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Philadelphia Flyers ride the coattails of social media sensation Gritty – and promise he’ll never sell out

PISCATAWAY, NJ - NOVEMBER 30: Gritty, the mascot of the Philadelphia Flyers NHL hockey team, hugs the Rutgers Scarlet Knight during a college basketball game between the Michigan State Spartans and Rutgers Scarlet Knights at the Rutgers Athletic Center on November 30, 2018 in Piscataway, New Jersey. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

  • Mascot is most-followed on Twitter of all US major professional sports and collegiate teams
  • Companies looking to partner with Flyers directly because they want association with Gritty
  • Team keen to ensure character’s longevity by not making him ‘a sell-out or advertising tool’

Gritty, the Philadelphia Flyers’ hugely-popular mascot and overnight media sensation, has quickly become a significant commercial asset to the NHL team.

Launched in front of a group of children at Philadelphia’s Please Touch Museum in September 2018, Gritty is the second mascot in the Flyers’ 52-year history following the little-lamented Slapshot, who lasted just one season in 1976.

Gritty was created after Flyers executives felt they were missing out on marketing opportunities by not having a mascot, specifically after being one of three teams not able to participate in the NHL Mascot Showdown at the 2017 All-Star Game. The ice hockey team also felt left out seeing the mascots of the city’s MLB and NBA teams welcome the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles home at the airport after winning the 2018 Super Bowl.

The name Gritty references the perception that Philadelphia is a gritty city. The googly-eyed, pot-bellied furry orange monster design came about because team executives wanted to do something completely different in this field and “make a statement”.

It worked. Gritty instantly became a social-media phenomenon, becoming the most-followed NHL mascot on Twitter within 36 hours of his unveiling. With 237,000 followers, Gritty leads all mascots in all US major professional sports leagues and collegiate teams on Twitter, while he also has 170,000 followers on Instagram.

Tweets from Gritty’s account – authored by the Flyers’ social-media team – have delivered over 101 million impressions and average 744,000 impressions per posting.

Gritty spoofs Kim Kardashian’s ‘Paper’ magazine ‘break the internet’ photoshoot (Credit: Philadelphia Flyers)

Within weeks of his unveiling, Gritty became a pop culture figure in the United States, appearing on national television in entertainment programmes such as Good Morning America, the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, as well as being referenced in numerous others.

According to the Flyers, Gritty reached 69 million viewers on national television within the first 30 days of his launch, which was worth $7.8m (€6.9m) in earned media. In this timeframe, Gritty also reached over 16 million people locally (worth $2.8m) and garnered 4.7 billion impressions online (worth over $150m).

Gritty has made 146 in-person appearances to date – including trips to California, New York City and Washington DC – with 50-75 more planned before the end of the season.

His massive media presence has led to meaningful commercial gains for the Flyers within just five months. The Flyers say it is too early to assess the direct impact Gritty has had on season-ticket sales, but they have plenty of anecdotal evidence that he has boosted attendance.

“I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve been walking in the concourse and seeing people with Gritty T-shirts on and I’ll talk to them and they say they are from Canada or New Hampshire and so on and they were here to see him. It’s helping us transcend the hockey fanbase that we have and reach a different audience,” Shawn Tilger, the Flyers’ executive vice-president and chief operating officer, tells SportBusiness.

The Flyers admit they have been “behind” in terms of merchandise sales, in part because of the time it takes to create such products [up to 120 days]. Next season will be the first with a broad range of Gritty-dedicated merchandise, but early indications suggest it will be a success.

With retail partner Aramark, the Flyers sold 10,192 Gritty items – mainly clothing – from September 24, 2018, until January 16, 2019. To coincide with Christmas, the Flyers made limited-edition Gritty bobbleheads and plush dolls available at the Wells Fargo Center on December 18. All five hundred plush dolls sold out within an hour.

Largely because of the lack of official merchandise, a number of companies have created bootleg items featuring Gritty’s image. While the Flyers have sent a number of cease and desist letters, they deliberately allow Gritty’s intellectual property to be borrowed in certain circumstances to help build his profile.

“Some of it, like Gritty donuts or Gritty ice cream, it’s good marketing for us and it helps us make it bigger and better. The fact that this is going on is helping build the demand,” Tilger adds.

A number of companies have expressed interest in commercial partnerships with the Flyers specifically because they want to be associated with Gritty. “We have a school campaign that Gritty is a part of and Gritty being part of it drew the interest of the partner,” Tilger says of a looming deal. “It certainly helps when we have him as an additional tool.”

The personal appearances are also proving lucrative. The Flyers will gain $246,500 from five corporate appearances already booked for the 2019 and 2020 fiscal years, while the team charges a reported $3,000 an hour for private functions. By contrast, it costs $400 to hire the Philadelphia Eagles’ mascot Swoop for an hour. “[The demand] is ridiculous,” adds Tilger.

Gritty greets a fan at Wells Fargo Center (Credit: Getty Images)

Importance of staying on-brand
The Flyers’ community relations, fan development, social media and PR departments all work together on Gritty. Tilger says: “There is community relations, fan development…and then there is Gritty. And they all have to operate like spokes in a wheel.”

The Flyers have adopted a careful strategy of not over-commercialising Gritty in order to not tarnish his brand. Tilger says: “If he becomes a sell-out or an advertising tool, it loses its niche that’s helping it be cool or sustainable.

“This was a bigger play than an immediate ticket sale or an immediate merchandise sale. This was to extend the brand in a different way and attract a different audience. If you look at the exposure we’re getting as a brand nationally and the value of the media that we’re receiving because of Gritty, that leads to other revenue lines…[and] we’re taking advantage of all the revenue opportunities that are ancillary.”

Tilger says the Flyers have received numerous offers from companies to sponsor Gritty but they have all been turned down. It is a policy the team are keeping for the foreseeable future. “We’re not going to put a logo on him,” he says.

When Gritty does corporate events, the companies are under strict instructions not to associate their brand with him. Likewise, the Flyers will not over-commit Gritty to lucrative private functions in order to ensure he is available for media opportunities and community events.

“If we stop doing the media or marketing appearances,” Tilger says, “we could generate significant dollars from corporate appearances. But right now, we want to use him to go out into the community and build his profile. The attention he is driving is a bigger score than one-offs.”

The Flyers are happy for the NHL to market Gritty as often as they want “as long as it’s on-brand”. For example, at February’s Stadium Series game between the Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins at Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field, Gritty was used as a promotional tool on the tickets and in numerous moments during the game. “If it’s good for the league, it’s good for us,” Tilger says.

Gritty was a key feature of the 2019 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series game between the Philadelphia Flyers and the Pittsburgh Penguins at Lincoln Financial Field on February 23, 2019 (Credit: Getty Images)

Gritty has proven to have a wider use for Flyers owner Comcast Spectacor as well: he was used to promote the company’s esports team, the Philadelphia Fusion, both in person – at the Overwatch League’s second-season opener at Blizzard Arena, California, in February – and on social media.

But despite the demand for his time, the Flyers will not create another Gritty so he can be in two places at once.

And for all his popularity in popular culture and commercial potential, the Flyers have not lost sight of the principal aim of using Gritty to reach new audiences.

“If you look at the group that would traditionally attend hockey games and our season-ticket base, we have a very loyal and deep fanbase,” Tilger says, “but hockey is a sport that in our opinion has a lot of barriers to entry unless it’s something passed down through families or someone introducing you to the sport. This is a way to introduce yourselves.”

Not only does Gritty have an edgy social media presence, so do the Flyers’ digital channels now. “We felt that one of our biggest priorities was to increase our market share by changing our culture,” Tilger adds.

“If you look it’s not just that we’ve added a mascot but also the different approach we took to all social media, being a little more edgy, innovative and engaging and less informational and data-driven. With that, Gritty has become the fulcrum for us to grow our fanbase by reaching the non-traditional hockey fan.” 

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