If you've been even an occasional attendee of Minor League Baseball games over the past two decades, then chances are you've crossed paths with Dominic Latkovski. Or at least one of his creations.
Latkovski heads the SkillVille Group, a Louisville-based touring entertainment company which includes his signature BirdZerk! mascot character as well as the ever-expanding roster of inflatable Zooperstars! (yes, the exclamation mark is part of the name). The Zooperstars!, all of whom sport pun-based animal athlete monikers such as Shark McGwire, Ken Giraffey Jr. and new arrival Tim Tebull, have become one of the most recognizable touring acts not just in Minor League Baseball but all of professional sports.
But as is the case with almost all entrepreneurial endeavors, Latkovski started small. What is now a multifaceted touring entertainment juggernaut was once just a young man with a bird costume and a dream.
A long time ago…
Latkovski, a Louisville native who turns 43 later this month, traces his interest in the world of mascots to the 1982 arrival of the Triple-A Louisville Redbirds. He attended the team's games on a nightly basis and can still rattle off the names of the up-and-coming players he saw there as they made their way to the parent St. Louis Cardinals. But as enthralling as the likes of Willie McGee and Vince Coleman might have been, Latkovski was even more enamored with those who appeared on the field during the inning breaks.
"The Phillie Phanatic, Morganna [the Kissing Bandit], Captain Dynamite, the Chicken and Max Patkin were the novelty acts making the rounds at the time, and they really made an impression on me," said Latkovski. "How cool would it be to be able to do that, touring around and every night doing the same show in a different city?"
Latkovski garnered his first mascot experience as a teenager in high school, but his big break came in 1990 during his sophomore year attending Louisville's Bellarmine University. Billy Johnson, the original "Billy Bird" mascot for the Redbirds, was transitioning to a front-office position and the team was looking for someone to take his place. Latkovski's father, Andy, always a supporter of such endeavors, encouraged his son to try out.
"I got the job, and just thought it was so cool to be the bird," he said. "At the time, I was working at an ice cream shop for minimum wage -- $3.35 -- and the Redbirds were paying me $35 a game. ... I was so fired up to do the job, and it just came naturally to me."
Latkovski developed an act as he went along, recruiting his younger brother Brennan to dress up as an umpire so that Billy Bird would have a natural antagonist during his on-field skits. (Brennan and Dominic have worked together ever since, and older brother Lex is involved as well despite the comically unenthused nature of his company bio). As Billy Bird's popularity increased, so did Latkovski's skills and confidence, and soon enough $35 a ballgame didn't seem like good money anymore.
"People were starting to tell me that I was funny and that they liked me as much as the Chicken," said Latkovski, referring to the iconic mascot originally known as the San Diego Chicken. "He was coming to our games three times a year and making $8,500 each time. For 72 games I made less than half of what he made in one night."
Looking back, Latkovski singles out two Louisville events as pivotal in his career development: the 1991 Triple-A All-Star Game and the 1992 Baseball Winter Meetings. At the former, he performed as Billy Bird for a who's who of Minor League Baseball executives. At the latter, he obtained a booth at the Baseball Trade Show and marketed his act directly to them.
"I've always had an entrepreneurial spirit, and leading up to [the Winter Meetings] I made a lot of money scalping Garth Brooks tickets, about $6,000. I parlayed that into a booth at the Trade Show," said Latkovski. "For a 21-year-old kid, that was a hefty amount of money."
Being the self-described "new bird on the block," Latkovski had low expectations, as he was simply hoping to book four shows at $1,500 per in order to recoup his Trade Show investment. But, buoyed by the positive notice he'd garnered at the Triple-A All-Star Game, he and Brennan booked 48 shows in locales as diverse as Monterrey, Mexico, Asheville, N.C., and Medicine Hat, Canada. All of these shows were booked while the Redbirds were on the road, as Latkovski still suited up as Billy Bird at all 1993 home games.
After that season, the Redbirds realized that Latkovski had a hit on his hands.
"[The Redbirds] wanted me to sign a contract giving them a big portion of the money in exchange for using the name and the costume, and that's when we decided to break free and create a new character."
One becomes many
That character was the multi-hued and endlessly effervescent BirdZerk!, which Latkovski still performs as today. He and Brennan toured the country with this act for the next several seasons, honing and expanding upon the routines they'd developed for Billy Bird, but in 1998, things really took off with the introduction of the inflatable Zooperstars!
"Prior to the Zooperstars! we'd seen just two inflatable characters -- the University of Nebraska's Big Red and an All Sport [thirst quencher] bottle," said Latkovski. "We added a couple inflatables to the BirdZerk! repertoire, and at the same time our dad started telling us we should add a new character named Harry Canary who would hang out in the press box and sing the seventh-inning stretch."
After some initial skepticism and false starts, Harry Canary became the ZooperStars!'s flagship character. He was soon joined by the likes of Cow Ripken and Pee Wee Geese, and the roster increased from there as the Latkovskis and their employees fanned themselves out across the country.
"Soon a light bulb went off -- we could be earning three show fees in one night with six people performing, and that's when things really took off in terms of being financially successful. It's the same reason that the Blue Man Group have more value than Penn and Teller. Because while Penn and Teller can sell out one theater, the Blue Man Group can be playing in Tokyo, Chicago, Las Vegas and New York City. It doesn't matter who is in the outfit, as long as people are getting a good show."
There are now a whopping 40 Zooperstars! characters in all, and Latkovski has made further inroads with the establishment of the Skillville Group entertainment company that includes "hip nerd" Myron Noodleman and break dancer Breakin' BBoy McCoy on its roster. But, through it all, that innate desire to entertain remains the same.
"I love going to the games, love meeting the players, fans and staff, and love entertaining the heck out of people," said Latkovski. "I want to make an impression on them like Max Patkin, Captain Dynamite and Morganna did on me."
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog.