Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Sport Fans Score $1 Million From A Bright Idea

Dominic And Brennan Latkovski Story


This wacky mascot troupe makes crowds at games laugh, while behind the scenes is a serious effort to run a professional, respected business.

It's not safe coaching third base -- or any base, for that matter -- when the ZOOperstars are in town. Just ask the countless coaches who have been swallowed whole by 10-foot-tall Clammy Sosa, one of the most popular of the ZOOperstars.

In the mascot troupe's signature bit, the impressively tall inflatable clam clad in a Sammy Sosa jersey greedily "devours" opposing coaches, bat boys, or whoever else happens to be around, then spits out his meal's shirt, shoes, and cap, all while Weird Al Yankovic's Eat It plays in the background.

"Yeah, the Eat It skit is a real favorite," says Dominic Latkovski, who founded ZOOperstars with his brother, Brennan, in 1998. "The crowd loves it."

It's just one reason why the Louisville-based ZOOperstars have turned into one of the hottest sideline acts in the sports world. The company's goal is to perform in 300 shows at various events this year -- from the hardwood of the National Basketball Assn. to the fields of Minor League Baseball, the company's biggest sport. Latkovski says revenue from ZOOperstars may hit $1 million this year.

While event attendance in general has sagged as of late, Minor League Baseball continues to surge in popularity, in large part because teams have set out to create a "fan experience" that includes extra entertainment like ZOOperstars. In 2004, minor league teams drew a record 39.8 million fans, up more than 800,000 over the previous year, according to league statistics.

The ZOOperstars have tried to set themselves apart from the competition (and yes, there is competition, such as the Raymond Entertainment Group, out of Newark, Del., best known for Reggy the Purple Party Dude) by taking a serious approach to business -- despite making a living wearing giant, inflatable costumes. Their attitude is greatly appreciated by harried team executives, who would rather not spend time worrying if the guy in the clam costume will show up late.

"They're real professionals," says Jeff Ney, assistant general manager with the Kane County Cougars, a Class A minor league team in Geneva, Ill., which has hired ZOOperstars seven times during the 2005 season. "They return my calls quickly. They send me the right paperwork and documentation. They send us posters far enough ahead of time so we can promote their appearances. Those little things make all the difference."

"Even though this is nothing more than dressing up in funny costumes, we run this like a business," says Dominic Latkovski (he's the family member who speaks about the startup in this story). "We do everything that is necessary to run a successful business, from marketing to customer service. People look at what we do and think it's easy. But they have no idea how difficult it is to run a business like this."

Among the challenges he cites: coordinating travel across the country, juggling scheduling dates, and constantly dreaming up new characters to keep the shows fresh. Staffers also regularly attend sports trade shows.

But the Latkovskis have always had a fondness for mascots. Dominic, for instance, started performing in 1990 as Billy Bird, the mascot for the Triple-A Louisville Redbirds. He soon started his own character, BirdZerk (one he still appears as, though the manic bird is a separate entity from the ZOOperstars cast).

Like many entrepreneurs, the Latkovskis can trace their big idea to small beginnings. Dominic, Brennan, and their father were snacking at an area restaurant when the trio began tossing around ideas for mascots based on existing players, with emphasis on humorous animal concoctions. The idea for the ZOOperstars was born.

The act now consists of 30 giant inflatable animal characters, with such names as Ken Giraffey Jr., Shark McGwire, Shaquille O'Seal, Cow Ripken Jr., and Tiger Woodschuck. The company recently introduced its first female character, Mia Hammster, based on soccer great Mia Hamm.

These creative characters have helped give the ZOOperstars an edge over other mascot troupes. They've been a boon, too, to general managers and promotions staffers who need to fill large home schedules with unique acts.

"Visually, to me, the ZOOperstars are the best act and entertainment there is out there," says Mike Nutter, general manager for the Fort Wayne Wizards, a Class A minor league team in Indiana. "Before they even get into their skits, some of the kids absolutely lose it just seeing the appearance of these characters. They're larger than life. It's like a live cartoon."

Adding to the entertainment value, a dozen or so of the performers -- playing Clammy Sosa, Harry Canary, Stallion Iverson, and other characters -- are former gymnasts or cheerleaders who already know how to play to a crowd.

Like the the four-person office staff in Louisville, the troupe members out in the field have received high marks for their customer service -- a lifeline for this small business that, like many, relies on word-of-mouth advertising.

"They're so well organized with what they need, everything from how many breaks they'll need in a game to how many towels or bottles of water they'll need," says Ney. "They'll tell us if they need an umpire's uniform for a skit, whatever it is, so that we'll be sure to have it when the time comes."

The ZOOperstars also take notes while working for a team. That way, when the troupe comes back for a return engagement, they'll already know the names of the team's officials, where the dugouts are located, and where the entrances and exits to the field sit.

"That may not seem like much of a big deal, but believe me it is," Nutter says. "A lot of times you'll have worked with people for years, and they'll come up to you and say: Now, what's your name again? That doesn't happen with these guys."

The ZOOperstars characters can attribute their popularity in part to their high level of detail. Mackerel Jordan, for example, features a tongue that lolls out of his mouth, just like his real-life counterpart, basketball legend Michael Jordan. Dennis Frogman and Stallion Iverson sport tattoos, just like the real Dennis Rodman and Allen Iverson.

And when Ken Griffey Jr., was traded from the Seattle Mariners to the Cincinnati Reds, his ZOOperstars alter ego, Ken Giraffey Jr., also switched uniforms.

This leads to some tough decisions. When Michael Jordan came out of retirement to join the Washington Wizards, the ZOOperstars decided to leave him in his Chicago Bulls uniform. The reason? Far more people associate Jordan with his championship days in Chicago than with his two seasons in a Wizards jersey.

Such attention to detail doesn't come cheap. The average ZOOperstars costume costs $5,000, estimates Latkovski. They're not easy to lug around, either. The inflatable outfits measure a minimum of 6 feet in height. Shaquille O'Seal stands close to 15 feet. The costumes weigh about 35 pounds -- including the battery packs and motors that keep them inflated.

But without such elaborate and intricate costumes, Latkovski says, the ZOOperstars would hardly stick out in the minds of team officials. "People think they can just get a costume and be a success," notes the entrepreneur. "But it's a lot more than that. People are paying us good money to perform for them. You have to be professional, and you have to offer them something unique. That's the real challenge."

Fun and games, it turns out, are very hard work.

The Business of Sports