Unless you’ve been under a rock, you know that Villanova won its second men’s NCAA basketball championship in three years on Monday, taking out the University of Michigan 79-62. According to a report by the National Wildlife Foundation, highlighted in a recent story in Yale Climate Connections, the Wildcats of Villanova and Michigan’s Wolverines are just two of a number of college sports’ iconic mascots to be under threat from the effects of climate change.
Mascots are integral to the color and pageantry that is college sports.
While some mascots take human form (like the Scarlet Knights of my alma mater, Rutgers), some are colors (like the Violets of NYU, where I went to grad school), and some are quirky (what, exactly is an Eph, the mascot of Williams College# in the Berkshire hills of Western Massachusetts?), many are animals and many of those animal mascots are facing climate change-related threats to their existence.
Samantha Harrington delved into that topic in “These March Madness Mascots are in Danger from Climate Change,” which ran in the March 13 issue of Yale Climate Connections, the newsletter of the terrific Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.
Harrington quoted Tara Losoff of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), which issued a Mascot Madness report, as saying that “Many of the animals that inspired [college] team names, these mascots, are at risk of being impacted by climate change.”
While Villanova’s Wildcats were dominant during this year’s run to the NCAA championship — they won all six of their games by 12 points or more — the report points out that wildcats are enduring existential challenges due to climate change:
“North America is home to wildcats like the Canada lynx, ocelot, and Florida panther (the mascot of Pitt, Northern Iowa and Florida International — not to mention the NHL’s team in South Florida)…Climate change is causing a decrease in lynx and could lead to disappearance from the lower 48 states in the next 50 years. The lynx depends on deep snow cover and as the climate warms, it could be unable to field a full roster. As sea levels continue to rise, the Florida panther may be run out of bounds. Just three feet of sea level rise, expected by the end of the century, would flood 30 percent of panther habitat. Droughts driven by climate change are already threatening the reproductive health of ocelots and sea level rise is expected to wipe out some of [their] coastal habitat.”
Villanova’s wildcat. According to a National Wildlife Foundation report, wildcats are one of many mascot species under threat from the effects of climate change (Photo credit: Mark Konezny, USA TODAY sports)
On the court in San Antonio Monday night, Michigan’s Wolverines did not fare well against Villanova’s relentless rebounding, championship level defense, and the three point shooting of Final Four Most Outstanding Player Donte DiVincenzo. In the wild, per the NWF report, the wolverine is having a much tougher time:
“The cold-weather wolverine is rapidly vanishing from continental America as climate change continues to warm the planet. The deep snowpack, so essential for denning and raising their young, is harder and harder to find. The wolverine population in the lower 48 states is struggling to hold on and now numbers only 250 to 300. Unless we act soon, climate change could turn this losing battle into a blowout. The rapidly disappearing wolverine may soon be declared a threatened species as the climate warms even more.”
A wolverine in the Bridger Mountains north of Bozeman, MT (Photo credit: Daniel J. Cox, naturalexposures.com)
Other mascot species under threat from climate change go beyond the Wizard of Oz trio of Lions (Columbia, Loyola Marymount), Tigers (Clemson, LSU, Memphis, Missouri) and Bears (Baylor, Cal-Berkeley) to include Bison/Buffaloes (Bucknell, Colorado, North Dakota State), Rams (Colorado State, Fordham, VCU), Ducks (Oregon), Falcons (Air Force Academy, Bowling Green) and Turtles (Maryland Terrapins).
The Clemson Tiger (Photo credit: Dawson Powers)
The NWF report makes clear that the harmful effects of climate change go beyond animal mascots to include crops like Buckeyes (Ohio State), Corn (Nebraska Cornhuskers), and Oranges (Syracuse Orangemen). These impacts include more intense bouts of extreme weather like Cyclones (Iowa State), Hurricanes (Miami) and Storms (St. John’s Red Storm).
Losoff told Harrington that making a connection between mascots and climate change can help get people thinking and talking about global warming: “Talking about a beloved animal mascot being impacted by climate change could be a way to engage friends and family members who might not otherwise be interested or engaged in talking about climate.”
I agree and would go even further.
It seems to me that the “Mascots Being Threatened by Climate Change” story angle provides a big marketing opportunity — and a chance to do some real good — to two key players in the college sports ecosystem: Colleges and university athletics departments and the corporations that sponsor and/or advertise on them. Especially those corporations and brands that promote their greenness.
Think about it.
Some companies and brands embracing (the very neutral-sounding) sustainability still don’t want to deal with climate change — seen by many as too controversial and political — head on in their marketing messages.
This is a faulty strategy, in my humble opinion. Corporations, as well as sports teams — pro and college alike — are falling all over themselves to figure out how to appeal to millennials and Generation Z. These cohorts, far more than their predecessors, see climate change not as an if, but rather as a what are we going to do about it question.
Gun violence is a much more immediate, high profile issue than climate change, but the reaction of many Generation Zers and millennials since the Parkland High School tragedy is instructive. It shows that a significant cadre of these young people seem to run towards controversies and politics. Brands, it says here, will start to take note. Which means that the climate is likely safer than it’s ever been for corporations/brands — including college sports advertisers like General Motors and Nike — to promote their climate change fighting efforts, like generating renewable energy at and/or purchasing renewable energy for their factories.
But if companies — concerned about being called out by climate change skeptics and deniers on the one hand or for greenwashing, for not being perfect on the other — are still not ready to make the jump into the climate change waters, the NWF report provides the perfect way to wade in.
You see, almost everyone loves animals and animal conservation. And almost every college sports fan loves their team’s mascot. Corporations/brands and their college sports partners can wrap themselves in mascot preservation as a way to engage on climate change.
Watch this space.
# The Williams College Ephs (pronounced “Eephs”) are named for the school’s founder, Ephraim Williams