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Drake talks with a friend during play between the Toronto Raptors and the Memphis Grizzlies at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto on October 23, 2013. (DEBORAH BAIC/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Drake talks with a friend during play between the Toronto Raptors and the Memphis Grizzlies at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto on October 23, 2013. (DEBORAH BAIC/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Robert MacLeod

Raptors courting stars with courtside seats Add to ...

Cameron Duff voluntarily puts himself in a situation where the language can be foul, the perspiration is flying, and the chances of getting run into by a very large, muscular man is not unheard of.

And the 54-year-old Toronto investment adviser gladly pays upward of $50,000 each year just for the experience.

That is the price that Duff pays for two season tickets to sit courtside at NBA games, considered the best vantage point in all professional sports.

For that princely sum, Duff is afforded the opportunity to sink into the cozy, heavily-cushioned chairs that the Air Canada Centre provides for their preferred customers who pay premium prices to watch the Toronto Raptors.

Duff also gets free parking nearby the ACC on Bay Street, opportunities to meet and greet the athletes behind the scenes, and his own personal contact within the Raptors organization that he can call to voice any concerns that might arise.

Most importantly, Duff gets an unencumbered view to watch the Raptors perform from the arena’s high-rent district that is often populated by the rich and famous.

“I can’t think of another professional sport where you can get this close to the game, to the action, to the players,” Duff said in a recent interview. “It’s unbelievable.

“Not only can you see the game, you can hear the game. I didn’t realize that until I got seats that were so close that you can hear the players shouting out to one another, you can hear the coaches barking out orders or shouting out to the players. It adds a whole new dimension.”

So coveted is the real estate that the Raptors, echoing a trend that has already occurred throughout the league, has taken away most of the cherished courtside seating of the print news media that covers the team on a regular basis.

Since the start of the regular season, the majority of reporters who used to enjoy watching the action on the floor between the two team benches are now looking on from up high at a newly-created media-only area within the Air Canada Club off the 100 level.

That created space on the floor for another 20 seats which were quickly sold as season tickets, raising the number of courtside seating at the ACC to about 450, about 50 more than the league average.

When you consider that a front row courtside seat will retail for around $1,200 per game, and the Raptors will play 41 home games over the course of the regular season, the move makes sound business sense.

“It’s definitely lucrative for us, we sold those 20 seats almost immediately,” said Dave Hopkinson, the chief commercial officer at Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, the conglomerate that owns the Raptors. “When you look at what those seats are worth to us, it was a pretty straightforward decision.

“But don’t forget that we’re also giving fans the chance to get closer to the action.”

Not to mention the opportunity to rub elbows with some of the world’s most popular celebrities whose presence at NBA games the league covets as a natural marketing ploy to drive up interest in the sport.

Most are handed complimentary tickets to sit courtside by the teams, and the Raptors hold back four of those seats per game to give to visiting dignitaries.

In exchange for the free ducats, the celebrity will at some point during the game be featured on the giant video screen that hangs above centre court or be featured kibitzing with the mascot.

Hip-Hop star Drake, who has season tickets and was recently introduced as the Raptors global ambassador, is a regular sitting courtside at Toronto home games.

Adam Lind of the Toronto Blue Jays was given a courtside seat last season to watch the Indiana Pacers when they came to town.

When Lind, who is from Indianapolis, showed up wearing a Pacers cap, he was gently reminded that it would be in better taste if he took it off. He wound up sitting courtside in a new Raptors cap.

Actress Susan Sarandon has been known to occasionally drop by along with Michael Douglas, Samuel L. Jackson, Ron Howard, Eugene Levy and Lou Gossage.

“In the parlance of our league, these are the Hollywood seats,” Hopkinson said. “It really came to people’s attention years ago when Spike Lee was constantly seen sitting courtside at Knicks games chirping away at Reggie Miller, and with Jack Nicholson front and centre watching the Lakers.

“These are the best seats in the house, and I think the best seats in professional sports and they’re very important for us.”

Business heavyweights who are regular courtside patrons at Raptor games include publishing magnate Heather Reisman and her husband Gerry Schwartz, the CEO of Onex Corp.; Dani Reiss, president and CEO of Canada Goose Inc.; Michael Bratty, a president at real developers Remington Group; Armando Baldassarra, a principle with Greenpark Homes; entrepreneur Bruce Poon Tip, founder of G Adventures travel company; Robert Herjavec, founder of The Herjavec Group; and Sheldon Inwetash, the chairman and CEO at Pinetree Capital Ltd.

Ron Marinic is a 41-year-old home designer from Ancaster, Ont., who has been sitting courtside at Raptors game for three years.

“My son won’t stop talking about the time he got a ball from [Raptors player] DeMar DeRozan,” Marinic said. “And my wife got all excited watching Justin Bieber walking by. It’s a nice experience.”

Duff said his favourite courtside seat moment occurred two years ago when the New York Knicks came to Toronto when rookie point guard Jeremy Lin was the talk of the league.

Lin did not disappoint, calmly draining the game-winning three-point shot with less than a second left to lift the Knicks to victory.

“Because I was courtside, I could see Lin not only dribbling, but I could see his face and his eyes,” Duff recalled. “And I could see out of the corner of my eye the clock ticking down and I thought, he’s not going to pass this ball, he’s going to take the shot, he’s going to take the shot himself from the three point line.

“I felt like I was reading his mind. It was very cool.”

 

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