Online Protests Give New Arizona State U. Mascot a Devil of a Time

The on-field Sparky has a new look (right) that some fans just haven't warmed to. (Photo courtesy Arizona State U.)

The new Sparky (right) got his look as part of a campaign to attract younger fans. (Photo courtesy Arizona State U.)

Some of the early buzz on the new look for Sparky, the Arizona State University Sun Devils’ mascot, has been, well, diabolical.

“Creepy” has popped up several times since its unveiling, on March 1.

“Sparky looks like he is on meth,” one Internet commenter offered.

“It’s like a cross between Jafar from ‘Aladdin’ and the honey bee from the Honey Nut Cheerios commercials, with a little bit of Buzz Lightyear thrown in,” the ASU State Press opined.

Even worse, as far as some students and alumni are concerned, “none of the stakeholders were brought up to date that this was coming,” said Shaun Bainbridge, a 2000 graduate who is president of an ASU alumni group in Colorado and one of the founders of the Facebook page Bring the Old ASU Sparky Back. Unequivocally replacing the previous incarnation of the venerable costumed mascot with the “animated-slash-superhero Sparky” is “pretty terrible, and insensitive” of ASU officials, he said, and he and some fellow alumni intend to fight back.

While headlines have touted the “backlash” against the new mascot’s look, what the reaction to the new Sparky may represent, more than anything, is another example of how social media amplify the voices of the disgruntled and help drum up media interest (including, it must be acknowledged, from The Chronicle) in ostensible controversies.

“Some of what you’re seeing in terms of media reporting doesn’t match our experience” of the response to the new Sparky, said Terri Shafer, ASU’s associate vice president for marketing and strategic communications. The new design rollout included more than 236,000 copies of an e-mail sent to ASU supporters, Ms. Shafer said, and about 300 recipients responded with questions or complaints, for a negative response rate of “about one-tenth of 1 percent.”

That e-mail is another step in a process that began several years ago, when ASU began looking into why its season-ticket holders skewed older compared with those of many other college athletic programs. The university found that “a lot of it pointed back to our brand,” Ms. Shafer said. “Our brand at the time was not attractive to younger audiences. If you want to run a healthy, well-balanced athletic program, you need to have fans of all age groups.”

Working with Nike, ASU first rebranded with a new pitchfork logo on its football helmets and other athletic paraphernalia in April 2011. There was some pushback from students and alumni, Ms. Shafer said, but attendance increased at football games that fall, and sales of ASU-branded merchandise jumped too.

Enter Sparky 2.0. His skin is still ASU gold, and his jersey is still ASU maroon. And like the old Sparky character logo, originally introduced in 1946, the new mascot’s look was designed by the Walt Disney Company. (Gratis, Ms. Shafer noted.)

If the new Sparky’s demeanor is less mock sinister and more anime friendly, that’s because “the character is primarily being used to reach younger audiences,” Ms. Shafer said. In addition to the new costumed character on the sidelines at sporting events, plans call for the new Sparky to star in comic books and other merchandise aimed at children.

The process of creating a new look for the university’s mascot involved focus groups and one-on-one interviews with “200 to 250” students, alumni, ASU athletics fans, and community leaders, Ms. Shafer said. But Daniel Clark, a 1991 ASU graduate and a Facebook foe of neo-Sparky, is dubious.

“Who were these focus groups? Who were these people that they talked with? What were the results?” Mr. Clark said. “Who is this younger generation that it’s appealing to?” Among the children of his alumni friends, he added, “most of them are either on the fence, or they don’t like him.”

Still, the on-record opposition so far represents a tiny fraction of ASU’s 72,000 students and nearly 400,000 alumni.

The Bring the Old ASU Sparky Back page sported just over 1,400 “likes” as of early this morning. An online petition at asking the university to revert to the old Sparky has enlisted about 1,900 supporters. And in an informal poll at House of Sparky, an ASU athletics fan site, about 76 percent of about 2,500 voters did not like the new mascot.

Sam Waterson, executive vice president and creative director of RHB, a marketing firm that works with colleges, has seen this scenario play out before. “Social media makes it all that much more easy for our publics to say what they think, and whether that’s good or bad, generally we notice the bad before we notice the good,” he said.

Officials at ASU, Mr. Waterson added, are probably feeling some of the same frustrations as officials at the University of California system did when they rolled out a new system logo last December and met with rampant negative reactions online. UC walked it back a week later. Of course, more than 54,000 people had signed a petition asking for the old UC logo to be reinstated.

And the old Sparky logo will still decorate ASU apparel, merchandise, and athletic fields. “We listened to our stakeholders, and one of the decisions we made was not to do away with our old mascot,” said Ms. Shafer, who will meet with opponents of the new mascot look this week. “We care about what our audiences think and how they’re engage with the university, and so we take all of them seriously, even small numbers.”

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