Kawhi Leonard’s buzzer-beating series winner on Sunday gave the Toronto Raptors a prime spot on sports radio and television highlight shows across the continent that night and the following day.
The second-round victory over Philadelphia also gave the Raptors another chance to broaden their national footprint and fill the domestic sporting spotlight void created by the elimination of Canadian teams from the National Hockey League postseason.
“I think so much of it depends now on what they do with the opportunity,” said Tom Mayenknecht, a Vancouver-based marketing communications executive and sport business commentator. “It is an iconic, franchise-defining moment, there’s no question about that, win or lose in this round. But the afterglow of the buzzer-beater from Game 7 would be so much stronger if they’re able to parlay it into a berth in the NBA Finals.”
That will be a tall order for Canada’s lone NBA team, now just four wins away from its first appearance in the league’s championship.
The top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks await in the Eastern Conference final. The best-of-seven series opener is set for Wednesday night at Fiserv Forum.
The Raptors have been playoff regulars in recent years but this will be just their second conference final since making their NBA debut in 1995. The Cleveland Cavaliers beat Toronto in six games in the 2016 East final and swept the Raptors in the second round the past two years.
LeBron James had been Toronto’s Kryptonite before moving west to join the Los Angeles Lakers. Now the Raptors have another imposing superstar standing in their way in Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Las Vegas is pegging the second-seeded Raptors as underdogs for the third-round series. Toronto is a +240 pick (bet $100 to win $240) while Milwaukee is at -280 (bet $280 to win $100), according to Caesar’s Palace Sportsbook.
The Raptors have been winners on the domestic ratings front. A record average audience of 2.2 million viewers watched last Sunday’s game with a peak of 3.8 million at the final buzzer, Sportsnet said in a release.
A regional breakdown of the numbers wasn’t immediately available. TSN and Sportsnet will share broadcasting duties again for the conference final.
“I think the Raptors have done very well at moving that needle ever so slightly every year over the last 25 years and this [season] is another step towards that,” said McMaster University marketing professor Marvin Ryder.
The Toronto-Milwaukee series and Golden State-Portland meeting in the West final are not exactly dream market matchups for the NBA.
But in this country, the Raptors are continuing to make strides for a variety of reasons. The team is a consistent contender, the younger generation loves the sport, the “We The North” campaign has been a success, and training camps and preseason games have been spread out across Canada.
Ryder expects the team to make its biggest gains in urban centres.
“This is where we have those relatively new Canadians and there’s two universal sports around the world – basketball and soccer – and it can speak to them,” Ryder said from Hamilton. “I’m not sure it’s going to move the needle in rural Saskatchewan or in Northern Ontario.
“But I would think there would be a chunk of people in [cities like] Vancouver, in Calgary and in Montreal, who would gravitate towards this given their personal heritage and their personal story. Soccer gravitates a little more but basketball is getting there.”
The 2018-19 campaign was the most-watched NBA regular season ever in Canada as viewership rose 29 per cent year-over-year on Sportsnet and TSN, according to NBA Canada.
The Leonard shot also created a buzz moment that got the attention of casual fans and even folks who don’t follow sports. Photos went viral and video clips of the play generated millions of views.
The team is also getting more attention because there is minimal interest in Major League Baseball’s Toronto Blue Jays at the moment, given they are struggling through a rebuild.
This appears to be a prime moment for the Raptors to grab the buck by the horns, so to speak, and truly get the country’s attention.
“I know it sounds like a high order, but for the Raptors to truly become a national brand, they would ultimately need to win an NBA championship,” Mayenknecht said. “They can start to gain a lot of traction nationally by making the NBA Finals and all the exposure that comes with that on both sides of the border and around the world.
“But in order to go from being a strong regional brand and obviously a brand that has permeated Southern Ontario with their excellence these past six postseasons under the [president] Masai Ujiri [general manager] Bobby Webster leadership, they really need to win to re-engineer the fan landscape.”
Toronto is starving for a title in one of the “Big Four” North American leagues.
The NHL’s Maple Leafs haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 1967 and the Blue Jays’ last title came in 1993.