Western benefits from media hype

Shawntaye Hopkins

Big Red was decked out Sunday in a toga and laurel wreath. Four men carried him into Diddle Arena on their shoulders.

The mascot resembled a general returning to ancient Rome after conquering a distant land.

No victories have yet been tallied in the lawsuit concerning Big Red and Gabibbo, a mascot for an Italian television program.

But Western is getting something else of value – publicity.

Big Red returned from Italy on Friday to fans and Western officials, who view the university’s recent publicity as positive and effective for getting the school’s name out.

Western and its licensing company, Crossland Enterprises, filed a lawsuit against the Italian television company Mediaset in February 2003.

Western is seeking $250 million for trademark and copyright infringement, claiming that Mediaset copied Big Red, turning the mascot into a television character named Gabibbo.

Fans stood and loudly cheered as Big Red was carried into Diddle on Sunday.

“I’ve never heard that many people yell for Big Red,” said Louisville junior Brad Connell Jr., who is currently playing the mascot.

But the publicity has reached far beyond the Hill.

Big Red and President Gary Ransdell have been spotted on national television shows such as ESPN2’s “Cold Pizza” and ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

Newspapers across the country, including The New York Times and USA Today, have reported on the lawsuit.

Luther Hughes, associate vice president for enrollment management, said he picked up a Cincinnati Enquirer about a week ago while visiting the city and saw a story about the lawsuit on the front page of the sports section.

The Tuition Incentive Program was recently expanded into Cincinnati, and the exposure reaches potential students, he said.

Bob Edwards, assistant vice president for university relations, said Western enjoys the publicity that has gone nationally and internationally.

“It does have a serious side, but it’s also something we enjoy having a little fun with too,” Edwards said.

Big Red apparently spoke to several reporters while at a press conference in Rome.

Athletic Director Wood Selig said it is not typical for a mascot to speak.

Giancarlo Polenghi, an international public relations professor at Western, said Italian newspapers have mostly published only a single story telling about the situation.

Pictures of Big Red have also been published, said Polenghi, who is from Florence.

But Gabibbo isn’t benefitting from the publicity as much as Big Red.

“In this country, the Big Red is becoming more famous,” he said. “In Italy, the Gabibbo is already very famous.”

Western hasn’t paid a penny for the publicity – or risked one.

Ransdell said the licensing company has absorbed all costs, which include the trip Connell and Jim Clark, Western’s associate athletic director, took to Italy last week.

But the publicity has triggered much awareness about Western, Ransdell said.

Selig said it’s impossible to put a price tag on the value of a few minutes on a national television show.

“It’s so competitive these days – higher education – and I think this gives Western more identity locally, nationally and internationally,” he said.

He said the publicity not only puts Western at the top of perspective students’ minds, but the situation has had a unifying effect among those associated with Western.

Connell said the roar from the crowd when Big Red entered for the men’s basketball game on Sunday told him that everyone knew about the situation and were backing Big Red.

Tom Hiles, vice president for Institutional Advancement, said alumni and others affiliated with the university are pleased that it is standing up for its mascot.

Hiles said the positive publicity is refreshing.

But no matter how much publicity Big Red gets, he has not turned prima donna.

Big Red is still exciting, fun and lovable, Connell said.

“He’s always friendly and trying to be funny and get the crowd going,” he said.

Reach Shawntaye Hopkins at [email protected]