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You Go, Gritty
The mascot only a Flyers fan could love
By Chuck Darrow

If you wanted to name the greatest Philadelphia sports story of the past year, you might have some difficulty. Would it be Nick Foles, who came surprisingly close to deja-vuing the Eagles to their second consecutive Super Bowl appearance? 

How about Joel Embiid, the 76ers’ genial giant who ranks among the NBAs marquee attractions? Or the Villanova Wildcats, who last spring captured their second NCAA mens basketball championship in three years? 

All are worthy candidates, but its hard to argue any of them were bigger than an individual who didnt even exist seven months ago. That would be Gritty, the popeyed Flyers’ mascot who, in just a matter of days last fall, became an unlikely pop-culture phenomenon, and whose hold on the imaginations of people – hockey fans and not – shows no sign of loosening any time soon. 

According to team metrics, Grittys first 30 days of existence exposed the Flyers to more than 65 million TV viewers, including those who saw him/her/it (more on that later) on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and Good Morning America.” Simultaneously, Gritty-related content registered a staggering five billion online impressions.  

That the 51-year-old NHL franchise even decided to introduce a team avatar should have been the biggest surprise of all. After all, the teams founder and old-school guiding light, the late Ed Snider, obviously never saw the need for a mascot. But when Snider died of cancer in April 2016, a new generation of executives took charge. Because the Flyers havent won the Stanley Cup since 1975, the creation of a mascot wasnt at the very top of the new leaderships to-do list. But it became a priority in the winter of 2017 when a contingent of team officials attended the annual NHL all-star game in Los Angeles.  

 

As the story goes, the son of Flyers’ COO Sean Tilger was captivated by the appearances of mascots from all but three NHL teams (the Flyers being one of them), and he asked his dad why the Flyers didnt have one. That simple question started the process that wound up altering Flyers history. 

Thats when we decided to get serious about it,” says Joe Heller, the teams vice-president of marketing, and one of a handful of people charged with the mascots creation.  

It was about having more of that presence in the marketplace. We found out that we were losing out at having a presence at between 250 and 300 appearances a year because we didn’t have a mascot there to represent us. So that was really sort of the deciding factor to get going and get serious about this project. 

No one in the teams front office possessed the expertise to get the mascot ball (puck?) rolling, but that was hardly an obstacle, because the Delaware Valley is also the home base of Dave Raymond, the man who, in 1978, first breathed life into the pile of electric-green shag carpeting known as the Phillie Phanatic (and continued to do so for 16 years).   Raymond is the acknowledged master of the sports-mascot universe, having consulted on the creation of some 150 costumed creatures. 

The main lessons Raymond initially imparted to the Flyers’ braintrust had nothing to do with tangibles like facial appearance and costume design. Instead, Raymond explained that an organizations commitment to a mascot is paramount to its success. Also crucial is a characters backstory – that is, the how and why of its being.  

If you study the development of characters, from a Ronald McDonald to Pepperidge Farm fish to the Phanatic and every other great sports character, the most successful ones are the ones that had developed a story thats authentic to their brand and authentic to their history and even their community. 

Youre basically building acceptance because fans hear the story and they go, I know that story. Its my story. Its about us,’” Raymond adds. 

So Grittys story is this: he was living for a long, but unquantified, amount of time in a lair beneath the Wells-Fargo Center when recent construction disturbed his secret hideout, forcing him to show his face publicly for the first time. 

There are also some oddities that are both humorous and strange. A number of times hes been caught eating snow straight from the Zamboni machine and, surprising to many, his love of hot dogs has been inflating the Flyers Dollar Dog Night consumption totals for years. 

His online bio also notes his father was a bully” (a nod to the Broad Street Bullies” of Flyers mythology) and that legend has it he earned the name Gritty’ for possessing an attitude so similar to the team he follows. 

Although hundreds of Philadelphia schoolkids were given an in-person sneak peek at Gritty during a program at the citys Please Touch Museum last September, it was 11 days later that the dad-bod shaped mascot was officially unleashed on the world. Social media reaction was swift and mostly brutal: the word nightmare” was among the pejorative terms used by critics. It seemed as if Gritty was going to be a colossal failure. But then came the tweet that changed everything. 

In response to the Flyers’ introductory tweet on Sept. 24, the teams hated cross-state rivals, the Pittsburgh Penguins, sent out the simple message: lol ok.” Grittys comeback (via the teams social media squad) was a brilliant distillation of the cityNobody likes us. Everybody hates us. We dont care” addytood:  

That immediately put Delaware Valleyans on Grittys side, offers Heller. It was like, Oh, okay. We get it. You know, hes quickly become one of us.’”  

Heller adds another big step was when, upon his introduction at the Flyers’ season-opener, Gritty fell as he skated onto the ice. Gritty subsequently tweeted, Why didnt anybody tell me the ice is this slippery?” This piece of self-deprecation increased his loveability quotient. 

So, in this age of gender hypersensitivity, what exactly is Gritty: male, female or none of the above? While Heller mostly uses the pronoun him” for expediencys sake, he does not commit to any specifics. 

Grittys gender, says Heller, was really never designated. We refer to a creature’ or a monster.’ So at the end of the day, thats basically the reference.”  

I dont think weve ever said what he is other than – hes obviously not a human.” 

March 2019
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