Moments before the Philadelphia Flyers unveiled their new 7-foot orange mascot Gritty last month, the Delaware man who developed the hockey team’s furry cheerleader turned to a team executive.
“I said, ‘Let’s be clear. If this all goes well, it’s all because of me,” Newark native David Raymond said to Flyers Vice President of Marketing Joe Heller at Gritty’s splashy debut in front of 600 schoolchildren at the Please Touch Museum.
If not, Raymond told Heller, it was Heller’s fault.
It’s going to be hard for them to untangle who gets blame and praise after the social media reaction to Gritty, whose “Where the Wild Things Are” monster size and presidential tint caught the world’s imagination.
Raymond, the original Phillie Phanatic for 16 years, had already warned the team that there could be a wave of initial negative feedback, especially in the age of Twitter.
He was right.
“I’m afraid to make fun of Gritty because that is the face of a mascot who has killed a man and will do it again,” wrote one fan.
“Looks like the Phanatic and Cookie Monster had an orange child,” wrote another.
As head of the West Grove, Pennsylvania-based Raymond Entertainment, a mascot and branding company he’s had for more than 30 years, Raymond knew that there is always some backlash any time a new mascot is unveiled.
In the lead-up to Gritty’s debut, Raymond told the team’s front office to be prepared for a wave of mixed feelings or negativity for two weeks to two months.
“So we already had a long-term plan in place to make sure people would buy him as one of our own,” Heller says. “There weren’t any moments of panic.”
What Raymond couldn’t tell them was that the googly-eyed Gritty would inspire a seemingly endless barrage of jokes and memes across the country (and on national television), some of which were quite dark.
During “Weekend Update” on “Saturday Night Live,” co-head writer Colin Jost cracked, “This is an interesting fact: Gritty was actually the first mascot ever based on the crayon drawings of a 5-year-old who saw his parents murdered.”
But all the attention — good and bad, but initially almost universally bad — made Gritty a recognized national sports figure in an instant.
And Raymond, the 62-year-old son of the late, legendary University of Delaware football coach Tubby Raymond, knew he had a hit on his hands.
“There’s always negative kickback at first and these days, it’s just more of a negative-based environment,” Raymond says. The Flyers embraced it all, he said.
“They went up there with no armor on and just said, ‘Shoot me.’ And then they deflected the negativity with humor. It was perfect.”
The team didn’t have to wait two months for sentiment to turn in their favor. Once the national media and comedians pounced, Philadelphia and Flyers fans rallied around Gritty as one of theirs.
The municipal embrace fits the city’s’ mantra as coined by Philadelphia Eagles center Jason Kelce during his Super Bowl parade speech: “No one likes us. We don’t care.”
“That’s what we were hoping for all along,” Heller says. “I’m not going to lie and say we expected that to happen in 20 hours, but we thought over time through stunts at games that there would be a wow factor.
“None of us thought it would take off that fast. And, actually, it was the Pittsburgh Penguins that really laid out the first opportunity for Gritty to show his edginess.”
In fact, HBO’s “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” took a couple of shots at Gritty at the top of the show Sunday after Oliver referenced the Twitter battle between Gritty and the Penguins.
The Penguins account tweeted a simple “lol ok” in response to Gritty’s unveiling. It didn’t take long for Gritty to shoot back. He wasn’t having any of it.
“Sleep with one eye open tonight, bird,” Gritty wrote/threatened.
Oliver’s reaction drew plenty of laughs. “Holy s–t Gritty, calm down! They’re just engaging in some inter-team banter and you go straight to, ‘I will murder you in your sleep,'” he said.
Heller says the team began thinking of a mascot two seasons ago while at the NHL All-Star Game, where all of the league’s mascots gather for a hockey game against each other.
As one of only a handful of NHL teams without a mascot, the Flyers realized they were missing out on a great marketing opportunity — a simple, fun way to engage fans, especially the youngest Broad Street Bully supporters.
Their first call was to Raymond, their hometown mascot expert, who also just happens to be the founder of the Mascot Hall of Fame, set to open December in Whiting, Indiana.
State College-based designer Brian Allen of Flyland Designs sketched the fictional monster design for the mascot and the team liked it, deciding not to go with a human character.
Heller said the team evaluated more than 100 different options for a mascot, but once the Gritty monster was chosen, all they did was tweak the design and add a few features.
Raymond helped the team create a backstory for Gritty — “he’s been caught eating snow straight from the Zamboni machine” — and they finished a two-dimensional design over the summer.
It took about two months to have the costume built, made by Norristown-based Character Translations, which already had an ongoing relationship with Raymond Entertainment.
Initially, Gritty was not designed to have his distinctive eyes with irises that bounce around every time he moves. But when the costume company offered the zig-zagging peepers, they took them.
“The decision to give him googly eyes and the ability to blow smoke out of his ears were all decisions we had to make on the fly as a group, done on the spot,” Heller says. “Maybe the eyes didn’t photograph so well early on, but now they give Gritty a lot of character.”
The original Phillie Phanatic had eyes that bounced around as well. But the technology was not quite there yet and they would get stuck, so they were replaced after a year.
“As Pete Rose used to say to me, ‘You have blue eyes. One blew east and one blew west,'” Raymond remembers. “I had that look.”
Gritty’s biggest media moment actually came on late night television a few days before Oliver’s segment.
Gritty traveled to New York to shoot the cold open of “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.”
In it, Fallon is dancing to Boyz II Men’s 1991 hit “Motownphilly” in a green room with actor/comedian Ricky Gervais when Gritty walks by and joins the dance party, squeezing between the two. That’s when Gervais starts punching and kicking the mascot with Fallon breaking up the brawl.
It was filmed the same day as Gritty’s second home game, so the team and show producers had to figure out a way to get Gritty back to Philadelphia in time.
The young man who plays Gritty — the team keeps his name private — took an Amtrak train to New York carrying Gritty’s 35-pound costume in a bag. Once the 4 p.m. segment was over, the costumed performer hopped on a chartered helicopter and flew back to the Wells Fargo Center.
His arrival was filmed and shared on Twitter with the message, “Quick business trip.”
For Raymond, Grittypalooza is causing flashbacks to 1978 to 1994 when he was the Phanatic doing some of the same things, although he admits it took longer for the Phanatic to catch on in the pre-social media landscape.
Raymond, who lived in Wilmington for the bulk of his Phanatic years, would sometimes take helicopter rides to attend meet-and-greets.
“I’m re-living it all through his eyes. When I look at his face and hear the way that he’s talking, it reminds me so much of what happened with the Phanatic in a different era,” he says.
“Just think of all the places he’s already been. I did that, but in little doses. He’s making these big appearances and getting an enormous amount of publicity in just two weeks. He’s having a blast.”
Raymond says Gritty’s performer has had some back problems in the past, so the former Phanatic grimaced when the mascot fell twice during his debut at the Flyers preseason game on the night of his unveiling. (He was uninjured.)
The moment became an instant sharable gif, giving Gritty another opportunity to diffuse the criticism with humor.
“Why didn’t anybody tell me the ice is this slippery?” he wrote to Barstool Sports, a satirical sports blog that had shared the gif.
For his part, Raymond totally understands why there are still plenty of Gritty haters out there. Whenever you have someone in a furry costume trying to entertain people you’re going to have some who are “either repulsed or scared to death.”
He knows from plenty of firsthand experience dating back to his years wading into the crowd at Veterans Stadium, but also from his own family.
When his niece Erin was a toddler and he was the Phanatic, she was so petrified of the creature that he brought the costume home one Christmas and had her watch him get dressed.
“She was smiling and giggling the whole time until I put the head on and then she went screaming out of the room,” he says. “As they say, you can’t make everybody happy. But the Flyers are using his distinctive appearance which is scruffy and a little ugly to their benefit.
“He’s ugly, but he’s our ugly.”
Source: The Associated Press