Lions, and Tigers, and Bears: The Cost of Live College Mascots

While the week one Michigan State upset may have rendered your March Madness bracket no better than chance, fret not, CBS Sports has released a bizarre new bracket to take your mind off of losing this year’s office pool: college sport’s toughest live mascot.

CBS’ list of the sixteen live mascots that you would least want to run into in an alleyway include Tusk, the Arkansas University razorback, Tom, the Memphis University tiger, and University of South Carolina’s ever-fearsome rooster. In the end, CBS has Ralphie the Buffalo (University of Colorado) winning the bracket, but in reality there are few winners in the world of live college mascots. Universities, students, and the animals themselves all stand to lose, and more than just bracket betting money.

Lions, Tigers, Bears....
(Sir Big Spur, University of South Carolina's live mascot. Photo by: G. Melendez.)

Also in the running for the CBS tough mascot title were the Baylor Bears, Joy and Lady, who roamed the stadium on leashes intimidating the opposing team and its fans until 2010 when the U.S. Department of Agriculture ruled that due to Lady and Joy’s size (360 and 345 pounds, respectively), bringing the bears to games posed a threat to public safety. On the other hand, Mike, the Louisiana State University Tiger, another first seed competitor in the CBS bracket, is still allowed to attend games. Mike typically paces outside of the visiting team’s locker rooms, so that players have to run past the roaring animal in order to get on to the field. But Mike hasn’t inspired much fear lately. Caretakers let Mike “decide” if he wants to attend games or not, and since 2014 he has chosen to attend only one. It should come as no surprise that the once tough and fearsome Mike has gone soft (CBS has him losing in a round 2 upset), as he recently moved into a cushy 15,000 square foot habitat, complete with pools, waterfalls, and “Italian structures.”

Mike isn’t the only live mascot living easy, either. While CBS only had room for 16 live mascots in their bracket, a little bit of digging quickly revealed that dozens of schools have live mascots, and while not all of them would be competitive candidates for CBS’ bracket, many live just as luxuriously as Mike. Since retiring from game attendance, Joy and Lady have been living large, in a lush off-campus enclosure that costs sponsors one million dollars, and University of North Alabama is home to two lions, Leo and Una, whose home costs about $35,000 a year. As the current presidential campaign has put the cost of college squarely in the spotlight, one has to wonder, just how expensive is it to care for a live mascot, and who is footing the bill? Does cost of attendance at LSU include Mike the Tiger’s steak dinners? If Bernie makes college free, are taxpayers going to be paying rent for the Baylor Bears?

Mike the Tiger’s luxury habitat cost private donors $3 million to build, a staggering sum initially requested in a 2002 state legislature budget proposal. The proposal, quickly struck down as outrageous at the time, sounds even more ridiculous now against the backdrop of Louisiana’s current budget woes. Without the support of state funding, then head football coach, Nick Saban, rallied alumni to donate through a fundraising campaign that included lavish private donor parties at his home. The campaign quickly raised the money required to build the habitat, and continues to accept donations today.

With state disinvestment still wreaking havoc on many university budgets, and skyrocketing tuition making college inaccessible for many, it’s too bad that alumni can’t be similarly rallied to donate more broadly to their alma maters. LSU fans can at least rest assured that a combination of high ticket sales and the support of their tiger loving alumni has prevented LSU from directly subsidizing college sports through student fees, as many schools do.

A report in the Chronicle of Higher Education found that in the past five years public Division I universities have charged close to $10 billion in mandatory student fees in order to subsidize sports programs. Their report also found that teams often use student fees to make up revenue when ticket sales are low, meaning that students that care the least about collegiate sports are the ones paying the most to support them. So while neither LSU students nor taxpayers contribute to the cost of Mike’s steaks, many other students across the country are being forced to pay for their school’s athletic programs, which often includes the care of live mascots.

Lucky for students at University of Georgia, the cost to care for a university mascot bulldog, like their beloved Uga, is estimated at only about $20,000 a year, a tenth of what donors continue to pay yearly to maintain Mike the Tiger’s standard of living. But despite the “low cost” of caring for Uga, and despite the fact that the University of Georgia games are typically well attended bringing in a consistent and sufficient source of revenue, they continue to charge students high athletic fees that totaled over $3,000,000 in 2014. Georgetown University is also home to a live bulldog mascot, Jack, and while it is unclear who pays for his living expenses (the Chronicle’s report did not collect data from private universities, and the caretaker did not immediately respond for comment), he does receive round the clock care from a caretaker that is employed full time by Georgetown to spoil the adorable pup, and the two live together in a campus provided townhome in ritzy Georgetown. (Disclaimer: the author of this post is a Georgetown University graduate student).

But to understand the true cost of live mascots, we must consider more than just student fees and alumni contributions, because the cost of keeping a live mascot runs deeper than dollars and cents. Animal right’s activists have levied a slew of complaints at various universities for their mistreatment of live mascots. PETA has released multiple reports complaining that just bringing live animals to bright, noisy football stadiums constitutes cruel behavior, but many have also raised more serious concerns, of sedation, starvation, and other abuses. Kent State University, (a school where student fees contribute to over half of total sports funding) permanently disabled their Golden Eagle in a car accident on the way to a game in 2008.

The use of live mascots is a long college tradition that dates back to 1898. Throughout history college mascots have been used to rally team spirit, intimidate opponents, and build fun alternative brackets. But given the high cost to students, alumni, and the animals themselves, it may be time that this tradition came to an end.

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