Skip to main content

Gregory Shamus/Gregory Shamus/Getty Images: Illustration by the Globe and Mail

If a puck drops in St. Louis – and the only Canadian team left in the spring postseason wears sneakers instead of skates – does it make a sound?

Well, yes, but it’s drowned out by the euphoric rumpus of Toronto Raptors fans, both the long-suffering and the newly minted. Deep down, hockey is still intrinsic to Canada’s DNA. But at this heady time for Canada’s only NBA franchise, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re in basketball country.

In the hot seats: Who’s sitting courtside (or close to it) to watch the Toronto Raptors in the NBA finals

It’s taken 24 years for the Raptors to make the Finals, a historic moment for sports fans in the city and across the country. It’s the first time the National Basketball Association Finals have come to a court outside the United States, turning a multitude of eyes toward Toronto. However the series shakes out after that exhilarating first win, and even if Toronto is once again served a nosh of humble pie, this represents a new apex for basketball in Canada – and for the Raptors brand.

Among the team’s sponsors, advertisers, the broadcasters that air the games and others – it has tipped off a mad scramble to make the most of the celebrations and capitalize on the Raptors’ success.

“This is as busy a week as I can remember in our history," said Bart Yabsley, president of Rogers Communications Inc.’s Sportsnet.

Scotiabank and Tangerine

Industry insiders did spit takes at the price tag Bank of Nova Scotia paid to rebrand the home of the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Raptors in 2017. The naming-rights deal, which changed Air Canada Centre to Scotiabank Arena, was a whopping $800-million over 20 years.

It also allowed Scotiabank to take over as the official bank of the Raptors, as soon as rival Bank of Montreal’s five-year contract with the team expired in July, 2018. Scotiabank then bestowed the title on its low-cost digital subsidiary, Tangerine Bank.

The rationale was simple: Scotiabank already held the coveted spot as the official bank of the Leafs, and with its no-fee accounts and branchless strategy, Tangerine was a good match for the younger, more diverse and digitally savvy Raptors fan base. “One-third of our customer base at Tangerine are Raptors fans,” Tangerine chief executive officer Gillian Riley said in an interview.

For BMO, which spent five years as a sponsor only to lose its affiliation just as the team finally took it to the next level by making it to the Finals, the recent run of success must be a bitter pill to swallow. What’s more, BMO sponsors the Milwaukee Bucks, who fell to the Raptors in the last round. A BMO spokesperson declined comment.

Now, every time the Raptors take to the court for a playoff game, and the sprawling crowd roars in Jurassic Park outside Scotiabank Arena, Tangerine feels the tremors. On playoff game days and the day after, Tangerine sees a 50-per-cent spike in traffic to its website and a 20-per-cent bump in customers who sign up by creating a customer ID.

The bank’s dream scenario is still to have the Leafs make the Stanley Cup finals, which would draw “man-on-the-moon kind of viewership,” said John Doig, Scotiabank’s executive vice-president of retail distribution, who was formerly chief marketing officer and one of the architects of the Scotiabank Arena deal. But this is “a really close second.”

The first measure of any sponsorship is its ability to raise awareness of a brand. When the NBA season started last fall, only 6 per cent of Raptors fans were aware of Tangerine; by the start of the playoffs, that number was 40 per cent, and Ms. Riley suspects it is now “well in excess of 50 [per cent].”

Tangerine logos are plastered all over Scotiabank Arena. And this week, Scotiabank went so far as to wrap 15 of its downtown Toronto branches, and part of its headquarters, in Tangerine orange – a rare instance of merging the two brands, which are typically kept separate.

The bank also scrambled earlier this week to tweak and refresh its Raptors-themed ads, tailoring them to the team’s arrival in the Finals. “Saturday night, after [Game 6], everything changed,” Mr. Doig said. “Sometimes you plan for it. Sometimes you do an emotional, emotive spot, and then you get lucky to be able to play it.”

For Scotiabank, the Raptors connection has been a chance to woo clients and to host its highest-value customers and prospects in luxury suites or courtside seats.

Looking back at the $800-million, “we don’t have a worry in the world there,” Mr. Doig said.

Vaughn Ridley/Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images: Illustration by the Globe and Mail

Other sponsors and advertisers

“We’re in the war room right now with clients talking about how to leverage this," said Brian Cooper, chairman of MKTG, which helps negotiate sponsorship deals and counts a number of Raptors sponsors among its clients. “It is a marketer’s dream. … Everyone is now looking for new budget, because none of this was planned.”

Some deals are made within a day. Cineplex Inc. quickly secured approval from the team owners and the league to host viewing parties in its movie theatres across the country. (None of its Toronto theatres are participating, as the city already has celebrations at multiple outdoor venues.) The events will bring in plenty of concession revenue, but CEO Ellis Jacob said it’s also a marketing opportunity for the cinema chain, which has been working to attract new audiences and to diversify beyond the sometimes volatile movie business.

“It reinforces us as an entertainment company, and wanting to give people opportunities to come to the theatres,” he said.

Sneaker company New Balance, which has a sponsorship deal with Raptors star Kawhi Leonard, attracted incalculable buzz last weekend in Toronto when it released a very limited run of T-shirts with the words “fun guy,” riffing on the famously stoic player’s description of himself, stated in a characteristic deadpan at a news conference. Epic lineups formed outside stores, and a small offering online sold out almost instantly.

Long-time sponsor Sun Life Financial Inc. jumped at the opportunity when the Raptors first put a logo patch on their jerseys at the start of the 2017 season. It gave the brand visibility in every close-up of a Raptors player. The insurer’s research has found a three-fold increase in consumer awareness of the company. “The icing on the cake for us is that basketball is a global game, and we are a global brand,” said Milos Vranesevic, Sun Life’s chief marketing officer. In addition to increased North American media exposure, the Raptors’ two-month playoff run is significantly increasing exposure for the company in key Asian markets such as China and the Philippines.

Not all sponsors have had the best luck.

Scotiabank exercised a veto in its deal on competing financial institutions, ending the team’s sponsorship with Horizons ETFs Management (Canada) Inc. as of the 2018 season. “As you can imagine, I’m not too happy with Scotiabank, because we were extremely proud of our partnership with MLSE and the Raptors,” Horizons ETFs CEO Steven Hawkins said.

GoDaddy, a sponsor since late 2016, has watched two of the three players it chose to star in its ads – Jonas Valanciunas and C.J. Miles – lost to trades.

“We would have sold out,” said Anne de Aragon, country manager at GoDaddy Canada, of C.J.’s PJs. The line of pyjamas was sold through a GoDaddy website to promote the company’s site-building services. Thousands of units sold before the trade. But Ms. Aragon’s team had prepared for the possibility, dressing Mr. Miles in generic gear rather than a Raptors uniform for its most recent campaign. The company is still happy to be associated with the team, especially now, she said. Her team is brainstorming ways to offload the leftover merchandise. “We don’t have a ton,” she said cheerily. “We’ll figure out what to do with our PJs.”

Gregory Shamus/Gregory Shamus/Getty Images: Illustration by the Globe and Mail

The owners and broadcasters

What makes the fan base valuable to advertisers and sponsors is not just that they are younger and more diverse than your average hockey devotee, it’s that the demographic does not tend to congregate by gathering around TVs to watch the same thing at the same time.

“They’re a harder-to-reach demo when it comes to television," said Stewart Johnston, TSN president and president of media sales and marketing for Bell Media.

Through their stakes in team owner Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Ltd., BCE Inc.'s TSN and Rogers Communications Inc.'s Sportsnet divide the broadcast rights for the Raptors. As luck would have it, Sportsnet was the broadcaster for Mr. Leonard’s dramatic buzzer-beater that clinched the series against Philadelphia, the series-winning victory against Milwaukee and the Game 1 win against Golden State on Thursday.

The latter drew a record average audience of 3.3 million viewers. Aside from shows such as The Big Bang Theory and Game of Thrones, few television programs draw millions of viewers to a single broadcast any more.

The NHL playoffs usually pull in big numbers, but with no Canadian teams still in it, ratings have corroded. Game 1 of the finals between St. Louis and Boston drew an average audience of 1.8 million to Sportsnet – a respectable number, but nowhere near what the finals usually pull in. According to Numeris data, NHL games did not crack the top 30 programs for English Canada for three weeks in a row starting April 29. The most recent numbers are for May 13-19, a week when the Bruins completed their sweep of the Carolina Hurricanes and the Blues played four of their five games against the San Jose Sharks. Among the shows that did make the top 30 that week were Island of Bryan, Station 19 and Whiskey Cavalier.

“It has not been a disappointing or lacklustre season,” said Sportsnet’s Mr. Yabsley, adding the company feels fortunate to have both hockey and basketball rights. The Raptors’ success has kicked off a whirlwind of TV content planning and advertising sales at Rogers.

Unlike hockey, where advertisers more frequently sign deals that lock in playoff ads ahead of time, a Canadian playoff run in basketball opens up more ad inventory to be sold at the last minute – and at a premium.

That premium might be higher if the broadcast rights were exclusive, but as it is, Bell and Rogers are competing with each other in the market.

The team and the city

This playoff run is forming lasting bonds between the team and its fans, many of whom weren’t alive to see Toronto’s greatest sporting moments, such as the Blue Jays’ World Series wins in 1992 and 1993 or the last time the Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup – in 1967.

“This is establishing new levels of emotional connection, of engagement, of national reach that has always been [the Raptors’] aspirational goal,” said Gord Hendren, president of Charlton Insights Inc., an independent research company.

The NBA fan base in Canada increased significantly from 2014 to 2018, according to Toronto-based Solutions Research Group, especially among people 18 to 34.

″We expect that number to increase substantially by a factor of 39 per cent based on a current study we are doing," said SRG president and research director Kaan Yigit.

Previously casual fans are now invested in the team, and a certain percentage of them will be converted into more engaged long-term followers of the team. That could increase the value of the team – much more so if they manage a win. Research has shown that a championship can have long-term benefits for merchandise sales, advertising and sponsorships.

“That’s the real difference between winning the championship and just going to the – the championship has this enduring effect,” said Norm O’Reilly, a leading scholar on the business of sport at the University of Guelph. If the balloon pops, the team loses, and Mr. Leonard leaves town, the impact will not be totally erased, he added. “But it’s significantly lower than if they win.”

The team began remaking its image in 2014, working with advertising agency Sid Lee to redesign the Raptors logo and brand. Sid Lee also developed the “We the North” campaign, a slogan that has been adopted en masse by fans.

“We didn’t want something that felt like an advertising campaign,” said Tom Koukodimos, co-managing partner of Sid Lee Toronto and a creative director on the Raptors account. The work was meant to harness a feeling of being outsiders – both as the only Canadian team in the league and for a fan base that includes many people who have come to Canada from elsewhere – and to transform that outsider status into a rallying cry.

“The attitude and the confidence in the fans – there’s a different confidence, it’s unapologetic," Mr. Koukodimos said. "It’s not your typical Canadian attitude. That’s what we wanted to tap into from the get-go.”

Does anyone embody that attitude more than Drake? He has worked with the team for six years as its “brand ambassador.” As part of the partnership, the Raptors recently renamed their practice facility the OVO Athletic Centre, a nod to Drake’s record label and clothing brand, October’s Very Own.

Drake has delivered. The rapper’s courtside antics – from exuberant shouting to massaging head coach Nick Nurse’s shoulders and trolling the Warriors’ Stephen Curry by wearing a retro Raptors “Curry” jersey as a reminder that the opposing star’s father once played for Toronto – are gleefully unapologetic. But they are just a microcosm of his larger work to boost the cachet of the team – and of Toronto.

In May, 2018, Charlton Insight estimated Drake’s economic impact on Toronto at $440-million. But considering the massive attention he has drawn during the playoffs, it’s a safe bet that the effect on tourism and international exposure for the city “has increased significantly” in recent weeks, Mr. Hendren said.

“Any brand in the world would benefit from having someone like him as your ambassador,” Mr. Koukodimos said.

This kind of cultural phenomenon is what the Raptors’ founders – John Bitove, along with former Ontario premier David Peterson, businessman Phil Granovsky and others – worked to build more than two decades ago when they met with the NBA.

“We were trying to get their confidence that we would do it differently and create a basketball culture, not just own a sports team,” Mr. Bitove said. “I have to give the current ownership a lot of credit. I don’t think we’d have as good a team and as avid a fan base if they didn’t give it the financial resources, from both a marketing and a player payroll perspective.”

He and co-founder Allan Slaight envisioned a team for “the next generation” of Canadians. Watching the Finals is “very emotional,” he said.

“There is a real basketball culture here now."

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct

Tickers mentioned in this story