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Report on Business Raptors’ ascent proves to be winning move for MLSE’s telecom owners

It was an odd partnership with his biggest rival that brought lifelong basketball fan George Cope to Oracle Arena on Thursday night, when he and Edward Rogers celebrated on the court with the Toronto Raptors.

The chief executive of BCE Inc. and the chairman of Rogers Communications Inc. have been co-board members of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment since 2012, when their companies paid more than $1-billion to acquire 75 per cent of the Toronto sports juggernaut. The deal gave the telecom giants, which fight for internet, television and wireless customers, control of a trove of sports assets, including the Toronto Maple Leafs – and the Raptors, now the National Basketball Association champions.

“When we created this partnership, people were wondering how it would work,” Mr. Cope said in a telephone interview as he waited to board a flight home from California on Friday, the day after the Raptors’ series-clinching victory over the Golden State Warriors.

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“It’s successful because we were all aligned on a common goal, which was to win,” he said, noting it was easy to agree with Larry Tanenbaum, who owns the remaining 25 per cent of MLSE, on that objective. That meant appointing strong leaders at each of the MLSE sports franchises, including Masai Ujiri as the Raptors president.

“Masai could have been comfortable with a very successful team, one that was always in the playoffs. But instead he made dramatic changes,” he said of moves the manager made, including a trade to bring all-star Kawhi Leonard to Toronto.

“When the team’s successful, so is the broadcast part of it,” Mr. Cope said. BCE-owned TSN and Rogers-owned Sportsnet split the broadcast rights for Raptors games.

Tony Staffieri, chief financial officer of Rogers, said the family-controlled company, which also owns the Toronto Blue Jays baseball team, sees its sports investments as “generational assets," adding, “it’s not so much about the ownership and rights, but what it does for the city.”

But Mr. Staffieri, who is an MLSE board member, said he always thought the deal made strategic sense. “Live sports was something that would only increase in relevance and, therefore, increase in value. … In the case of the Raptors – and we have a similar view with the Jays – it’s for the country. Both of these teams have become national brands and it’s been really nice to see that vision come to fruition.”

The Raptors’ appeal across the country delivered a ratings victory to Sportsnet and TSN. Almost 16 million people watched at least part of Thursday night’s Game 6 final on one of BCE-owned Bell Media’s channels (TSN, its French sports network, RDS, and its conventional television network, CTV). Earlier in the week, Game 5 reached 13.4 million Canadians on Rogers’s broadcast properties.

“When you have content that is driving such excitement across such a number of different demographics, it’s really a jewel of an opportunity for advertisers,” Stewart Johnston, Bell Media’s president of media sales, marketing and TSN, said in an interview on Thursday before the game. He noted the number of female viewers of ages 18 to 34 doubled during the regular season this year. That helped TSN attract six new sponsors for Raptors broadcasts, he said, bringing the total to 15.

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“We’ve brought new fans to the table. It’s a very diverse, very young audience,” said Bart Yabsley, president of Rogers Media-owned Sportsnet. “Brands want to be associated with positive energy like that," he added, noting advertising revenue for the Raptors and the NBA playoffs was up about 350 per cent this year compared with last year.

Mr. Johnston and Mr. Yabsley said they sold out or mostly sold out advertising spots for Raptors playoff games. And sign-ups spiked for digital streaming services (Rogers has Sportsnet Now and Bell offers TSN Direct), with some customers choosing one-day or one-week packages to watch a game or two and others taking longer-term options.

“For the finals alone, we’ve had 20 million views of Raptors content on TSN’s Instagram account," Mr. Johnston said, adding that sports website TSN.ca has attracted eight million page views since the NBA playoffs started, up 50 per cent year over year.

Thanks in part to promotion from MLSE and NBA Canada, which scheduled pre-season Raptors games in cities including Montreal and Vancouver, the team has picked up fans across the country, Mr. Johnston said. “They really set the stage for the rocket ship that this playoffs has been in making the Toronto Raptors Canada’s team.”

The ratings were undoubtedly a relief for Rogers, which owns the national hockey broadcast rights. The Leafs made the National Hockey League playoffs this year, but lost in the first round, and with few Canadian teams in the running, ratings were down sharply.

Broadcasts of the NHL playoffs dropped out of the top 30 programs for English Canada for three weeks in late April and May, according to Numeris data. As the Stanley Cup final got under way on May 27, hockey squeaked back in, but barely cracked the top 10 for the week ended June 2 (the most recent numbers publicly available).

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Although hockey delivered smaller-than-usual audiences, Sportsnet was able to shift some of its advertisers to the Raptors or other NBA playoff games.

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