May 6, 2021
Passing the torch: First look at Ellie, new Liberty mascot
How New York is embracing an elephant without losing its Maddie history
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As the New York Liberty prepared to move to Barclays Center, putting their ancestral home at Madison Square Garden behind them, New York Liberty CEO Keia Clarke and the rest of the organization faced a significant question: what to do about Maddie, the team’s longtime mascot?
On the one hand, Maddie is a beloved figure, someone who is often a child’s first connection to the team. On the other, Maddie is named after Madison Square Garden. Would it be possible, Clarke wondered, to embrace this new future — new ownership, a developing team, a new home — without losing the legacy of the original WNBA franchise?
A name change was considered. Clarke took to the internet to see which animals are most closely associated with New York — though both the rat and the pigeon were not in the running, she assured The Next with a laugh, during a phone interview this week. And then Clarke discovered an event that mirrors the journey of the Liberty itself: the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge, with P.T. Barnum leading an elephant parade across it to help reassure New Yorkers it was safe to cross. (The less we all speak of the interregnum at Westchester County Center, the better.)
“This famous elephant walk helped to restore people’s faith in the safety of the bridge,” Clarke said. “And really, we thought there was something there, about parading into Brooklyn and welcoming this team back into the boroughs.”
Ellie the Elephant, thus, was born — named for Ellis Island, a landmark more permanent than Madison Square Garden, a symbol of strength and power, longevity, stamina, cooperative spirit and loyalty. An empowered woman — the Liberty confirmed that Ellie is female — to lead the charge of a new generation of young fans.
Still, in what was a relief to both Clarke’s two children and, full disclosure, mine as well, Maddie isn’t going to just disappear.
Or as Clarke put it: “We’re not putting Maddie down, if that’s what you’re asking.”
Instead, Maddie is serving as essentially Mascot Emeritus. Clarke said that Maddie (and if we’re being real for a moment, the person inside Maddie’s costume) has been instrumental in helping the transition — from an initial video casting call down to a final four people, who will be trying out for the gig on Friday at Barclays Center.
“Maddie will still exist,” Clarke said. “We’re deciding on what that cadence looks like. My vision is that Maddie is nostalgic and Maddie makes special appearances and Maddie shows up in anniversary seasons.”
But Maddie, too, casts a long shadow over the franchise. Maddie is one of the most iconic figures in the history of the Liberty, someone who has a strong connection with fans. And introducing a new mascot is a process filled with potential pitfalls, something we’ve seen in the city of New York alone. Just witness the Mets’ attempt to add Mettle the Mule back in the 1970s, or more recently, the child-scarring rollout of the Brooklyn Knight, a misfire that predates Joe Tsai’s ownership of both the Nets and the Liberty, to be clear.
So we know what success for the Liberty on the court looks like — dramatic leaps forward in offensive and defensive efficiency and a run at the playoffs behind a revamped roster led by Natasha Howard and Betnijah Laney.
What does mascot success look like?
“I think a measure of success for Ellie is just how well Ellie becomes a part of the DNA of the game,” Clarke said. “What are those moments, what are those traditions, what are those reactions? How does Ellie engage and interact with kids?”
Authenticity will be key, and fortunately Ellie will have company — not just the occasional visit from Maddie, but Clarke confirmed that the Timeless Torches, another longtime Liberty tradition, also made that trip across the Brooklyn Bridge.
Even so, Clarke acknowledged a certain wistfulness over the moving of Maddie to “a secondary position,” even as her excitement builds over the introduction of Ellie this year.
“I’m happy about introducing someone new,” Clarke said, “But New York has not seen the last of Maddie, either.”