Gritty is unquestionably the most popular mascot in the NHL, if not all of professional sports.
While most have fewer than 10,000 Twitter followers to show for their years of existence, Gritty gathered more than 225,000 by mid-February – more than four times that of Nashville’s Gnash, who’s second. When the Philadelphia Flyers initially revealed Gritty back in September 2018, there were a multitude of reactions: shock, confusion, fear, laughter, even anger. And while some fans still harbor those feelings, the majority turned it around in just a few hours, with Gritty becoming an international hockey heartthrob by the end of his first day.
A few weeks later, even the Philadelphia city council adopted a resolution proclaiming Gritty as their own, while still referring to him as “a ghastly empty-eyed Muppet with a Delco beard,” “a cross of Snuffleupagus and Oscar the Grouch,” and “a shaggy orange Wookiee-esque grotesquerie,” among other complimentary terms.
Gritty’s sudden rise to fame is unmatched in pro sports. According to the Flyers’ marketing department, in the first 30 days, Gritty attracted more than $150 million of online news publicity, 87 million-plus Twitter impressions and tens of millions of TV viewers. With the help of the executive team that created him, here’s a deeper look at Gritty’s ride to the top.
The idea of creating a Flyers mascot comes at the 2016 NHL All-Star Game, attended by some of the high-level executives of the team’s parent company, Comcast-Spectacor.
Shawn Tilger: (COO, Comcast-Spectacor) I was at the All-Star Game with (president) Paul Holmgren and (chairman) Dave Scott. My son, Gavyn, came over and started tugging on us to come watch the mascot game. We went over and immediately we knew we had an opportunity, and it was time to do something that we had discussed before. Because every poll and survey we had done in the past to do a mascot wasn’t received well.
Cindy Stutman: (SVP, business operations) A couple years ago, when we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the team, we spent a lot of time talking about the next 50 years. How are we going to evolve? And this was our first real big pivot in that way.
Sarah Schwab: (director, marketing and communications) From a community-relations standpoint, I think we hit a ceiling. You can only do so much with the players, the wives, the alumni, and we had hit that point. So how do you expand on that?
Stutman: What really hammered it home, too, was when the Eagles won the Super Bowl. The team came back and all the other mascots were there, and we weren’t. We didn’t have a presence.
Tilger: We needed a storytelling vehicle that we could control, that was agnostic of any team-related performance. It was an educated risk. Because we knew it would be polarizing.
Holmgren: I was skeptical. But after listening to our marketing department people, talking internally about our need to attract a younger fan base and our need to become more visible in the community, it made sense. I still had my fingers crossed, though.
The marketing team begins developing ideas and creating the first inklings of what eventually becomes known as ‘Gritty.’ They contact Dave Raymond, a character consultant who played the Philadelphia Phillies’ Phanatic mascot for many years.
Joe Heller: (VP, marketing and communications) Dave met with a select group of us. It was really just answering the why and the how. What’s the story we’re trying to tell? How do we pinpoint what’s going to represent us? We started really evaluating what we were interested in, as far as design goes. That includes everything from fictional characters to animals.
Anthony Gioia: (senior director, game presentation) Summer was coming and we didn’t know what we wanted it to be, we just knew it wasn’t it. I think the premise was that nothing’s off the table. This is who we are, this is what we stand for, what do you think that means? There were a couple of different monsters, there was a flyer – like an old bomber guy – but there was a bunch of everything. Birds, dogs, I mean everything. Time was getting kind of tight, and this was getting more and more of a reality. We all basically got in a room, put everything on a table and said, “We’re not leaving here until we find three choices.”
Schwab: We were a little surprised when we presented the options, that Shawn was ready to push the envelope and commit to something that was swinging for the fences. At one point he said, “This is our chance to make a splash, let’s do it.” And from there it was kind of full steam ahead.
Gioia: From the get-go, Shawn said, “If we’re going to do it, let’s dive in with both feet.”
Stutman: We were in the unique position that one of the key people on the team was a mascot. He is someone that was inside the suit for many years at the beginning of his career. He was really adamant about some of the tricks the mascot should have.
Gioia: I started with the Carolina Hurricanes in 1997 as their mascot. It was supposed to be a hog, and it was the worst costume ever. It was just terrible. I added the belly button and little squeaky toys everywhere, and I found some success with it. I did a lot of stunts. So, when we were getting to the build part (with Gritty), while Joe was working on a lot of the licensing and the NHL stuff, I was working with the company, the build, and the performer.
Heller: This was right around Father’s Day, last June.
Gioia: The company that we decided to go with for the build told us it would be a hard six weeks. And this was about six weeks and four days before the rollout.
Heller: We knew that July 4 was it. We had to have something turned over to them by July 4.
All the while, the organization is desperately trying to figure out what they want this new mascot to look like so they could get the design to the costume company in time for the pre-season.
Schwab: The marketing team will tell you, we made decisions up until the week we unveiled him, on the way he was going to look.
Tilger: We drove each other crazy.
Stutman: We had discussions that I never thought we’d have. This fur or that fur? What color? What about his eyes?
Tilger: What’s going to be his special trick?
Schwab: The beard battle.
Tilger: That was a good one.
Stutman: Pants or no pants.
Christine Mina: (manager, digital media) I remember the discussion of hair coming out of his ears.
Heller: Eyebrows were a big thing. I remember holding four different kinds of eyebrows.
Schwab: Even in the sketching phase, we had various forms of circles under his eyes. There were a lot of conversations about how tired-looking he was.
Gioia: The image that was on the table, that we picked, and Gritty look completely different. That meeting we had, we decided to put a helmet on him. The drawing didn’t have a helmet.
Heller: In the final drawing, he had a spot on his chest. He had a little bunny tail. We ditched that. We had 15 different mouths.
Schwab: He had an underbite at one point.
Gioia: Pants were a big thing. We were doing his final fitting, and he wasn’t supposed to have pants. But because the performer was a lot taller, it didn’t fit right. And we put pants on him. That was three days before the unveiling. He was supposed to have hockey gloves, and the performer was like, “I can’t do anything with these gloves on, you have to get rid of them.” Then we gave him hands. Even after we unveiled him, we still made changes to him.
The name for the newcomer to the Flyers’ organization comes from none other than former enforcer and now-team president Holmgren.
Holmgren: We were talking about how the mascot would look, what type of costume he’d be in, and I said he needs to be gritty, like our city.
Tilger: We were all in a room and going through potential names, and he said it, and I said, “That’s it.” It matched the city profile, it matched the fan base and how we see ourselves as an organization. Paul made some jokes about how we should give him sandpaper for hands.
Stutman: And now, can you imagine him having any other name?
On Sept. 24, 2018, the Flyers hold an event at the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia to introduce Gritty to the world. It’s live-streamed on the team’s Twitter account, and the reaction is swift, with the public shocked at the dancing creature on the screen in front of them.
Schwab: It was kind of funny because the unveil event in and of itself was actually a massive undertaking. There were 600 kids there from schools around the city. And their reaction was wild. They were so excited, it was so loud in that museum. I remember being like, “This went really well.” Then I looked at my phone and said, “Ooh, this is a little different on Twitter.” It was like a tale of two Grittys.
Jakub Voracek: (Flyers right winger) (Laughing) When I saw him, I was like, “Holy f—, it’s going to be a lot of heat.” He has orange hair, and I’m not the guy that shaves every day. I knew there was going to be some jokes coming at me.
Mina: (Marketing and communications coordinator) Lauren Capone and I were in the back streaming all of this for the Flyers’ social accounts and sending off Gritty’s initial tweets, standing on ladders. You kind of get used to expecting who is going to retweet you and what to expect in terms of the Flyers news in the world. The shocking thing was, we weren’t even off the ladders yet, and our phone notifications were just flying. I was noticing some of the outlets that were picking us up. It wasn’t just TSN, ESPN, big sports names. It was major brands and major news outlets that were retweeting us and commenting on it.
Heller: We were huddled in the back room of the Please Touch Museum, just us and the performer, and there’s no panic. We’re laughing along with it. It was never, “Did we do the wrong thing?” or “Are we going to get fired?” It was like, “This is what is supposed to happen.” My big thing was surprise that there weren’t as many naysayers saying, “The Flyers don’t need a mascot.” It was completely about his look. It was just, “Look at those eyes, look at that mouth, he’s crazy.” And I don’t think any of us thought that was going to be the reaction.
Gioia: These guys did a great job with the unveil. These kids were there, sitting in front. Everyone was having a good time, laughing. It wasn’t forced. It was scripted, but it was just a very organic-feeling program. You felt good about it. Once the social thing started, that’s when all the negativity started, and we were like, “Well, it couldn’t last that long!”
As the day progresses, it’s clear that the public opinion is quickly shifting. In the midst of NHL mascots welcoming Gritty on Twitter just a few minutes after the unveiling, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ mascot, Iceburgh, tweets a casual taunt, which prompts a snappy response from Gritty: “Sleep with one eye open tonight, bird,” accompanied by a terrifying GIF of the new mascot. In just a few minutes, it’s clear that Gritty is a Broad Street Bully, if not much more eccentric. That night, during intermission, Gritty slips on the ice and falls flat on his back, eliciting a roar of approval from social media. The evening ends with an ingenious, if not disturbing, tweet featuring Gritty posing as Kim Kardashian shooting water from a Gatorade bottle over his head and into a glass perched on his backside.
Gioia: We put him on the concourse, and the line was halfway around the arena. I couldn’t believe it. You’d get some people that would come up and be like, “I want to talk to the owner!” But then the game started, and I think that’s where we thought it was all going. All of this stuff had happened, we’re working the game, and it just happened without our involvement. People went from hating it and making fun of it and making memes of it. It was kind of addictive, it was like watching a soap opera.
Heller: I think the Pittsburgh thing helped. I mean, 10 minutes in they lobbed one at us and we fired it back. That kind of sticks to the plan of what we were hoping to do. His whole thing was going to be fiercely defending Philly and the Flyers, and his antics would be what would win people over. Some dude tweets, “Apparently you don’t need a brain to work there,” at two o’clock. And then by nine he was like, “Yeah, I really love Gritty now.” And you were like, “Wow, that was quick.”
Gioia: This department went from, literally, people calling for their jobs, calling them the worst marketing department in the world, to all of a sudden being geniuses and wanting to know the formula, all within a couple of hours.
Mina: (Laughing) It was a pretty emotional day.
Heller: And we capped the night off with the Kim Kardashian tweet. That sort of put the night to a good, solid conclusion.
Schwab: The Kim Kardashian idea, we were just eating dinner.
Lauren Robins: (digital media coordinator) I was thinking, “He’s going to break the internet. Twitter’s going to get mad at us.” And then the Kim Kardashian post popped into my head. And I’m a pretty skilled photoshopper. (Laughs)
Capone: That’s what we were meeting about when Good Morning America called. We were scheduling out a media tour that day. We had called outlets up the week before, because it was going to be on a Monday, and we were like, “Shhh, on Monday we’re unveiling a mascot.” And they were all like, “Meh.” They really weren’t enthused.
Heller: Most were like, “Yeah, we can slot it in somewhere.”
Schwab: (Philadelphia Eagles quarterback) Carson Wentz had just come back (from injury), the Bill Cosby trial was starting, and the Brett Kavanaugh hearings started that week. There was just a lot of news. I remember we had producers saying, “We’ll try to fit this in, but there’s a lot of news happening.” So Good Morning America calls, maybe in the third period of that game. The producer says to me, “We are obsessed with Gritty.” I think maybe what happened is they saw him slip on the ice, they were in the newsroom killing themselves laughing, and someone was like, “Get someone from the Flyers on the phone.” The tides were definitely shifting at that point, but it was the first time I heard someone say, “We’re obsessed with Gritty.” He went on live at 5 a.m.
Overnight, Gritty launches into national fame. He’s talked about by John Oliver on his weekly HBO satirical news show, Last Week Tonight, appears on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and is featured on just about every major news show in North America. The icing on the proverbial Gritty cake is his appearance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon three days later. However, before the show’s taping, the marketing team realizes there is not enough time to get Gritty back to the Wells Fargo Center in time for the team’s pre-season game that night. The radical solution? A helicopter.
Schwab: We were going hour by hour at one point. Jimmy Fallon was a great example. I was coming into work, and I thought, “How are we going to logistically get him back for the game?” We’ve just launched this mascot into the world. We just got done saying that he’s for Philadelphia. He’s this city’s mascot. This city has just finished defending him. And then what, he’s going to get too big for his britches and miss his second game? Absolutely not, we can’t do that.
Capone: You were tentatively like, “Just call them. Find out what it’s going to cost.” We didn’t know. Who charters a helicopter the day of?
Schwab: Lauren had thrown it out as a joke. She was on the phone with them as I went into Shawn’s office. I said, “I have a solution. We can helicopter him back.” And I totally expected him to laugh at me. But Shawn was like, “Yeah, whatever it takes, let’s do it.” Shawn actually called in and got us the police escort from the helipad back into the building. The cops were very shocked when they saw who their VIP guest was. (Laughs)
Capone: So was the helicopter pilot. Gritty gets into the helicopter, and the pilot was like, “Just when I think I’ve seen everything.”
The marketing team is responsible for much of the Gritty content we see, but, as they expected from the beginning, it’s the performer inside the costume who makes or breaks Gritty’s success.
Schwab: If we do an interview with Gritty’s voice, it’s a lot of members of this team but also the performer sits in. They really have their finger on the pulse.
Capone: I’ve always seen it like a marriage between the two. Even the night before his unveil, when we were dry-running his entrance. There was a point where I had this idea in my mind, and then the performer was doing it better. It was almost like a give and take between whatever ideas we might have, and then the performer just elevates it.
Gioia: His personality is so different than anyone else on the market. The Phanatic challenged authority or made fun of coaches, doing things that people always wanted to do but maybe never had the platform to do. That’s what Gritty does, Flyers style. Where the Phanatic might clap when a little boy blows out his candles, Gritty is the one that’ll blow out the candles before the kid can.
Mina: One of the first things we did after he launched was we took him over to (the Flyers’ practice facility in New Jersey). To the performer’s credit, once they met (Flyers captain) Claude Giroux, they just sort of jumped on it two feet first. He’s obsessed with Giroux, and they’re going to be best friends. It was just a decided personality trait from that moment. There was this connection that can’t be broken.
Schwab: His love for Claude Giroux just came organically.
Claude Giroux: I think it’s pretty funny, everywhere he sees me, he’s got a little crush on me. It’s pretty awesome to have.
Mina: We continue to shape that love and affection each and every day. Is it too much? Is it not enough? We’ve shaped it as this little brother who just idolizes the older brother.
Heller: Didn’t (GM) Chuck Fletcher say his wife and kids said don’t come back without meeting Gritty?
Mina: (Laughing) Yeah, a lot of players’ families are like that. Even Mike McKenna, our new goalie, adopted a very swift friendship.
Schwab: Gary Bettman wanted to meet him early on.
Mina: ‘Gar,’ as Gritty refers to him. It’s just been little nuances where we want Gritty to feel like he’s a part of the team but also the biggest fanboy of the team that could ever be. I mean, full obsession, no bigger Flyers fan exists.
Even months later, the world is still completely enamored with Gritty. The love affair hasn’t stopped, which is evident to the marketing team wherever they go.
Tilger: I was at a doctor’s appointment the other day. I said, “Hey, anything we can do for you, let me know.” He said, “Well, I’m bringing my family to the game, can I get a picture with Gritty?” I mean, we get that all the time.
Gioia: Friends of mine from Brazil are asking me for T-shirts. I was like, “How do you know about him in Brazil?” My parents in New York read about him in The New York Times, and it’s like, of all the things I’ve done in my career, this is the one thing my parents are proud of. (Laughs) We all have stories like this. A league representative came last week. The person worked for a team before that for a number of years. And she said that he’s her spirit animal. I mean, she’s in sports, she worked for another team, but they’re infatuated with him.
Schwab: Industry people, seasoned veterans, who don’t get excited about anything, they’ve been around the block. You see these grown adults with all this experience just fangirling.
Capone: My mother is 61 years old. I gave her a Gritty jersey for Christmas, and she cried. Full-blown tears. Last year we gave her a Carson Wentz jersey, and she was like, “Oh, that’s so nice.” This year, it was full-blown, “This is so amazing!”
Heller: I called my great aunt around Christmas, she lives two hours from here, she’s 94, and she doesn’t even have internet. She told me everything she knew about Gritty, including assuming that I was in the costume. (Laughs)
Gioia: I haven’t seen a friend of mine in probably 15 years. They’re coming in March to see Gritty.
Heller: It’s gone beyond the scope of what we thought it would ever be.
Schwab: I was in the hospital about a month ago. Here I’m in pre-term labor, and the nurses were like, “You know Gritty? Can he come here?”
Gioia: Into the delivery room?
Gioia: That would be fun.
Schwab: I was just truly shocked.
Heller: (Laughing) Now I’m going to send him. He can be in scrubs!
Capone: It was maybe a month after, and we had gone out casually as co-workers. And at every bar we went to, every watering hole in South Philadelphia, there was a Gritty drink on every menu. None of them were good.
Mina: There’s now Gritty wings, Gritty desserts.
Heller: I saw Gritty graffiti.
Gioia: People are making their own costumes. Not coming to the game, they’re just making their own costumes.
Gioia: It took us three months to make it. It took these people three days. It’s unbelievable.
Heller: I mean, we could go on forever. It’s been fun, but there have been a lot of stressful days, where we were like, “We’ve got to make a decision, we’ve got to come to terms with something.”
Tilger: It was something that, at the time, we didn’t realize how much it was going to help us draw in the non-hockey fan. If you walk around the city and ask someone who Gritty is, they’ll know. Whereas if you go through the roster, you’ll have more trouble, if you’re not a hockey person. I think that’s really what made this such a huge success, is our ability to be water-cooler talk and part of pop culture. It’s something we’ve been striving to do.
Gioia: The social-media team, the way that we’ve been able to keep it going. I mean, I didn’t know how to do that before. These guys are figuring it out daily. I don’t think there’s any right way. It’s just figuring out our way. It’s hard to remember what life was like before Gritty.
Voracek: He’s everywhere. He’s doing a great job. He’s a typical Philly prototype, whether he’s getting on the ice or being in the stands. It was a hell of a move by whoever did it.
Holmgren: No question Gritty has become a real positive for our organization. The awareness of our brand and the exposure not only in Philadelphia but across North America has been incredible.
Giroux: The fans really enjoy watching him go. He’s one of us now.
Philadelphia’s resolution adopting Gritty for the city speaks best to the blue-collar town’s embrace of the mascot. “As there is a small part of every Philadelphian embedded in the soul of Gritty,” city council proclaimed, “he is never alone. Gritty joins a renowned cadre of Philadelphia sports mascot colleagues that will teach him how to keep the spirits of Philadelphia sports fans high despite our inevitable misery…Philadelphia is Philadelphia because of brotherly love, sisterly affection, and monsterly spirit that binds us together in confronting anyone who dares to speak critically of our beloved city.”
ONE-ON-ONE WITH GRITTY
What’s your favorite part about working for the Flyers?
Getting to hang out with the best fans in all the ‘chel.’
What’s your favorite pump-up song to listen to before a game?
Picture. Sheryl and Kid really crush that. I like to sing both parts. I know you feel it too, Allen.
What’s your pre-game meal?
Two carrots, four almonds, a sleeve of cream-filled chocolate sandwich cookies, one cup of beach sand – sifted for shells and loose change, it helps the digestive tract – fresh-squeezed lime juice and one-and-a-half Belgian waffles. Blended to perfection.
What other sports mascot inspires you?
Clippy from Microsoft Word. Great advice guy. You can’t beat that signature red squiggle line move he does. He’s been at the top of the rankings in the Extreme Typing League for as long as I can remember.
Who’s your favorite hockey player not on the Flyers?
Michael Scarn. You know? Threat Level Midnight? He’s also a secret agent (spoiler alert).
What’s your favorite thing about Philadelphia?
I’ll give you one guess, Allen. It rhymes with the fryers.
What actor/actress would play you in a movie?
Meryl Streep, but Daniel Radcliffe would do my stunts.
What’s your plan for the upcoming off-season?
Lots of golf. Disc golf. It’s been a minute since I’ve hit the links to clang some chain.
Is there a future Mrs. Gritty in your life?
TBH I’ve never swiped right, too nervous, but maybe one day. This interview is getting too personal.