The secret history of Cleatus, weird football robot
Thirteen years ago, during an unassuming Sunday football game on Fox, America suffered a mass hallucination–and it’s never woken up.
There was no explanation as to why a cyborg football player had suddenly appeared, hopping, stretching, and flexing across millions of TVs. He had no name, no origin story, and no fundamental logic justifying his existence. Yet viewers seemed to slowly adjust to this new reality like it had always been reality–that a robot doing jumping jacks next to an advertisement for a Ford F150 between plays was simply the natural course of things.
No one outside Fox knew where the robot–named Cleatus–came from, or which creative director summoned him from the depths of the network’s psyche. So, nine months ago, I reached out to Fox Sports–because I needed to know. I would blow this story wide open.
That email led to a cascade of interviews that reveled Cleatus’s origin story–a surprisingly funny and heartwarming tale that even features an unexpected celebrity cameo. If Cleatus seems like a mascot dreamed up by a 7-year-old, it’s because that is precisely what he is.
The early days of Fox Sports
Fox always had a bit of a chip on its shoulder as a network. The youngest of the Big Four, it wasn’t NBC, ABC, or CBS. Since its launch in 1986, Fox had wanted an NFL broadcast contract, because it would bring a certain legitimacy to the channel as a broadcaster–not to mention, millions of households tuning into games every week, who might discover other programming they liked on Fox, too.
Fox founder Rupert Murdoch “snatched” CBS’s NFL rights away in a shocking deal for the 1994 season. Within just eight months, Murdoch brought in a man named David Hill to build Fox Sports from nothing. Hill was coming from the U.K., where he helped launch the Sky Television satellite service. He had a reputation for shaking things up and embracing gimmicks. In 2017, Hill was accused of sexual misconduct toward a fellow Fox employee in 1998 in a case that was settled out of court; he stayed at Fox with no clear repercussions.
Gary Hartley, now executive vice president of graphics at Fox Sports, likens Hill to P.T. Barnum, pointing out that, “he’s Australian, so he has no preconceived notion of what should or shouldn’t be part of a presentation of a sporting event.” In 1977, while producing cricket for Channel 9 in Australia, Hill introduced an animated duck named Daddles, who would appear when a batsman was dismissed without scoring. He cried and sulked back to the dugout.
“He got eviscerated in the press,” says Hartley. “They hated him for it.”
But Hill was focused on the future, not catering to purists. At the fledgling Fox Sports, he instituted a “no dead guys rule” to on-air MLB announcers, complaining that broadcasters spent all their time romanticizing early players like Babe Ruth rather than contemporary athletes.
When Hartley first joined Fox Sports in 1995, the graphics team had been experimenting, here and there, with a techie look, which included a few robots on some animations and brand packages. “The technology to do that in-house wasn’t there yet,” says Hartley. “They looked like shit to be honest.”
When I asked Hartley if he had any idea why they started messing around with robots at all, he replies with an emphatic “no.”
“It was very much the antithesis of established sporting networks. It was L.A. We were on a movie lot. The average age of producers and production people was in their 20s,” says Hartley. “It was a fun place to work, and there wasn’t a lot of what I’d call ‘adult supervision.’”
“It was kind of a connection we had”
In 2005, CBS signed a major NFL deal, reigniting a feud with Fox.
“We were rebranding our package. And we knew a lot of guys working on the CBS package,” says Hartley. “And there was this weird competition we felt for some reason. I don’t know if CBS felt it, but we wanted to be top dog. And we had no money. Our budgets were low, and CBS was well-funded.”
Hartley and the team wanted to do something big, but exactly what that meant eluded them.
“I remember one day, my son, who was 7 or 8, had drawn me a picture of a hybrid robotic football-player-slash-cowboy. He was really sold: ‘You should do this! It would be so cool!’ says Hartley. Following a divorce, he had been traveling back and forth from L.A. to Chicago frequently to see his son, who lived 2,000 miles away. “It was in my desk, and I pulled it out one day, and it hit me. We should do this. But not create another robotic football player. Let’s create a character synonymous with the [Fox Sports] logo, that gives us the authority to interact [with the viewer].”
According to John Marshall, chief strategy officer at the global design firm Lippincott–which has developed branding for companies like Starbucks (and didn’t work on Cleatus)–the mascot was a good idea. After all, mascots, from Tony the Tiger to Mr. Clean, are well-worn tropes in advertising for a reason. To some extent, Marshall explains, the more random the character is, the better. After all, you want an ad to be memorable, not normal.
In the case of Fox coming in to claim football, a robotic mascot was actually a particularly good fit. “If you look at ESPN’s graphical filler between shots, it was built from almost mechanical pieces, copied by most sports networks,” says Marshall. “ESPN had a design language, and Fox turned it into this character.” For sports television, this was a first.
The team began sketching more formally what the robot would look like, and Hartley shared much of the early work with his son. “It was kind of a connection we had,” says Hartley. “He was part of the journey when we started developing it. It was kind of a cool thing.”
As 2D sketches transformed into 3D renders, Fox got to the stage where it was ready to animate the robot. They hired Blur Studios to handle the motion capture for a special effects sequence helmed by cofounder Tim Miller. Miller has since gone on to become a major director with his breakout film Deadpool–and directed the coming Terminator reboot.
Hartley remembers the first motion capture sessions clearly, as green-suited actors were asked to perform all sorts of things the robot might do. That included pointing, flexing, and taunting–the sort of machismo gesturing that was championed by a wave of mid-aughts dude-branding seen on contemporaries like SpikeTV.
A boastful, swole bro-bot is just the sort of over-indexing of masculinity that, seen through in a certain light, could have been interpreted as mocking Sunday football itself. “Immediately, we started getting reactions,” says Hartley. “This was pre-Twitter and all that stuff, but I remember . . . Louis Black, on an HBO show, the second week [the robot] is on the air, he cut to it, and was like, ‘What does this have to do with football?’ We were tweaking the purists, which I liked.”
Soon thereafter, with no one to say “no,”–Hill was the ultimate enabler–the creative team started to push the bounds of the robot’s behavior, treating it more like an ongoing gag than an austere touchdown-making machine. “I had what could be categorized as a ninth-grade sense of humor, so we had all this other stuff, so we really started getting into it.”
“I laughed my ass off, but I might have been the audience of one there,” says Hartley. Then in 2007, Fox threw an online naming contest for the robot. Fans selected “Cleatus,” a wonderfully wretched pun. He starred in a spot with another wonky brand icon, the Burger King King. The King zanily knocked Cleatus in the head with a football. You even hear a “DOIIIIING!!!”