Saturday, March 6, 2004

Of humble origins, Big Red is ... big

WKU mascot lurches onto the world stage

By Emily Hagedorn
Enquirer contributor

People look at Western Kentucky University mascot Big Red in Italy after the preliminary hearing of a $250 million trademark and copyright infringement case against an Italian show's mascot.
The Associated Press/File photo
It's led to international lawsuits, but it started with foam, glue and a Cincinnati native who wanted to give his university a mascot.

Ralph Carey, who grew up in Glendale, invented Big Red, Western Kentucky University's red blob of a mascot, while he was a student. Big Red was introduced in 1979, with Carey inside, and the public-relations student thought the basketball team would get a couple of seasons out of the idea.

Now, nearly 25 years later, Western claims a media company in Italy has copied its mascot.

Gabibbo is also a fuzzy, red blob. Italy's Mediaset television company uses Gabibbo on its satirical show Striscia la Notizia. Western is suing for $250 million for trademark and copyright infringement.

Mediaset is also countersuing. It claims Adfra, a licensing company that distributes Big Red's image in Italy, is illegally profiting from Gabibbo's fame.

"I thought if this thing can hang on for two or three years, that would be neat," Carey, 46, an advertising vice president in Chicago, said of his creation.

Western's president, Gary Ransdell, was an administrator in the Alumni Affairs Office when he gave Carey the OK to develop the mascot. Carey used his know-how from working summers as Hanna-Barbera characters at Kings Island. He used materials donated from Hanna-Barbera and about $300 to bring Big Red to life.

"I knew the key to any type of character is its ability to be animated," Carey said. "You try to make it as engaging and unclassifiable as possible but something that could be branded to the university. Carey spent two to three months assembling Big Red in Carey's home, the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house.

The mascot debuted at the first men's home basketball game of the school year, he said.

Carey said he chose the ambiguous creature because it was the school's color and wasn't tied to any image.

Big Red can play many roles, said Wes Mudd, 20, an accounting junior and one of the students who currently dons the suit. "He's the big cuddly thing kids come up to and hug. ... He can also be the character that taunts the referees."

While he mostly stays on the sidelines, Big Red isn't unaccustomed to the spotlight. The mascot has been in ESPN commercials and was selected to the first Capital One All-America Mascot Team.

Mediaset maintains Gabibbo isn't Big Red.

"Big Red looks like Gabibbo just like Gabibbo looks like 100 other mascots," Antonio Ricci, creator and director of Striscia la Notizia, told the New York Times. "Some people say that Big Red looks like Sesame Street's Cookie Monster. The bottom line is that there are dozens of mascots that look alike."

At the least, the controversy has raised Big Red's popularity, Carey said.

Friday morning, Mudd - as the mascot - graced CNN, where he playfully pretended to swallow a child with his massive mouth.

"That's engaging!" Carey said.

"Mickey can't really do that."

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