether you’re rehearsing a performance or creating a skit, it’s always there. It’s more than a full-time job. It’s definitely a lifestyle.”
9. Mascots risk the same injuries as athletes.
It’s a pretty athletic job, and it’s not unusual for mascots to suffer career-ending injuries. Just last month, the performer playing the Toronto NBA mascot The Raptor tore his Achilles tendon and is expected to spend a year on the bench. Broken legs and ankles are common, as are injuries from accidental falls. “In some cases, when you get hurt, it gives you material,” says Vanderkolk, who suffered a knee injury in 2009, when he accidentally fell through the basket. (You read that right.) “When you get hurt, your character gets hurt, and it instantly becomes a prop or something you can create from,” he says. Bango, like Kevin, spent part of that season in a wheelchair.
10. A mascot can change the direction of a game.
If there’s one thing every mascot performer can agree on, it’s this. “If you watch the series,” Kevin promises, “you’ll definitely see how each one of the characters has an outcome on all of our games.”