During a trip to the NHL All-Star game in 2017, the son of Flyers chief operating officer Shawn Tilger intently watched the antics of the mascot hockey game and afterward asked his father why the team didn’t have a mascot (the Flyers were one of three teams not represented). When the Eagles won the Super Bowl in 2018, Philadelphia’s three mascots, the Phillie Phanatic, the Eagles’ Swoop and the 76ers’ Franklin, met the team at the airport to welcome them home. It was becoming increasingly apparent the Flyers were missing out on opportunities big and small—the marketing team estimated a mascot could attend between 250 and 300 games and community events each year.
And so the wheels started turning after the 2018 season. Just a few months later, the Flyers unleashed their new mascot on a world not quite ready for six feet of orange fur and terror.
The Flyers introduced Gritty at a private team media event on Sept. 13 and then officially set him loose Sept. 24 at an event with 600 kids. A simultaneous rollout online had fans immediately taking up their pitchforks in protest of Gritty until the Pittsburgh Penguins went after him. “Sleep with one eye open tonight, bird,” Gritty fired back, and Philadelphians quickly reversed course, embracing him as one of their own.
“Dave [Raymond, the original Phillie Phanatic] talked to us about being committed because odds are at the beginning, there was going to be a negative reception because it’s so new and different,” said Joe Heller, vp of marketing, Philadelphia Flyers. “He told us we needed to be ready to weather the first two weeks to two months. Little did we know it was going to be under 24 hours, but that was always the goal.”
“Just like any icon in the city, he had to earn his stripes,” Tilger added.
According to the Flyers, media coverage of Gritty’s first 30 days generated an enormous audience, reaching nearly 70 million people on TV, with a local audience over 16 million. Online, Gritty garnered nearly 5 billion impressions, worth $151 million in earned media.
Designing Gritty’s ‘Dad-bod’
Creating the viral behemoth that is Gritty was no easy task. The Flyers wanted to start fresh and avoid anything that remotely resembled a mascot or puppet already in existence, according to Tilger. The team, led by Tilger, Heller and director of marketing Sarah Schwab, started with over 100 different options, which they laid out on a conference table. Developing Gritty became all-consuming.
“We’d have meetings not related to Gritty, and they’d end up being discussions about how much hair he should have coming out of his helmet,” Heller said.
After weeks of deliberations, they eventually landed on a design from Brian Allen of Flyland Designs, but not before they scrutinized every last detail of what would become Gritty.
That includes many features that didn’t make the final cut like eyebrows, a tail and wings—yes, Gritty could have had the power of flight. The mouth alone became a source of debate. Should Gritty have an overbite? Fangs? Be permanently smiling? The team looked at 15 different eye colors. A nose was never on the table.
“The amount of conversations you have about the features we laugh at looking back, but there were some serious struggles and tension to get where we did,” Heller said.
The team also needed to decide on Gritty’s general figure. Heller explained that his larger-than-life size was especially important. “We wanted monster-like features. When you look at the animation, he has some pretty built arms compared to his body. He has a dad-bod thing going on,” Heller said.
Even with a design on paper, the long discussions about Gritty’s appearance didn’t end. The team workshopped some of Gritty’s most ridiculous features like the smoke he can blow out of his eyes and squeakers in his hands and belly button. “Is this squeaker too soft or too hard? Can a kid actually walk up and hit his belly button and squeak?” Heller said they asked themselves.
With the costume built—and delivered just days before his first appearance—the team realized the performer behind the mask was taller than expected, leaving Gritty with what Heller called “flamingo legs.” The solution? Put Gritty in a pair of hockey trousers.
Philadelphia is a ‘gritty’ city
Arriving at Gritty’s name was not nearly as time-consuming as designing his costume. During one session, team president Paul Holmgren started tossing names around that described the team. Jokingly, he suggested Gritty, and Tilger immediately loved it. “That’s the word!”
The Flyers try to brand their organization around that word, describing Philadelphia as a gritty city. It stood out so much that few other names were even seriously considered.
“It’s hard to compete with Gritty. We tried,” Schwab said.
Due to the unwritten rules of the mascot code, the Flyers couldn’t reveal who plays Gritty but said he came highly recommended by Dave Raymond, the original Phillie Phanatic. According to Schwab, it’s “not his first mascot rodeo.” While the marketing and social media team plans many of Gritty’s antics, Schwab credits the performer for bringing Gritty to life and creating viral moments on the fly like body-slamming a pile of stuffed shark toys at the aquarium before a game against the San Jose Sharks.
The creative process behind Gritty
As the internet rage storm against Gritty started to dissipate and the tide turned to praising Gritty during his first actual day in existence, one of the pivotal moments came on Twitter. The Flyers tried to break the internet, using Gritty to spoof Kim Kardashian’s Twitter-famous Paper magazine cover, which features the reality star balancing a martini glass on her derriere (the team said it’s one of their major goals to get Kardashian to acknowledge Gritty’s existence).
“We started talking about it at dinner and then did it by 10 o’clock,” Heller said. “When we did that Kardashian post, it was likes by the thousands. … 35 days later it hasn’t slowed down.”
The team doesn’t plot out its moves days in advance, but rather work on a “five-hour-at-a-time window,” Schwab said.
“It’s almost like the [marketing team] sits around like the SNL writers,” Tilger said. “What’s a topic of interest and does it fit with Gritty and how do we play off of it?” The team uses Slack to kick around ideas and workshop them. Often, the team molds something mentioned as a joke into a viable idea—Schwab said that’s how the Kardashian tweet evolved.
“We’re always together. We have the luxury of working in sports and being together on nights and weekends,” Schwab said. “It fosters that culture to begin with. It’s a lot of communication. No idea is a bad idea.”
The team looks at trends they see on their own social media feeds, like how parents shoot baby photos with a felt board. So at one month, Schwab said the team made that happen, posing Gritty with a sign that read, “BB Gritty … 1 month old… 9 lbs. 5,136 oz.”
Even with their preparation, some things can’t be planned, nor do they always turn out as anticipated. During Gritty’s first appearance on the ice, he slipped several times, which Heller confirmed was not scripted. And then there’s Gritty’s infamous first photo shoot for which the team used a black background.
“That led to some of the creepy, scary photos,” Heller said. “We came on a bit strong.”
Making sure Gritty isn’t a ‘sellout’
As Gritty’s popularity skyrocketed, the Flyers’ marketing team faced mounting requests for the mascot to grace events with his presence.
“It’s important to not say yes to everything,” Tilger said. “It keeps the status of not being a sellout.”
“When you have a mascot take off, you have to decide if you want to do everything he’s asked,” Schwab added. “Does he do that interview? Or that appearance? I just got an email that he’s going to be carved into a block of cheese. Does he want to show up for that?”
However, there are some events they wish Gritty would have gotten invited to.
“The city issued a resolution welcoming and honoring him—but told us after the fact,” Heller said.
Despite the incredible success, the Flyers do have one regret: Because they didn’t land on a final design until so close to the season, Tilger said, it didn’t leave the team enough time to produce Gritty merchandise. With lead times of 90 to 120 days, Gritty merch won’t ramp up until a couple months into the season—a bobblehead is coming in 2019 (Heller said the process of designing a bobblehead accurately was like “building the suit all over again”).
Between Gritty’s media appearances—he’s done the talk show circuit from Kimmel to Good Morning America and everything in between—and his never-ending viral antics, Gritty’s quickly become a household name, according to Tilger.
“I love the number of non-hockey people who like him,” he said. “It’s transcended just what goes on the ice. People can’t name players, but they can name Gritty.”