Sports Nut

Of Flying Squirrels and Yard Goats

Meet the branding geniuses behind some of minor league baseball’s craziest logos and mascots.

Logos for Flying Squirrels, Hartford Yard Goats, and Akron Rubbe
The logos for Flying Squirrels, Hartford Yard Goats, and Akron RubberDucks.

Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez. Logos courtesy of the teams.

When Connecticut’s most prominent Minor League Baseball franchise moves into a 9,000-seat ballpark in the state capital next year, it will be renamed for an animal that people still believe eats tin cans. At a confetti-soaked press conference held at a local YMCA in March, the New Britain Rock Cats announced that they were about to become the Hartford Yard Goats. Two of the hooved creatures were trotted out onto the stage after the reveal, but the Hartford Courant reported that “they nervously strayed to the side.”

Picked by an executive committee from a short list that had been winnowed down from 6,000 submissions, the Colorado Rockies AA affiliate’s choice of mascot triggered reactions ranging from delight to bemusement to anger. In June, the New York Times even published an article about the controversial name change. One 87-year-old Rock Cats season ticket holder told the paper that the team’s new moniker was the “worst thing I ever heard of.”

The negative attention didn’t bother Brandiose, the San Diego-based sports marketing company that came up with Hartford’s logo, which consists of a horned, bearded goat gnawing on a baseball bat. The brainchild of longtime friends Jason Klein and Casey White, the firm specializes in developing unique team identities. By now, the duo has learned that pushback against a name as strange as Yard Goats isn’t a bad thing. “You want it to be polarizing,” Klein said, because it shows that the public is interested.

Over the last decade, minor league franchises have hired Brandiose (pronounced like “grandiose”) to sculpt distinctive name and logo combinations seemingly out of thin air. But as goofy as Brandiose designs can be, the story behind them must be carefully crafted. After all, small clubs in small cities often need ways to hook fans—particularly families with young kids—who might be less interested in watching hotshot major league prospects than they are in partaking in an inspired promotion. “Teams that don’t have huge budgets need to make a splash,” Klein said. “They have to cheat with things that get them a ton of publicity.”

If that philosophy sounds cynical, just remember that unlike their parent organizations, minor league teams don’t have big, built-in fan bases. Desperation is necessary. It leads to the kind of creative ideas deemed too irreverent for the stodgy big leagues. “We’re not sending rockets to the moon here,” said Todd Parnell, vice president and COO of the Richmond Flying Squirrels, a team whose logo was conjured by Brandiose. “We’re in the entertainment business.”

For Brandiose, business is booming. It has worked with more than 50 teams, including the Akron RubberDucks, the Pensacola Blue Wahoos, and the Biloxi Shuckers. The company was founded as Plan B Branding in 2000, but Klein and White have known each other since kindergarten.

At Helix High, Klein served as the school’s mascot—a Scottish terrier—while White was a star offensive lineman. As teenagers, they designed uniforms for the football team that White’s father coached. By the time they finished high school, both Klein and White had landed part-time game day jobs with the San Diego Padres. For a time, the former even served as the team’s friar mascot.

Then, on April 16, 1999, six months after leading the Padres to the World Series, pitcher Kevin Brown came to town as a member of the rival Dodgers. He’d signed a $105 million contract with Los Angeles during the offseason, making him a natural villain in San Diego. As the right-hander was exiting the game in the seventh inning, the Associated Press reported that “a life-size piñata resembling Brown, hanging by the neck from a stick, was smashed apart by the Padres’ Friar mascot. Fake dollar bills tumbled out.”

Klein and White claimed responsibility for the prank. It was their last night with the Padres. White eventually started attending Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute while Klein’s dress-up days continued at the University of Alabama, where he played the mascot of the football team: “Big Al” the elephant.

As students, the two sent letters looking for work to 150 minor league franchises, only one of which responded: the West Tenn Diamond Jaxx. For a small fee, the friends revamped the club’s overall look. Despite the fact that there are no diamond mines in Tennessee, the duo created a logo featuring a cartoon diamond miner who had better facial hair than Rollie Fingers. To capitalize on that theme, the team sold foam pickaxes and fake mustaches. Going to Disneyland as children clearly had taught Klein and White a key principle of the team name game: People love cute characters.

Within a few years, their fledgling company had a handful of clients. In 2007, the pair helped rebrand the Rockies’ rookie ball club in Wyoming. On Halloween of that year, the Casper Rockies announced that they were becoming the Casper Ghosts. The following season, the team wore baseball’s first on-field glow-in-the-dark caps. That spring, the former Ottawa Lynx, the Philadelphia Phillies AAA affiliate, played their inaugural game as the Lehigh Valley IronPigs. The team was named for pig iron, the raw ore used to make steel, Eastern Pennsylvania’s most famous product. The logo, which Klein and White created, is a pig’s head with rivets. According to Bloomberg, the IronPigs led the minor leagues in merchandise sales in 2008. (Last year, the team introduced hats emblazoned with a giant slab of bacon. Those sold well, too.)

When the San Francisco Giants AA affiliate relocated from Connecticut to Virginia, it knew who to call. In late 2009, the team announced that it would be renamed the Richmond Flying Squirrels. Because the real-life version of their new mascot wasn’t exactly ubiquitous in the Old Dominion State, Parnell knew the concept was risky. To Brandiose, that made it worth trying. The team’s primary logo, maybe the company’s most famous, looks like Alvin the Chipmunk on a cocktail of Mountain Dew Kickstart and growth hormone. Klein said that in 2010 the Flying Squirrels sold the most merchandise in the minors.

It may seem that Brandiose’s use of zany characters is brainless gimmickry, but there’s plenty of thought behind the approach. Simply pulling a wacky name out of a hat isn’t wise. Calling a team the Purple Elephants may sound good in your head, Klein said, but beyond the novelty of it, there’s nothing there. “People will say it’s a marketing ploy,” he added. “It’ll burn out.”

In 2013, Brandiose helped San Diego’s AAA affiliate, the Tucson Padres, become the El Paso Chihuahuas. The name is a marketing ploy, but an enduring one. The team has taken advantage of their feisty new identity, trotting out slightly off-kilter but memorable promotions like nachos served in a dog bowl and Chihuahua face jerseys. Keith Olbermann wore one of the latter on the air on ESPN, introducing America to the most terrifying uniform in sports.

But how, you may ask, does Brandiose ensure that its creations don’t end up like Poochie, the rockin’ dog? To answer that, let’s go back to the Yard Goats. Klein and White are both meticulous in their efforts to find new, catchy ideas and also in their attempts to capture the spirit of a city. In February, the pair spent two snowy days in Hartford to get a feel for the fans to whom they were trying to appeal. When I asked Klein what kind of impression Hartford left on him, he played the word association game, calling Connecticut’s capital “independent,” “territorial,” “temperamental,” “small,” “tough,” “bold,” and “resilient.” Of the finalists, only one seemed to meet all of Klein and White’s criteria.

That’s why the selection committee, which included Klein and White, ultimately eschewed Hedgehogs, Praying Mantis, River Hogs, and Whirlybirds for Yard Goats. UConn graduate Anthony Castora was the only person who submitted the name, an antiquated term for a type of train that moves cars between a railroad yard’s tracks. In addition to designing several goat-centric logos, Brandiose created jersey lettering inspired by the font used by the once-dominant, now-nonexistent New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad. By making blue and green the team colors, the company shrewdly paid homage to the dearly departed Hartford Whalers.

The initial negative reaction faded quickly. By mid-July, the Courant was reporting that on the first day of merchandise sales, the team sold upward of 1,000 items. Even longtime sports columnist Jeff Jacobs, who panned the name in March, reversed course, writing that now it makes him smile.

Other teams now seem to be taking cues from the duo’s success. For one game this month, the Fresno Grizzlies became the Fresno Tacos. It wasn’t a Brandiose project, but it felt like one.

As tiresome as the endless barrage of minor league promotions can be, the company’s growing influence is a good thing. Brandiose’s aesthetic now even can be seen in the major league. A few years ago, the Cincinnati Reds hired Klein and White to spruce up the team’s look. It’s unclear whether other organizations will follow suit. Most major professional sports teams, Klein pointed out, are “just a little down the middle in terms of their approach.”

For the Reds, Brandiose revamped both the team’s signature font style and its longtime mascot Mr. Redlegs. The giant headed, mustached character may be 62 years old, but in the firm’s online portfolio of original creations, he looks right at home among an anthropomorphic vegetable named Mr. Celery and the asparagus-wielding shipyard worker 5 O’Clock Dock. If anything, Brandiose proves that baseball, for all its self-seriousness, is at its heart goofy as hell.

Josh Levin contributed reporting to this story. Images courtesy of Brandiose.