The Toronto Raptors are hoping a rap star’s popularity can help boost the fading fortunes of a basketball franchise.
Aubrey Drake Graham, a 26-year-old Toronto-born musician known worldwide as Drake, has agreed to become the “global ambassador” for the Raptors and will play a leading role in the NBA club’s rebranding efforts.
His new position with the club was outlined Monday, in a manner befitting a rock star – before an adoring, standing-room only crowd in the atrium of the Air Canada Centre.
It was also confirmed Monday that the Raptors have been awarded the rights to play host to the 2016 NBA all-star game, the first time the event will be held outside of the United States.
The Raptors will be relying heavily on Drake’s involvement to not only help sell the event, but to also help reinvigorate the fortunes of a stagnant franchise.
“Drake will be our ambassador and help us forge this new vision, this new buzz, this new excitement for where we’re taking this organization,” said Tim Leiweke, six months into his new job as president and chief executive officer of team owner Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd.
“This is a team, and this is a sport that’s going to rock this city going forward.”
Drake, a life-long Raptors fan and season-ticket holder, said he is excited by the new challenges of working with the basketball team.
“Obviously, I won’t be able to be in the building every day but I am extremely dedicated to it,” he said. “I do take it very seriously as a new job and a new chapter in my life.
“It’s not just something for the sake of all the cameras.”
It won’t be an easy job, as the Raptors have fallen on hard times of late, missing the playoffs for the last five years in a row and exasperating a fan base with constant player shuffling and executive shakeups.
Asked what he hoped to gain from his involvement, Drake’s response was polished.
“I want to bring the excitement into this building, I want a team that people are dying to come see, I want the tickets to be extremely hard to get,” he said. “I want to bring that aggression, I want to bring that energy. Obviously, I want it to be a top team in the NBA, if not the top team.”
Leiweke has vowed things will change under his leadership, starting with a rebranding effort that will include new team colours, maybe a new logo and new merchandising – all of which will be heavily influenced by Drake.
The singer said he has already offered up a couple of design ideas to the Raptors, with more to come.
Leiweke said the Toronto all-star game’s financial impact on the city could surpass $100-million.
“One of the things we’ve loved about [Drake’s] addition to our thinking here is he wants this to be a celebration of Toronto,” Leiweke said. “Not just about basketball, not just about sports, not just about music.
“We’re already talking about fashion, we’re talking about film, we’re talking about food, we’re talking about all of the things we all know and I’ve learned in the last six months that are really the trademark of this great city.”
Without getting into specifics, Leiweke promised the 2016 all-star game will be different from those in the past.
“You’re going to see us try to add a few elements to the all-star game that’s never been done, heavily influenced and directed by Drake,” Leiweke said. “And so we’re committed to making sure that he puts as much of a footprint on the all-star week as the NBA will allow us to.”
This isn’t the first time that a sports organization has turned to the music industry as a means of whipping up fan interest.
When Bruce Ratner purchased the New Jersey Nets and relocated them to Brooklyn, he convinced American rap star Shawn (Jay-Z) Carter to join his group of investors.
Jay-Z, who recently had to sell his share in the team in order to concentrate on being a player agent, also helped in the design of the team logos and in the choosing of the franchise colours.
Drake is close with Jay-Z, and said he will not hesitate to seek his guidance if necessary.
“Jay is a mentor to me, one of the most influential and important people in my life,” Drake said. “I’m sure if I would reach out to him and need some advice he would be more than willing to give it to me.”
Drake said he would be willing to do all he can – including reaching out to free agents to sell them on the merits of playing in Toronto. “I think the common goal, we want to see the franchise get as big as possible,” he said.
Larry Tanenbaum, chairman and co-owner of MLSE, said the message was driven home quickly as to the benefits of the Raptors linking up with the young music star.
“My cool status just went up,” Tanenbaum said. “My grand kids called me this morning asking if Drake was going to be here.”