Several weeks ago, a young soccer fan stumbled upon a solid gold egg wrapped in scarves in the refrigerated section of an Acme grocery store. With a little bit of love from the Philadelphia Zoo, the egg grew five times its original size and on Monday hatched into a 6-foot-tall blue snake that somehow has arms, legs, and a golden mohawk.
Well, that's how the story goes.
The Philadelphia Union, the city's Major League Soccer team, on Monday unveiled its first-ever mascot: Phang, a reptilian creature that's a reference to the team's crest, which features a rattlesnake that itself pays homage to the "Join, or Die" political cartoon attributed to Benjamin Franklin.
Philadelphia sports Twitter reacted swiftly — and largely negatively. Many were confused by the snake's punk-rock hairdo and four limbs, which seem to suggest the reptile is more of a lizard or salamander.
The Union figured this was coming.
"When I was working with [the Union]," character branding consultant David Raymond said, "they said, 'We know that there's going to be a period of time where this isn't going to be popular with our fans, but we're doing this because we need to engage youth. We are going to stand behind it.'"
Conceiving, creating and then selling a mascot and the face of a sports team's brand is no easy business, particularly in Philadelphia, a city that boasts the Phillie Phanatic and treats the big, green dancing guy as if he's one of our actual family members. Doug Vosik, the Union's vice president of marketing, said he's heard from countless young fans over the years who wondered: "Where's the Union's Phanatic?"
In April, Union officials announced that after existing mascot-less for a decade, the team was succumbing to "overwhelming feedback from kids and families" and responding to the fact that 15 out of 23 MLS teams have mascots of their own. Officials started the process of establishing a character to join the Philadelphia professional sports mascot family, currently made up of the Phanatic, the Eagles' Swoop, and the Sixers' Franklin.
In announcing the decision, Union officials said they wanted kids to "drive the design" by submitting their mascot concepts online, through their school, or at some participating grocery stores.
What was the worst that could happen? Philadelphia already has a green flightless bird creature from the Galapagos Islands and a blue dog that walks on two legs, plus it lived through a number of 76ers mascot-related mishaps, including the introduction and subsequent killing-off of Hip Hop, a widely panned, oddly muscular rabbit-man hybrid.
The Union ended up with more than 3,000 drawings, and then reviewed the best submissions to create final concepts, meeting with dozens of kids to get feedback on designs and names. Among the most-common submissions, Vosik said, were snakes, dogs, cats, Benjamin Franklin, dragons, soccer balls, and unicorns.
From there, officials designed a handful of different snakes, and for the last two months crowdsourced feedback from 500 kids who attended Union home games. Ultimately, the team settled on Phang.
And the people Phang is meant for weren't disappointed.
"I'm so glad the Union finally has a mascot," said Kempton Packard, a 14-year-old fan from Phoenixville who watched Phang's "hatching" at the Philadelphia Zoo on Monday. Added his 10-year-old sister, Tess: "I think it's pretty exciting, because my first prediction was a snake."
Jonathan Bach, a 27-year-old Union fan from Pottstown who sits on a fan-driven advisory council for the team, said he really liked the mascot concept.
"I think people sort of miss the point," said Bach, who watched reactions on Twitter devolve. "It's something for kids and not for me. The kids there liked it."
Mascots that resonate best are often associated with either the team name, like Swoop the eagle, or the region the team represents because it becomes "a personification of the brand," said Mike Lewis, a professor of marketing at Atlanta's Emory University who has studied the value of sports team mascots.
"It's that fine line of coming up with something that's different," he said, "but is also classy enough that you're not going to hurt the team."
The Union didn't have the luxury of a team name like "the Eagles" and, of course, faced the challenge that anything they did would be compared to the almost-universally-loved Phanatic.
Raymond, who performed as the original Phanatic from 1978 to 1993, founded character branding firm Raymond Entertainment in 2000 and has developed more than 130 characters over the years, ranging from Gapper, the Cincinnati Reds' furry friend, to Thunder, the green dog of the Lake Elsinore Storm, a San Diego Padres farm team in California.
He said the Phanatic's success was a "perfect storm" that can partly be attributed to the fact that former part-owner Bill Giles gave Raymond little direction beyond "go have fun." And there was no social media mob mentality. (Can you imagine how Twitter would react if the Phanatic were introduced today?)
As long as they keep engaging kids and sticking behind their man — er, reptile — the Union's mascot will eventually win over hearts and minds, Raymond predicted.
"Once that starts working, see how quickly adults will want a T-shirt," he said. "It takes time. But it will work."