BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — The deadline is looming for many schools across New York State — including around a dozen schools in Western New York — to change their mascots due to legislation passed to end Indigenous imagery deemed offensive or inappropriate.

Despite most districts not facing the requirement to change their mascots, maybe it’s time some do anyway, as a way of distinguishing themselves from schools who share the same team names.

Nearly 2/3 of schools in Western New York share their mascot with another school.

The Breakdown

A total of 63 Western New York high schools share their mascot. The five most common team names are shared by 29 schools across Section VI and the Monsignor Martin Athletic Association, led by nine schools that call themselves the Panthers and seven that go by Eagles.

In total, nine names are shared by three or more schools. The other 11 names are shared by two apiece.

Here is a breakdown of those 63 shared mascots:

Adjectives before mascot names such as “Red Devils” and “Golden Eagles,” have been disregarded. Because “Red Raiders” is on the NCAI’s “Ending ‘Indian’ Mascots” Initiative list, News 4 has elected to separate it from “Raiders,” as the names may soon change.

Of the remaining high schools, 43 use a mascot unique to their school.

So why could sharing mascots present a problem? Well, in boys basketball alone, there is potential for confusion in five of seven Section VI divisions, when schools sharing a mascot play against each other.

In Class AA, commentators call the matchup between the Frontier Falcons and Health Sciences Falcons. In Class A2, the CSAT Eagles tip off against the Emerson Eagles. Meanwhile, the Bennett Tigers and Akron Tigers duke it out on the court in Class B2. Classes C and D each present multiple scenarios, with the Frewsburg and JFK Bears, as well as the East, Gowanda, and Portville Panthers in Class C and the Ellicottville and North Collins Eagles, in addition to the Franklinville, Panama, and Pine Valley Panthers in Class D.

Jason Klein, co-founder of sports branding company Brandiose, said that just because schools have the same mascot, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have to change their name — but it might be time to start thinking about more unique ways to rebrand.

“If you find yourself in that position, you need to say, ‘OK, how do we take our local story — what makes us special as a school — and then make our Wildcat different, or our Panther, or Falcon, or Eagle, or whatever it is,” he said.

Logo similarities

All five districts using “Bulldogs” as the mascot use the same logo with a different color scheme. Some have, however, adopted secondary bulldog logos that are more unique.

The same is true for CSAT, Cleveland Hill, North Collins, Niagara Wheatfield, and Health Sciences, who share their “Falcons” logos, while Kenmore West and East Aurora share a “Blue Devils” logo.

Remarkably, it does not seem that any of the nine schools using the moniker “Panthers” share a logo with the others, though some do share similarities in design.

It appears several schools, like Clarence, have been diverting away from the route of using an altered form of college or professional team logos. However, eight schools, including Grand Island, Forestville, and Health Sciences, still use this type of logo. Five other schools, including St. Francis, Springville-Griffith, and Gowanda, use an altered college or professional logo as a secondary logo. A variant of the aforementioned bulldog logo is also used by Gonzaga University.

Paul Lukas, the journalist and creator behind the uniform design column “Uni Watch” questioned the ethics of using a version of a professional or semi-professional logo.

“You have these school mascots who are all called the Bulldogs or all called the Panthers — a lot of times, they’re using the logos of professional teams called the Panthers, or the Georgia Bulldogs, or whatever,” he said. “They use, or some would say ‘poach,’ the logos of other teams, often professional teams.”

Lukas said that he understands that this process may make the school’s teams feel “more official,” but feels that schools should want their own logos.

“It just seems bizarre to me that, number one: you wouldn’t want your own distinct logo or your own distinct name, as the case might be, and number two: that schools — places where we teach values to young people — are engaging, basically, in intellectual property theft,” he said. “It just seems like a terrible example to be setting for your students.”

Changing logos from a professional lookalike to something more original could potentially help protect districts against a lawsuit if it ever came to that.

In lieu of a mascot or logo, some area schools opt to use a block letter in its place.

Origin stories

So how did so many schools end up with the same names, and occasionally, the same logos?

Klein explained that there are two ways most high schools typically got their identities.

The first involved taking a mascot right off the page of a spirit catalogue.

“There was this catalogue of graphics that a spirit company came out with and said, ‘Pick your logo’ and they said, ‘Oh, we’re going to be the Wildcats,'” Klein explained.

He, like Lukas, said the second method typically came from a school staffer.

“Or there was a pro sports team that somebody on staff was inspired by, and they said, ‘We want to have the same claim to fame as that pro sports team,'” Klein said. “So those are the two ways that the mascots you see all across America that all kind of feel ‘look-alike’ got started.”

He discussed the first step schools can take to create a more unique feel for their sports teams.

“The best way to do it is to realize, yes, everybody had the same spirit catalogue, and we just have to move in a direction that’s more authentically ‘us,'” he said. 

Klein said that even when it comes to a change in regulations, such as the situation several WNY schools are facing this summer, it’s not a reason to panic — that every school since the beginning of time has had stories that make them unique that they can embrace.

“If you find yourself in the place where you need to change the mascot, that’s fine, because you still have all your stories, your rituals, your traditions that make your school unique,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be this process where you’re just like, ‘I can’t believe we feel forced into doing this.’ One thing about us as Americans is nobody likes being told what to do, and so any time we feel like we’re being pressured into it, it can make for a real sour feeling. But we just have to pivot and find ourselves in a place where we can say, ‘Alright, how do we tell a story that’s authentic to us?'”

Lukas, a SUNY Binghamton grad, spoke to Brandiose’s work and Minor League Baseball branding in general, noting how specific teams have gotten with their local storytelling, giving an example semi-local to Western New York.

“I know you don’t like to say ‘Upstate New York’ — you’re in ‘Western New York’ — but more-Upstate New York, not too far away from you guys, is Binghamton. And their Minor League team is called the ‘Rumble Ponies,’ and that’s because Binghamton has the largest collection of merry-go-rounds, or carousels, in North America,” he said. “That’s a local thing that people outside of Binghamton probably don’t know,, but the people in Binghamton, like yea, it’s kind of cool, we’ve got all these merry-go-rounds, they were a gift from a local business executive to the community a long time ago.”

He said though he likely wouldn’t have used the name “Rumble Ponies,” but said the branding helps tell the story of the region’s local history.

“It’s a seemingly niche aspect of your local history that you can leverage into a team identity and help tell a story,” he said.

Unchartered territory

Because of the “catalogue effect,” there are distinct types of mascot that have not been experimented with amongst local high schools.

Many mascots currently in use go by a breed of cat, but dog breeds are largely unexplored. Other than “Bulldogs” and “Huskies,” many dog breeds have yet to be explored in Western New York, such as “Greyhounds,” “Dalmatians,” and “Terriers.” El Paso’s MiLB team even goes by “Chihuahuas.”

Research Laboratory High School for Bioinformatics & Life Sciences don’t have varsity basketball, football, baseball, softball, soccer, or hockey, however, they do have varsity bowling, cross country, and tennis programs. They go by the “Raptors.”

Sacred Heart’s mascot is the “Sharks” and three schools go by “Gators,” but there are no other water-based creatures or deep-sea mascots in Western New York, despite the region’s proximity to the Great Lakes. Another largely unexplored territory — both when it comes to local mascots and real life — is space. Mars Area High School in Pennsylvania goes by the “Fightin’ Planets.”

City Honors delves into the mythical realm with “Centaurs,” as does Maple Grove with “Dragons,” however, for a region so impacted by cold, there is a distinct lack of snow-themed mascots like the “Yetis.”

Proper representation of a community requires involving that community in the decision to be represented. Some mascots represent a culture, like the Quakers, Dutchmen, Vikings, and even Hillbillies. Others represent violent warriors from history, like the Pirates, Marauders, Spartans, and Trojans.

Decisionmakers at Canisius High School and Christian Central may not have considered the 11th century mass genocide when they opted for “Crusaders” as their mascots, but that may present its own potential problem.

When dealing with a human mascot, rather than an animal or inanimate object, there is potential for misrepresentation or offensiveness. This is not just a local issue, or a high school issue, as the NFL’s Washington Commanders and MLB’s Cleveland Guardians have been through the same process.

Finding inspiration

What Klein and Lukas both stressed: Mascots, logos, and branding aren’t just design work, they’re a form of storytelling.

“Everybody in America seems to know the Savanna Bananas right now, and that’s because their story is unique,” Klein said. “It resonates nationally, it tells their local story.”

Lukas discussed how storytelling is impactful to the community.

“It seems like what we hear so often with these debates about Native American names is that the community has really bonded with whatever the old name was, whether it’s Indians or Warriors, or whatever,” he said. “You know, ‘I went to that school 30 years ago and once a Warrior, always a Warrior,’ that it’s important to the community. But wouldn’t it be even better if the community had something unique to itself?”

Lukas said choosing a new mascot not only presents an opportunity to come up with a brand more unique to the community, but also could give students the opportunity to use their artistic skills to become part of the school’s history.

“This is an opportunity to come up with something distinct, locally specific regarding your town’s history or heritage, and also, it doesn’t have to cost a lot of money,” he said. “You can have a contest with the high school art department … Nowadays, you don’t have to be a fancy-shmancy designer to come up with a logo. People know how to use Photoshop and all that.”

He suggested that if schools don’t want to go the student design route, many communities would likely have a local designer that would do the work pro-bono.

Klein gave advice on ways to better incorporate local traditions and mainstays into a team name and imagery.

“First I’ll always say, ‘What are the stories that are unique to your school?’ That’s what I would start with — what are the rituals, the traditions? Maybe there’s this one thing that happened or some sort of urban legend tied to the school — that’s a great place to start,” he said. “Then you go into your community. What is the community famous for? ‘We are the blank capital of America. Everywhere across America — there’s the seafood capital of America, there’s the apple capital of America, there’s the mining capitals of America.”

Buffalo school Culinary Arts, despite lacking a varsity team in many major sports, plays into the uniqueness and culture of their school well. The school’s mascot is the Heat, and the logo is a stove burner and flame. Holland athletes going by “Dutchmen” is more of a pun on the district name, but it still works, as does “Lakemen” for Wilson, which is located less than a mile from the shores of Lake Ontario. Hutch-Tech, a school specializing in technical education, goes by the “Engineers.”

Klein also delved into why people are so passionate about their teams — and it’s not so much the name of the team as it is the history of the communities involved and the sports rivalries between those communities.

“I think (schools) should go into the story, because one thing about schools is: it’s my town versus your town. It’s what makes our community special against what makes your community special,” he said. “So this is not just about a mascot, it’s about who we are as a community, who we are as a school, and not just the students and the faculty, but the greater community getting together and rallying behind a story that’s our story.”

Klein, whose company has revamped and made famous plenty of Minor League Baseball brands, said his favorite story behind a team’s name comes from the early days of MiLB, when teams like the Grand Rapids Furniture Makers and Wheeling Stogies existed.

“It wasn’t just a bunch of wacky names like the Bananas,” he said. “No — people were, post-Civil War, rolling cigars in Wheeling, West Virginia and they were making furniture up in Grand Rapids. So when those teams come together and duke it out on the field, that is more about the heart and soul of those communities than coming up with a wacky team name.”

“Uniquely us”

With any change comes controversy, as lines are often drawn between those pushing for change and those resistant to the change. This was seen in 2015 and 2019, as Lancaster High School and Washington’s NFL football team, respectively, changed their mascots from a slur regarding Indigenous People. This process is now being seen again with the new New York State regulations regarding Indigenous mascots.

Klein explained why people become so attached to their mascots.

“When someone comes along and says, ‘Hey, you have all these memories in this box and we want you to dump all those memories out and we want you to have a new box,’ it’s very natural to say, ‘No way, I don’t like that,”” he said. “But I think to realize, even most Native American mascots got picked out of a catalogue. So as much as we want to feel as if they’re a part of our heritage, they are not necessarily uniquely ‘us.'”

He suggested that there are ways for local tribes to work with schools to create a better representation of their culture, rather than using a logo from a catalogue, which often misrepresent that culture in their imagery.

“I always tell people, ‘The opposite of poor Native American representation is not no Native American representation — it’s authentic (representation),'” Klein said. “And you will find that you have a better story to tell, it’s more authentic, you can do more, they provide more inspiration … So it’s a possibility to connect with your local tribe, I say do it.”

He cited the Spokane Indians and Florida State Seminoles as programs that have worked with their local tribes.

Of the 12 Western New York schools with Indigenous mascots, seven have responded to News 4 with plans to address the initiative. Only one of those seven — Salamanca — plans to continue use of its current identity.

The Seneca Nation previously spoke about making these agreements.

“We believe the State’s provision for agreements between school districts and Native Nations should be rare and limited, rather than an open invitation for districts to go ‘approval shopping’ among Native Nations. The Seneca Nation will carefully consider how that standard may potentially apply within our community.”

Salamanca Superintendent Mark Beehler told the Associated Press he thinks it’s unfair of the Board of Regents to put any tribal nation in the middle of the decision, where its decision could upset students and the community.

“I’m really not comfortable going to the Seneca Nation and having them potentially be the bad guy here,” Beehler said in an interview with the AP.

Beehler told News 4 the district has been involved in a “lengthy process” of reviewing its identity.

The cost

Though it may not cost districts anything to get a new logo, there are still costs involved — uniforms, merchandise, interior decoration, scoreboards, if a school has their logo embedded in turf, etc.

The issue of cost — more so than the community’s thoughts and feelings regarding change — is likely the toughest part of the battle regarding an identity makeover. The cost to replace everything displaying the school’s former or soon-to-be-former identity oftentimes renders the decision to update the appearance moot, though going through with the change would be well worth the ability to boast originality.

However, if a school is required to or would like to rebrand, it may be wise to move in phases and to garner community support along the way.

“What can you pick from your historical record, from the story of your place to help you come up with a team name that helps tell that story?” Lukas asked. “Something that belongs to you that you can own, that no other school, no other town can really have. And I think that is really what inspires local pride, much more than being the jillionth team called the Eagles.”

Adam Duke is a digital producer who has been part of the News 4 team since 2021. See more of his work here.