There are sports mascots and then there is Gritty.
The NHL changed forever with the introduction of Gritty in September 2018. The new mascot for the Philadelphia Flyers was really… something. He was bright orange, clad in a team jersey, and full of manic energy far surpassing even the biggest Flyers fan. Exaggeratedly huge eyeballs practically rolled out of his head. Did you want to hug him or run away screaming? That last question reinforces the reality that Gritty isn’t a long lost cousin to the Muppets. Move aside Jim Henson, because Gritty is the wild, illustrated brainchild of designer Brian Allen.
From Penn State To Flyland Designs
Allen graduated from Penn State University in 2004. He worked in various illustration roles until 2012 when he decided to break away and freelance full-time. Flyland Designs, Allen’s design business, grew steadily by 2015. The daily workload consisted of working alongside small to medium-sized businesses and tackling design work for everything from logos to album covers. Flyland Designs did so well that Allen’s wife quit her job to become an agent and handle the company’s marketing initiatives.
“The Rivalry Restaurant”
Projects of a Gritty-sized capacity tend to land in Allen’s lap 3-4 times a year. In 2017, he was approached by McCann New York for a reinterpretation of the iconic Auburn and Georgia mascots. The character graphics would wrap around a huge Chick-fil-A popup restaurant, The Rivalry.
“I have an edgier illustration style,” Allen says, “They wanted the mascots not to look traditional, but to be eye-catching and tough.”
The artwork was a hit with the agency and Chick-fil-A, and featured in nationally televised commercials. It was the biggest work Allen had done — until an email from the Philadelphia Flyers popped into his inbox the following year.
Hello From The Philadelphia Flyers!
“I got an email from [the Flyers] that asked if I had time for a quick turnaround for designing their mascot.” Allen recalls, “I scrolled to the bottom of the email and saw that it was from the Philadelphia Flyers. I did a double take!”
The Philadelphia Flyers, at the time, were one of the last teams in the NHL to get their own mascot. According to Allen, they were looking for something less soft and more edgy. “They wanted the mascot to be something you could high five, but not hug. He needed to be friendly enough for kids, but tough enough for hockey.”
Allen prepared by researching existing NHL mascots to avoid accidentally copyrighting someone else’s work. He then set into drawing as many mascots as he could over the next few days. Using quick pencil sketches, Allen drew about 25 different concepts. One was a dumpy looking monster referred to as “Benny.” This was Gritty in his earliest form, a monster from day one.
Not that that’s a bad thing. “The beauty of choosing a monster is that its personality can be anything,” Allen explains. “Certain animals, like bulls, tie your hands with stereotypes.”
The Philadelphia Flyers and their marketing team liked Benny enough to start fine-tuning him into Gritty. Back and forth design work was made on his smile and whether or not he would wear pants. At one point, the character even had a tail.
Once Gritty was approved with the Philadelphia Flyers, Allen drew the orange enigma from his front and back sides. The three-dimensional drawings would better help the costume designers at Character Translations with creating the mascot’s costume.
Allen also originally tried to add more colors to Gritty. While the move was simply an effort to dial back on some of the character’s incredible orange-ness, art directors stopped him. “They knew the fans better than I did. Other colors were representative of other teams.”
Gritty was then given an equally strange and bizarre backstory — the ultimate Flyers fan who eats snow straight from the Zamboni machine — and set loose on the public in September. Initially, the feedback was negative. This all changed once Gritty started to fight back.
Gritty wasn’t content to fade away. He wanted to earn respect, but he was also the anti-mascot. At seven-feet-tall, the hairy legend tore up penalty boxes he was locked inside of, hit up the late night talk show circuit, and broke the Internet à la Kim Kardashian’s famous Paper Magazine cover. The conversation went from negative to positive. Gritty was a hit, on and offline.
Part of Gritty’s appeal is that he’s a social media master. “Gritty is the first sports mascot to be released when social media is what it is right now,” Allen points out, “ There weren’t as many opportunities for a mascot to defend itself back in the day. If every other NHL mascot had been released in this era, would they have been scrutinized as much?”
It has only been a few months since Gritty’s introduction, but Allen says he’s “probably” the most recognizable hockey mascot right now. Allen has enjoyed the credibility boost that creating Gritty has given him. However, he’s also mindful that Gritty’s creation is a once in a lifetime moment. He doesn’t plan on creating “the next Gritty,” but does stay focused on the company’s bread and butter clients.
Where will Gritty be in a year’s time? It’s impossible for Allen to know the answer. “Gritty goes beyond hockey. Being a sports mascot is his day job.”
Image Credits: Brian Allen and Flyland Designs