Indentured, Servants: The sad, secret lives of MLS mascots

It’s early Sunday morning in the first week of December, and the typically cheerful Cozmo is busy wringing his oversized hands, anxiously pacing a path around the threadbare mid-city apartment he shares with three roommates in Central Los Angeles. These are nerve-wracking days for the Galaxy’s star mascot, but with the MLS Cup Final less than 24 hours away, any apprehension or unease is locked away, better left to the offseason.

In just hours, the LA Galaxy will take to the pitch to face its longtime rival, the New England Revolution, in a match to determine the champion of the lengthy Major League Soccer season. But while media outlets will focus on Landon Donovan’s final professional match as the weekend’s prime storyline, the league’s real drama awaits this offseason. Cozmo is sure he’ll have a place on the field for the championship match, but his future is less certain.

“I’m not saying it’s impossible to make a living as a mascot, but it’s tough,” he says, rearranging boxes he and his roommates use in lieu of furniture. “We all love the game, but sometimes it doesn’t seem like the game loves us back.”

They’re the words of a 13-year MLS veteran, one that makes the league’s maximum mascot salary: $35,125. When he takes to the pitch tomorrow, he’ll be sharing grass with World Cup hero Jermaine Jones – set to make $4.3 million for an 18-month contract – and American legend, Landon Donovan, who took home $4.5 million during his final year in the league. To put that into perspective, Cozmo would have to work 125 years to earn near what Donovan made during his last season. Even then, he’d have made less, and done so with few of the accolades, benefits or security of the league’s other on-field stars.

And unfortunately, this is progress.

D.C. United v Chivas USA

Pernicious Beginnings

Less than a decade ago, the mascot industry was primarily semi-professional, with the majority of mascots across the league left to rely on second jobs to supplement their income. From weekend coaching gigs to after-hours jobs managing the doors at local clubs, the majority of mascots struggled to make ends meet. For most, juggling two jobs came with its share of difficulties.

In his memoirs, former-Chivas USA mascot ChivaFighter discussed the turbulent years he spent taking part-time hours in the service industry: “You ask for a taco, you expect the shell to be intact, but for somebody like me, with hands as large as mine, they’re just too fragile. I tried to get another job at the KFC across from StubHub, but by then, my reputation was ruined in fast food. I really had to focus on the team.”

At the same time, when David Beckham crossed shores for a whopping $6.5 million annual salary, mascots across the league were toiling for maximum incomes just under $14,000 each year, with most bringing home paychecks that put them even deeper into the poverty range. Back then, most mascots were like ChivaFighter, forced to moonlight to make ends meat. Rumors circulated that FC Dallas’ Tex Hooper supplemented his income by taking part in Professional Bull Riders’ events across the Sun Belt; Cozmo supplemented his income by working for the Los Angeles Board of Extraterrestrial Tourism, helping others with dreams of making a living on Earth.

“There were always rumors about what Timber Joey or Slyde had to do each offseason,” Cozmo recalled, ruefully. “When guys are only making six, eight thousand dollars for 11 months’ work, everything was ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ A mascot would go away for a few days without notice and come back with a few bruises, a black eye and a few extra dollars in their bank account, but it was always the same – you don’t ask, and they don’t tell. We all just supported each other.”

For its part, MLS has displayed a commitment to raising mascot salaries across the league, even going so far as to guarantee annual salary increases and healthcare policies for those mascots who reach a certain threshold. Nevertheless, mascot salaries have failed to keep pace with those awarded to players, despite all parties doing essentially the same work. This ‘separate and unequal’ treatment led to growing divisions between players and mascots, with some players treating mascots as subordinates rather than colleagues.

Kansas City Wizards v Real Salt Lake

Leo the Lion, an 11-year MLS veteran, has experienced that sentiment first hand. “My season starts in January, ends in early December, and I don’t get things like international breaks,” he was quoted as saying during an exclusive interview with Sports Illustrated. “I get more public appearances. I get more time in the gym. And I get some real dismissive looks from co-workers – from players.”

In a much-discussed incident first described in ‘The Beckham Experiment,’ Grant Wahl details a moment that nearly resulted in Cozmo’s dismissal from the club. During a team dinner, Beckham finally appeared to be enjoying the congenial atmosphere at the club, joking with teammates and openly answering questions about his time playing overseas. Once the bill arrived, however, the table grew quiet as Beckham left enough for his portion and then passed the check along. Visibly upset, Cozmo chided his colleague, with the two nearly coming to blows as patrons looked on. Only Landon Donovan’s intervention kept Cozmo from looking for another line of work.

Even so, the discomfort between star and mascot remained pronounced.

“Before you go in for a hug, you’re thinking, he’s worth millions,” Cozmo murmured, recalling Beckham’s last years at the club. “Let me hug the other guy.”

Still, most MLS mascots – including Cozmo – are more concerned with their day-to-day livelihoods than their interactions with players.

“It’s not enough to live on for most mascots,” he says. “I’m one of the lucky ones, and I still struggle.”

The wealth of small paychecks across the league has more to do with salary cap considerations than any disconnect between team owners and their mascots, with some owners taking steps to support their often-ignored employees.

“The Galaxy do what they can,” Cozmo says. “They cover dry-cleaning fees and give me a per diem, but I live in a 400-square-foot apartment with three other mascots, and one just lost his job.”

Sporting KC v DC United

Growing Pains

For years, league officials have claimed poverty as the driving force for placing limitations on mascot salaries, but the reality is much darker. The league is growing, and has been doing so continuously since its inauguration. Mix in income from the shadowy Soccer United Marketing (SUM) – a licensing firm of which each MLS owner owns a share – and you have a profitable league refusing to share income with those most responsible for its growth: mascots.

“I know we’re just mascots to people,” Cozmo says, “but the reality is that we’re low-wage workers working in a billion-dollar industry.

“I don’t know all the numbers. I just know that as we’ve grown, so has the league. There are probably a lot of factors, but we’re one of them. And nobody wants to sit down and talk.”

It’s just not that league officials have avoided negotiations with mascots; rather, they’ve actively cut down any calls for reform. Efforts to organize a union have been made repeatedly, but intervention from the league office has always caused these movements to fall short. The most recent move to organize collapsed after the elected union leader was released from his position as primary mascot for the Columbus Crew, a move most derided as corrupt and anti-labor.

Further, the workload required of mascots typically contradicts U.S. labor standards. Case in point: A majority of MLS mascots are required to stay active on social media, but for most, that comes at the expense of their work-life balance. The New England Revolution mascot, who asked not to be named, claims to have been an hourly employee since he first joined the league, but has been forced to spend nights at local libraries updating his Twitter account, without any overtime compensation. A number of other MLS mascots indicated that they are forced to pay for their uniform as well as dry-cleaning fees – a clear violation of DOL standards.

Similarly, most mascots feel trapped in the industry. Many mascots are illiterate, lack the opposable thumbs required for skilled labor, or can not articulate enough words to work in a service industry. Some are unable to work legally because they’re from other countries, planets, or dimensions, a status that limits their ability to pursue remedies through the judicial system.

“I’ve been a citizen for years, but I’ve heard stories of clubs holding on to passports, or threatening deportation,” Cozmo says. “They call it a rebrand, but what actually happens is grim.”

Chivas USA v Chicago Fire

A World Without Mascots?

One of Cozmo’s four roommates, ChivaFighter, is a direct victim of one of those “rebrands.” Once a leading mascot in MLS, both club and mascot were forced out after criticizing league officials in public statements. For his part, ChivaFighter has found work in Mexico, but he’s left his roommates in the lurch.

“If we can’t find a roommate within the next 2 weeks, we won’t be able to make rent,” Cozmo says. “Joe is so nervous that we’ve considered calling Tommy Trojan.”

The league’s salary cap in the direct mechanism that artificially keeps salaries low, but it’s the league’s single-entity structure that’s most responsible for the struggles that mascots face. With teams allotted a single-mascot spot that impacts their club-wide salary total, it’s not a surprise that most owners refuse to increase mascot wages.

“I got the call after Twizzler – the previous Galaxy mascot – was released after requesting a larger contract,” Cozmo says. “That has happened to a few mascots.”

Speaking to a Buzzfeed journalist David Peisner in a piece on MLS player salaries, former Galaxy team president Alexi Lalas was quoted as saying that, “there has been a desire to loosen the restrictions, and that will continue. The single entity was done specifically to learn from the mistakes of the past. This structure was probably not designed to last forever, but it will be chipped away at slowly. There’s a recognition that the old way of doing things enabled us to get to this point and to dismantle that in one fell swoop would be dangerous.”

Most mascots, unfortunately, can’t afford to wait much longer for reform. In a cursory review of MLS mascots, it’s clear that MLS is on the verge of a mascot shortage if change doesn’t arrive within the next few months:

  • Marco Van Bison, one of four mascots for the Colorado Rapids, has been contemplating job offers from European clubs offering larger salaries, including AZ in the Netherlands.
  • The Seattle Sounders’ Sammy Sounder left years ago for work at a nationally recognized marine animal park. We were unable to reach him for comment.
  • Q, the San Jose Earthquakes’ mascot, relies on Medicaid for his medical treatments and is unlikely to find work in another industry.
  • Kingston, Orlando City SC’s primary mascot, has been reluctant to sign an official MLS contract and is considering a move overseas. “The industry is more forgiving for Lions than others,” he explained.
  • The Chicago Fire’s Sparky is in the final year of studying for an advanced degree in chemistry and looks certain to leave the industry upon graduation. “I’ve been living off dry food for too long.”
  • D.C. United’s Talon appears on the verge of retirement, with no clear replacement available. “You do it for the love, but sometimes, love isn’t enough.”

MLS obviously wants to hold on to their recognized mascots, but unless they’re willing to change their approach, it may not have the option. And as a league still trying to make its mark on the sporting landscape, the odds of luring talent from football, basketball, or — the Holy Grail — college sports, are small.

“Can I see a league without mascots? If you had asked me that question five years ago, I’d have never believed it,” Cozmo murmurs while thumbing through a book of his press clippings. “But now? I don’t see it as a hypothetical. With how we’re being treated, it’s bound to happen sooner than later.”

Seattle Sounders v Los Angeles Galaxy

Five minutes after the match comes to a close, the LA Galaxy has won another MLS Cup, and Cozmo is running alongside Galaxy stars’ Marcelo Sarvas and Juninho as they parade the winners trophy around the perimeter of the field. Nearing the endline where Galaxy supports sit, the crowd cheers for each of the three as they raise the trophy. Suddenly ,though, the crowd beckons Cozmo forward; a request to which he immediately acquiesces.

Within seconds, he’s lifted overhead and passed upwards, shoulder to shoulder, fan to fan. As fireworks erupt in the background, Cozmo dissolves into a sea of white and blue, supporters and their hero.

“We can worry about the future when it comes,” he had said hours earlier, while packing the last of ChivaFighter’s belongings. “Right now, I just want to appreciate what I’ve got.”

Photo credits: Jeff Golden/Getty Images; George Frey/Getty Images; Patrick McDermott/Getty Images; David Banks/Getty Images; Jeff Gross/Getty Images.