It was September 2018, and neither Philadelphia nor the world had any idea what was about to be unleashed.
The Philadelphia Flyers like to say this was around the time they found an orange creature that had been living under the bleachers of the Wells Fargo Center. But the real story of how the hockey club ended up with an accidental sensation goes back to earlier in the year, when the neighboring Eagles returned home from their Super Bowl 52 win.
The four Philadelphia teams all share a sports and entertainment complex in the southeastern part of the city near the Navy Yard. The other three showed up to the Eagles' practice facility to greet the team and participate in the fanfare.
In attendance was the Philly Phanatic, the ever-mischievous mascot of the Phillies; Franklin the Dog, the mascot for the 76ers; and, of course, Swoop the Eagle.
"We were noticeably absent," said Christine Mina, the senior manager of digital media for the Flyers and Wells Fargo Center.
The Flyers had been considering a mascot for years. Conscious of their position as one of the historic teams in the NHL, they weren't quite sure if it was a fit. But there had been moments in the past when they thought they needed something. The Flyers never had a mascot at NHL All-Star Games or other league events. They recognized the missed opportunities for community outreach and awareness.
A mascot might be seen as simply a marketing ploy, but if the Eagles could have so much luck with one, then why not the Flyers?
"And I think that was sort of the last little push we needed to to get serious about it," Mina said. "So, summer of 2018 was when we really got to work on the concept."
So, that was it. The idea for Gritty was hatched, and he emerged in his orange glory by the start of the 2018-19 season. But as for how he became an overnight sensation, that's a different story.
The Flyers still aren't quite sure what that story actually is.
The Birth of a Mascot
Mark Zarthar, the senior vice president of marketing for the Flyers and Wells Fargo Center, came to Philadelphia in 2020, well after Gritty had already become one of the most easily recognizable mascots in professional sports. But he had been part of a mascot launch with the Fayetteville Woodpeckers, a minor league affiliate of the Houston Astros.
There's a lot more to it than just a person putting on a costume.
"There's his or her persona, their wardrobe, their design, their name, their story, there's a whole history to build," Zarthar said in a phone interview. "And you only have that chance to launch your mascot once. I think it probably sounds like a fairly simple, easy exercise. But the reality of it is that you can't relaunch a mascot over and over again. So you have to make sure the community is receptive of it."
Philadelphia fans once threw snowballs at Santa Claus, so the Flyers were unsure how receptive their fanbase would be to a mascot. They went through several designs and concepts to try to create something that would be emblematic of the city and the team. The end result was a monster in Flyers orange.
"We looked at animals, we looked at pilots, we looked at 'what is a Flyer really considered?'" Mina said. "We debated, is this aviation? That route felt very safe but didn't really feel right. And I think we all kind of landed on, 'OK, it needs to be sort of a monstrous creature or something that doesn't currently exist.'"
Former team president and Flyers alum Paul Holmgren named the beast. He described characteristics of the Flyers and kept coming back to the word "grit."
"He's really a good physical embodiment of what our organization is," Mina said. "Gritty was a word that... he kind of looked at everyone and said, 'That's what you should name it.' And I think from that point, everyone agreed that had felt really right."
So it had a name and face, but the reception was still missing. The club consulted with Dave Raymond, the original Phanatic, and he warned them that it would take time for the fans to embrace a new mascot. The marketing team braced themselves for a chilly reception.
The first reception was actually quite warm, but that was to be expected. The team debuted him at the Please Touch Museum, and the kids couldn't get enough of the new Wells Fargo Center bleacher creature. But the livestream of the event didn't go quite as well.
Twitter discovered Gritty. Like many things on Twitter, it didn't go well.
"People are looking at his picture being like, 'What is this thing?' And people were calling for all of our jobs, wondering what the heck we were doing looking at this horrifying mascot," Mina said. "And we're all kind of looking at each other like, 'Oh no, what's going on?' Philadelphia audiences were like, 'What the heck did the Flyers do?'"
A social media chirp at the Pittsburgh Penguins and a comical debut just fueled the fire. But the more Gritty was criticized, the more the residents of the Philadelphia area and Flyers fans pushed back.
He might look like a drunk uncle come to life in muppet form, but he was their drunk uncle muppet.
"Very quickly, it turned from a lot of anger against us to devotion and passion for a brand new mascot," Mina said. "And by that night, he was being asked to go on Good Morning America. The next day, he had built a huge following on social media. So it was a very rapid turn of events."
The Flyers marketing staff had a bona fide sensation on their hands, and they had to figure out how to run with it.
"Honestly, that whole first week... we were flying the plane as we built it a little bit, capitalizing off of these moments that were handed to us in a lot of ways," Mina said. "We were prepared for fans to hate this mascot."
Building the Gritty brand
Zarthar describes Gritty as the Flyers' No. 1 fan. He's passionate about cheering on the Flyers, spreading joy on social media—a medium that doesn't see much of that—and growing the game. The Flyers knew they needed to leverage Gritty's celebrity status to attract new fans.
"He's become an unofficial mascot of Philadelphia. And maybe he can be a symbol for the entire game of hockey," Zarthar said. "I think his popularity stretches well beyond the city of Philadelphia. And the viral nature of his content, the amount of creative means that exists, people across the country and even more recently, throughout the world, are taking notice of Gritty."
It's hard not to notice a 7-foot orange ball of beard. But Gritty has become more than a mascot. He's become a brand thanks to the work of Mina and her digital team, dubbed Team Gritty.
"We were just given this opportunity where he was everywhere," Mina said. "And it wasn't what we expected. But when you've got lightning in a bottle like that, you just sort of have to do what you can."
So they gave Gritty a personality, a snarky Twitter presence and an Instagram account. The dance moves are all his—Zarthar says the performer is a "unbelievable athlete"—but the voice is the work of Mina and her group. The voice is what makes him relatable, and it's what makes the jobs of the Flyers marketing team enjoyable.
Staff meetings consist of planning out Gritty's antics. How will he get in trouble? How will they document it? Which opposing player will he chirp at during pregame warmups?
He also interacts with the Flyers players, of course, which was key for their marketing plan. Kevin Hayes said he wouldn't play this season unless Gritty was allowed in the building.
"They're all pretty, pretty great about it," Mina said. "I think that they like the fact that they've got this mascot which is popular and a little different from a lot of other teams. That's pretty cool."
So, what happens to a mascot when there are no hockey games? What happens to a mascot when fans aren't allowed into hockey games? How do you market a sports team when fans are forced to stay at home?
Professional teams still need revenue, which is heavily reliant on fans buying tickets, concessions and jerseys. Right now, they need to ensure they're keeping their old ones and trying to attract new ones without their key recruiting tool, which is live games.
"It doesn't matter which sport, you utilize your in-game experience in your home arena as a great introduction point to new fans," Zarthar said. "It's a great way to get a sample of the experience and become a long-term fan. Without fans in the arena, we have to rely so much more on the digital environment and on the TV broadcast."
The Flyers are relying on Gritty.
"From the very start, when our season got paused in March, we immediately thought, 'What is he going to do now?'" Mina said.
The club purchased a frighteningly humorous billboard in Toronto, where the Flyers played in the Toronto bubble during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They played on The Police's "Every Breath You Take" with a billboard featuring Gritty's face saying, "I'll be watching you." They had Gritty take a trip to Canada, only to wind up in Toronto, Ohio.
"As the ultimate fan, he would do everything he possibly could to try to be there even if he can't," Mina said. "A lot of our content strategy around that came from that premise of like, he would be doing anything and everything."
That's still the content strategy. They have a stage for him at Wells Fargo Center and a digital team documenting his every move. The season opener against the Penguins on NBC Sports Network was the network's most-watched regular-season game in history. Their engagements on Gritty's Twitter account have been off the charts.
When you can't have fans, you double down on the only one that's allowed inside of the building.
"It's a focal point of the content we feature on our social platforms, and fans of Gritty tune in to our games," Zarthar said. "They tune in to our social channels to see the variety of antics that he's up to each game."
The coronavirus pandemic changed many things about how we live our daily lives, but it hasn't changed Gritty and his popularity.
"The sky's the limit," Mina said. "The wackier the idea, the more we try to make those things that seem so unrealistic happen. I think that's just led us this far and what we're going to try to continue to do."
Love him, hate him or be indifferent about him, but Gritty is everyone's brother in the City of Brotherly Love.