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Kelly: Love can be fickle in Toronto, the ‘next great North American sports city’

A few weeks ago, Rolling Stone ran a piece entitled "Is Toronto the Next Great North American Sports City?"

Since this town is a figurative sheepdog wandering around the continental dinner party looking for a belly rub, this small bit of American love felt good. Especially so since U.S. outlets such as ESPN had spent the previous decade painting the city as a post-apocalyptic sports wasteland overrun by cannibal fans eating their own teams.

The accompanying photo showed Drake in full throat, howling from his courtside seat at a Raptors game – a spot he has yet to occupy during this year's NBA playoffs. Among his many talents, Drake always seems to know when a trend has run its course.

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Three years ago, when the Raptors began their current run of postseason appearances, it felt like a tipping point. It was, but not in the way people thought at the time.

After having been so bad at so many things for so long, Toronto reached up and put a death grip on the one team doing anything worth cheering. Hours before home games, hundreds of people would already be lined up to get into the viewing zone outside the Air Canada Centre.

The feeling coming from those crowds was infectious. You felt as though the city you'd grown up in – a city whose three favourite sports were bad hockey, worse hockey and Harold Ballard in the off-season – was changing.

Now, it's changed back.

During Tuesday's Game 2 of Raptors-Bucks, the group at Jurassic Park looked like a poorly assembled picket line. Inside the arena, few bothered taking their seats until after tipoff. Until the final seconds, the atmosphere was oppressively regular season. The biggest ovation during the first three quarters was reserved for a blooper reel played during a timeout. It felt nothing like 2014.

It suggested that people like new things even more than good things.

The other contributing factor is, of course, hockey. The hysterical crowds that once showed up for the Raptors are now there for the Leafs instead. Though they were always ahead, even in the lean years, hockey is currently crushing basketball in the TV ratings by factors.

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When this change was put to Raptors coach Dwane Casey, he said, "That happened very fast. Like, overnight."

He didn't say it disapprovingly. He said it like it was a natural adaptation.

Over the 20 years before this sudden group resurgence, the problem with Toronto sports was two-fold – hegemonic control and general malaise.

When one or two companies own all the teams, and all the teams are terrible, there is no pressing reason for any of them to get better. If nothing else, Toronto fans have proved they are willing to endure limitless amounts of unwatchable entertainment.

More than committed fans or well-to-do fans or a new generation of fans, what every profit-minded owner wants is a proud local tradition of masochism.

The Raptors accidentally changed that calculus, since the 2013-14 season was designed to be a tank job.

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Basketball's breakthrough made it impossible for everyone else to continue bumbling down the path of lucrative mediocrity. Toronto sports went from a "I suppose I can see why you did that stupid thing, even though it was stupid" sort of a town to an Alec Baldwin-esque "Coffee is for closers" sort of town. Every franchise may have been trying to get better before, but now they had to get better.

A year later, the Leafs lit their roster on fire and began a rebuild. Six months after that, the Blue Jays did what they had spent two decades avoiding – mortgaging an uncertain future for a reliable shot at the present. Even Toronto FC finally figured out that you should probably ask people if they want to play for your team before you begin burying them in bricks of money.

That rising tide has floated all boats, but like any tide, it shifts. The Raptors were at the high-water mark for a while. Then the Jays. Now the Leafs.

Compared to the hockey club, the other two are looking shaky at the moment. Ten years ago, that might have begun a decade of muddling about. Today, it means they must demonstrate they are willing to begin quickly fixing whatever is wrong or risk being drowned in apathy.

You cannot guarantee being very good at all your games at once – that's an accident of timing and competition. You can't share out the love equally between teams. One will always be uppermost in the city's esteem, usually whichever Prodigal Son is currently returning.

What matters is creating an environment in which every organization feels consistent, grinding pressure to lap the new favourite.

It may not make you the "best" sports city. But it does make the city's sports what they should be – a recurring civic reward rather than an endless group penance.

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