On Sunday, the New York Times Magazine published Max Rubin’s feature about the most influential man in the world of sports mascots, Dave Raymond, the original creator of the Phillie Phanantic. It’s the Platonic ideal of a feature article, filled with vivid detail and humor.
If you’re writing features — or just about anything — here’s what you can learn from this article.
Start with a story that sucks people in
Your lede needs to tell what’s coming. In this case, it’s the story of Gritty, the absolutely disgusting and irresistible mascot of the Philadelphia Flyers.
In America’s four major sports leagues, about nine out of every 10 teams have a mascot. As for the holdouts, they seem to believe that inanity has no place in their brands. The New York Yankees, who take corporate-management levels of pride in policing their players’ facial hair, are too self-consciously dignified for a mascot. The Los Angeles Lakers are too Hollywood for one, to the extent that they use Jack Nicholson instead.
And until 2018, this was very much the case for the Philadelphia Flyers. While the Yankees are too august for a mascot and the Lakers are too slick, the Flyers were too brutish. They made their reputation with a brawling, bruising style of hockey, playing what is seen as America’s most hardscrabble sport in a place that sees itself as America’s most hardscrabble city; a mascot would simply be incongruous with the team’s image. That’s the stance the Flyers took for decades, regardless of how much it was losing them in merchandise revenue and earned media and community outreach.
But when the Philadelphia Eagles finally won their first Super Bowl three years ago, the welcome-home celebration was led by the city’s pro-sports mascots. Only the Flyers had no representation. This, the front office resolved, was the kind of thing they could no longer afford to miss out on. Their first call was obvious.
Rubin knows that if you’re reading a story about mascots, you know about Gritty, because he looks like this:
And if you know about Gritty, you absolutely want to know what in hell could have caused such a creature to come into being. So Rubin has you hooked from the second paragraph.
Don’t spare the descriptions
An article like this has license to be witty, because the characters are so odd. Is it even possible to read passages like these without calling up a colorful mental image? I’m in awe because these descriptions are just exactly where they need to be . . . they are vivid and accurate and fun, but not self-conscious. They are what you would see if you were there, and you fill in the emotions (which, in this case, are mostly smiles and giggles.)
[I]n the pantheon of America’s furry avatars, none is more iconic than the Phillie Phanatic, a lumpy, waddling, bright green birdlike creature with a big, trumpeting snout and a red tongue that unfurls like a party blower. [Dave] Raymond taught the Phanatic what became his signature moves: how to whomp his paunch, how to suction a plunger to the head of a bald man, how to stand at a distance and land rings on the plunger. . . .
The Flyers, Raymond says, are the personification of hockey itself: “plodding and big and hulky and weird.” So the team’s designers gave their monster a massive, bulging body and a severe underbite. They gave him an excessive orange neck beard and swinging, deranged eyeballs. They gave him a bellybutton that could change colors. And then they gave him a name — a name that might have been a bit too on the nose, had they given him a nose. They named him Gritty. . . .
But as more and more teams began introducing characters of their own, [Raymond] noticed that they mostly had no idea what they were doing, and he watched as the annals of mascotry filled with failed characters and ill-advised antics. There was Crazy Crab of the San Francisco Giants, with its flaccid pleopods and heinous crustache. There was Souki of the Montreal Expos, who resembled nothing so much as a Pez dispenser hexed into consciousness. . . .
After Raymond ran his new [mascot training] students through a series of warm-up drills, he instructed them to suit up, and a moment later a chicken, a grizzly bear, two aliens, a tiger, the sun and some sort of human-wave hybrid named Crimson Joe were all standing at the ready. Only that wasn’t quite right. As Raymond quickly pointed out, a cardinal rule of the job is that mascots must never stand still. Their expressions are static and their voices are mute, so motion is their one true tool.
They tried again: Raymond instructed his students to suit up, and a moment later a chicken, a grizzly bear, two aliens, a tiger, the sun and Crimson Joe were all pumping their fists and doing the worm. “Next thing we’re going to do is we’ll sample a few emotions with our heads on,” Raymond said, and he summoned the mascots forward one by one. “Oscar,” Raymond called out, and the tiger stepped forth. “Oscar, I want you to show me happy.” On cue, Oscar sprang into the air. He swung his hands up to his mouth and wriggled his toes, bouncing up and down, his feet aflutter. Raymond laughed in delight. The aliens applauded. Crimson Joe nodded his massive, cresting head. Raymond continued calling out emotions. “You’re frustrated,” he prompted next, and Oscar swiped a paw at Crimson Joe. Then Raymond said, “Now show me cocky,” and Oscar grabbed his tail, slid it between his legs and let it dangle out front. . . .
At Citizens Bank Park in June, I could see it in the widening eyes of the young woman who turned around to see the Phanatic right in front of her, and in the way she almost instinctively started bouncing in place. I could see it in the father’s eagerness as he shoved his baby over for a photo, and then in his heaving red cheeks when the Phanatic lifted the child’s rear up to his snout and quickly jerked his head away in mock disgust. I could see it in the throng of desire that simply wanted to reach out and touch its team after a long plague of isolation.
Tell a story [roughly] in chronological order
The span of this feature starts when, as a Phillies intern, Dave Raymond occupies the body of the Phillie Phanatic, and continues through the creation of the Flyers’ Gritty and Raymond’s school for mascots. There is a little backtracking and foreshadowing for the sake of dramatic tension, but in general, you can follow the whole story through Raymond’s career. Here are some samples:
And at the next home game there [Ted Giannoulas] was, a giant chicken roaming the stands [in San Diego].
Dave Raymond worked just across the street, for the Philadelphia Phillies. There, Raymond portrayed a mascot. You could say he portrayed the mascot — in the pantheon of America’s furry avatars, none is more iconic than the Phillie Phanatic
Of all of Raymond’s personal qualities that have been absorbed into the template for a good mascot, this ability to attract attention is the most pronounced.
The moment Raymond inhabited the character he had a natural understanding of exactly what to do. The fans loved his wiseass pantomime. It was like watching a jester in court. Only it was more than that. It was vicarious. The Phanatic got to do all the things any fan would want to. He stood atop the dugout and taunted opposing players. He rode around the infield on an A.T.V. He was a conduit of spectator desire.
Raymond reverse-engineered the Phanatic’s success and distilled it into a four-step process for developing mascots from scratch. He has since used this process to help create more than 130 characters.
So one day in 1994, not long after he retired from performing, Raymond sat at his computer, opened a document and began writing down everything he knew about being a good best friend. When he was done, the file was 87 pages long, a comprehensive handbook covering all fronts of mascot performance. He titled it “The Mascot Bible.” And for the last 25 years, it has served as the primary text for his Mascot Boot Camp, where [the actors inside mascots] come to become better
in 2018, Raymond and the mayor [of Whiting, Indiana] opened the Mascot Hall of Fame, a gleaming, three-story, 25,000-square-foot, $18 million, unabashedly ridiculous children’s museum dedicated to America’s greatest mascots, with a space on the top floor for the new, permanent home of Mascot Boot Camp.
And deliver something useful
As a nonfiction writer, you hope people are more than just entertained by your writing. You hope that they learn something useful.
In this case, it’s about marketing and public relations.
So [The Flyers] asked [Raymond] to perform his trademark consultation, the Mascot Intervention, in which he guides clients through his four steps. It was particularly important that the Flyers followed it too, because anytime a storied franchise with a committed fan base introduces a mascot, the initial response is always backlash.
Raymond told the Flyers this at the outset. It was the very first thing he said: “You guys know we’re going to get creamed, right?” He said they could roll out the next Phanatic, and it wouldn’t make any difference — a team like theirs needed to prepare for a reaction that could last up to three months. But Joe Heller, then the Flyers’ vice president for marketing, said the team was ready for it, and Raymond knew right then that it was going to work, because the only projects he has worked on that have ever failed, he says, are the ones that didn’t have the full support of their organizations. That’s his first principle: complete commitment to the initiative.
The second is building a back story. That’s the best way to combat the criticism you’re going to get. “It will always be Why,” Raymond says. “We hate it. It looks terrible. Why did you make it look like that?” Your story is your answer. The one that the Flyers came up with was about a monster that they discovered beneath their stadium while doing renovations. Upon finding his lair, the team invited him up for a game. Not a polished tale, not a polished character, but polish is not what the Flyers wanted.
The biggest question, of course, was what this creature would look like. It had to convey the brand’s image, Raymond explained, but more important, it had to look unlike any other mascot out there. The ones with the most distinct appearances are the ones that make the most memorable impressions. That’s Principle No. 3. . . .
When Gritty debuted on Sept. 24, 2018, he looked so unrepentantly strange, so unlike what we have been conditioned to expect a mascot to be, that he instantly became a viral subject of derision. Then, just as suddenly, he became the subject of deep, intense adulation — the unofficial mascot of the internet itself, and then, incredibly, the adopted mascot of the political far left, who saw in him an irascible oversize orange oaf they could claim as their own. So breathless was the public’s reaction to Gritty that it ran Raymond’s three-month gantlet, from backlash to acceptance, in 24 hours.
. . . [T]o maintain the illusion that their mascots move sentiently among us, the person on the payroll is sometimes known as the mascot’s “best friend.” And as Raymond demonstrated with the Phanatic, you don’t become a great mascot without a great best friend. That’s his fourth and final principle: Find the right performer.
People need to feel smarter after they read what you wrote
When you’re writing something — anything — people need to understand it. They need to learn from it. And if all goes well, they need to feel like the time the spent reading it was worth it.
A little bit of humor and description goes a long way towards getting them on your side.
And if your topic is furry and ridiculous, there’s no need to go wild. The subject is attractive enough. All you need to do is describe it well — and provide just enough knowledge payload that we don’t feel like we’ve wasted a few minutes reading about it.