The Madison Mallards undergo a Ruthian rebrand
The Duck Pond went dark in 2020, but with an updated look and the 2021 season underway, the Madison Mallards are signaling a new start.
Maynard G. Mallard got a makeover.
He was never an ugly duckling to begin with as the face of Madison’s collegiate summer baseball team, which calls Warner Park, aka the Duck Pond, home. You could even say he’s one of the most popular mascots around, representing a team that has dominated attendance rankings among all other summer collegiate franchises in North America for more than a decade, while at the same time eclipsing most minor league and independent pro teams on the continent.
Then COVID-19 hit, resulting in deserted stands at the Duck Pond during a 2020 season that didn’t happen. (2019’s average game attendance was 6,249.) It’s possible Warner Park still topped the attendance charts after a drive-in movie theater concept last summer, which contributed to a total of 171 public and private events at Warner Park last year.
But as reopening pointed toward a 2021 season, the folks from Big Top Sports + Entertainment — the operators of the team purchased by Big Top partner Steve Schmitt in 2001— decided Maynard’s reintroduction had to be something of Babe Ruthian proportions.
They not only gave Maynard a new look (the third major redesign in 21 years), they also launched an updated brand that has a better connection to Madison, says Vern Stenman, president of both the Mallards and Big Top. But “updated” doesn’t necessarily mean “modern” in this case. The design they landed on is reminiscent of sports logos from the 1950s and ’60s.
“That vintage kind of feel started becoming a really important thing for us,” Stenman says. “This is our 21st year. We think folks are kind of going to be nostalgic for returning to this type of event right now. I keep on joking with our staff that we kind of have the equivalent of the next Roaring ’20s coming back in the next 10 years here, post-pandemic.”
The new logo features Maynard in a pinstripe jersey with the Madison skyline in the background, one foot dunked in Lake Monona and the other in Lake Mendota. He’s squared up to a home plate made out of cheese, and he’s giving a Babe Ruth-style home run point, which Stenman says is in the direction of Madison’s north side.
“We’ve been working at a much more grassroots level for the past few months to reconnect with the north side of Madison,” says Stenman, who also works with Big Top’s chief operating officer, Conor Caloia. “It’s been home to us for over 20 years. … To a certain degree, [it’s] where the center of summertime entertainment is.”
Another Big Top team, Forward Madison FC, which plays soccer at Breese Stevens Field, is a shining example of a brand that’s become bigger than itself. The quirky pink flamingo that marks the USL League One team is beloved by many, including hardcore and casual fans locally and from around the world. Stenman says they sold more Forward uniforms in 2020 than ever before, and the team didn’t play a single home game. “It was fascinating to see that we continued to engage with the community in a meaningful way even though the games weren’t there. I think it kind of reset our standards a little bit.”
The Duck Pond might look different the next time you visit as the Mallards transition existing branding. It’s changed substantially over the years with millions of dollars’ worth of additions, upgrades and renovations (including adding and updating attendee spaces, Meriter & Physicians Plus Backyard and the Great Dane Duck Blind). Following 2020’s revenue loss, the Mallards worked out a lease agreement with the City of Madison that lowered rent from more than $67,000 to $1 for 2021, and the city will get $1 for every ticket sold over 125,000 tickets, which will equal the normal rent price if the Mallards get back to sold-out games this year.
The Mallards’ rebranding began in November and the new look launched on May 1, debuting at the Northwoods League’s 2021 home opener on May 31. Stenman says the early feedback has been more positive than negative.
“Rebrands are difficult,” he says. “There are always going to be some people that aren’t quite ready for the change and we expected some of that.”
Big Top hired Planet Propaganda, the same Madison-based creative agency it tapped to develop the Forward Madison FC brand. Planet Propaganda’s clients range in size, locally and nationally. This project was especially fun, says Dana Lytle, partner, CEO and executive creative director at Planet Propaganda. “We love the Duck Pond,” says Lytle, who worked with Planet team members Corrisa Terrien, David Bramson and Kris Kluthe on this project. “We’ve had agency parties at the Duck Blind, and we’ve all got memories of hot summer days at the park with our future fiancées, our little kids and our pals. So we’re incredibly lucky to work on a project that’s this close to our hearts.”
The team also has new jerseys with an equally vintage look, plus a fun hidden design concept. The pinstripes are actually the names of every city in Dane County. “About half our crowd comes from the city of Madison, the other half comes from Dane County,” says Stenman, also noting that the inspiration for the design came from a suit MMA fighter Conor McGregor wore — but we won’t mention what his pinstripes said.
Lytle and Stenman say they’re still working on additional characters to complement Maynard. The Mallards have also partnered with local artists and craftspeople to create souvenir pieces for the team store. There will be items you might not typically think of in a sports apparel shop — think coffee mugs with hand painted logos, cocktail stirrers repurposed from old wooden Wrigley Field stadium seats, bars of soap shaped like the cheese home plate from the logo, cribbage boards that look like a baseball diamond and candles with a “baseball stadium scent.”
Terrien, the Planet Propaganda account supervisor assigned to the Mallards, says the agency is starting to see brands reorienting their values and focusing on deeper emotions and opportunities to help folks connect with their families and community.
“The art is cool, fun and important, but it’s not necessarily the brand,” Stenman says. “The brand is everything that’s around it. I think that we’re seeing this as an opportunity to not just reinvest in the art, but reinvest in all the stuff around it and make sure we’re doing those things really well.”
Stenman says they hope to continue reinvesting their dollars in more charitable efforts in the community — something they’ve always done but have a renewed focus on. The drive-in movie events throughout 2020 raised more than $150,000 for nonprofits, and the Mallards have donated more than $3,000 to local programs, including the League of Women Voters in Dane County and Kids Need Opportunities at Warner Park through the Madison Parks Foundation.
“I think it was a huge learning lesson for us to see how embracing the city could strengthen our relationship with fans and help us to accomplish cooler things in the community that weren’t just filling up a stadium,” Stenman says. “Coming out of the pandemic, we’re certainly going to be operating in a different world with different priorities.”
Maynard Over the Years
First we had The Madison Muskies, the city’s minor league baseball team from 1982 to 1993. When the Muskies relocated, Warner Park became home to the Madison Hatters for the summer of 1994, featuring a well-dressed mouse mascot leaning on a block of cheese. After the stadium sat empty for a year, the Madison Black Wolf took it over from 1996 to 2000. Then the era of the Madison Mallards began, but the brand itself has continued to evolve.
It Started at the Sketchbook
Planet Propaganda presented more than 100 pencil sketches in the process of creating the Madison Mallards’ new logo. Here are a few designs that didn’t make the cut.
‘Half-Sunk Madison Mallards’ (below left): Like the nearly submerged Statue of Liberty that first appeared on Lake Mendota in 1979, this design would have symbolized a ”reenergized, ice-encrusted duck.” UW–Madison alumni Jim Mallon and the late Leon Varjian might have been honored to know their Pail and Shovel Party prank was considered for the team logo. Alas, it sunk.
Golden Maynard (above right): One concept mimicked the Wisconsin statue that stands atop the state Capitol, depicting a mallard with an outfielder’s mitt on one hand and a hot dog in the other. Pitching Maynard as the “golden goose of ducks,” Planet Propaganda could definitely claim a Madison connection, but the concept didn’t connect enough with the north side.
The Muskallard: This concept would have required a name change (partly an ode to Warner Park’s first inhabitant, the Muskies) to the Madison Muskallards, inspired by the Lake Mendota monster of Madison lore. It’s a combination of a muskie and a duck reminiscent of Bozho, the creature that’s alleged to have been sighted in Lake Mendota since the 19th century. Stenman says everyone had a laugh with this one, but in the end the idea was just a little too out there. You certainly can’t unsee it.
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