For the first time since 2002, the Toronto Raptors and Maple Leafs are in the playoffs at the same time. Their shared home is swathed in a carefully balanced mix of splashy decor for both teams, while the square outside juggles massive viewing parties for whichever club is playing at the moment.
Some walls, doors and elevators at the Air Canada Centre are plastered in the trendy red-and-black buffalo plaid of the Raptors' post-season campaign, with hollering images of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. Others are decked in iconic blue with the digits 001 to signify the culmination of the first 100 years of Maple Leafs hockey and an exciting start to the next.
Staging duelling playoff runs is a sports marketer's dream. At the wheel is Shannon Hosford, who oversees the seasoned marketing department at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, which has handled everything from playoff T-shirts to rally towels, TV commercials to logo re-brands, Drake nights to the Leafs' Centennial season, and the wildly popular "We The North" and "Stand Witness" campaigns.
Hosford has climbed the ranks in her 17 years at MLSE and is now the senior vice-president of marketing and fan experience. Few in the industry manage a portfolio this big – a team of 150 employees who juggle nearly everything fan-facing for the Raptors, Leafs and Toronto FC. She works in tandem with team presidents Brendan Shanahan, Masai Ujiri and Bill Manning on how the clubs should be branded and portrayed, and what fans should experience at the games.
"Interestingly, all three want their teams presented similarly; never with one star player singled out but always about the team, and that's why we always have a couple of players or a bunch in ads," said Hosford. "Everything you see is their vision of what the presidents want the fans to see about their teams, and it's my job to bring it to life.
"In the past, we didn't have that same level of collaboration with the teams, but that all changed in recent years. We are constantly trying to move the needle with our marketing, to be best in class and the organization that everyone is trying to emulate."
Hosford's department came into the spotlight in 2014 when a plucky Raptors team made its first run to the playoffs since 2008, and it worked with ad agency Sid Lee to launch the We The North campaign, based on the idea of being an outsider, the NBA's only team outside the United States. It gave the team and its fans an identity and war cry, and made Toronto a pillar of cool. It resonated with the players, became the stuff of banners and hashtags and was imitated by others in the sports world. It made Hosford one of five finalists for Strategy's 2014 Marketer of the Year award.
"Many of the things Shannon and her team do are so distinct – things they do in Jurassic Park, the way they put out playoff T-shirts in special patterns in the arena, and the Toronto Huskies uniforms along with a Huskies court," said Ujiri. "No one else is doing that. We don't copy anybody, we never look at anybody. She and her department are always willing to take risks."
One of Hosford's key employees on the We The North campaign – David Freeman – was whisked away to work for the Cleveland Browns. To replace him, Hosford was able to land one of Sid Lee's best, Dustin Rideout.
Unique Raptors handout playoff T-shirts are back again this year, with different graffiti-style artwork for each game. Last year, the shirts featured everything from furious snowballs to angry beavers and were arranged in the stadium in complex patterns like a Canadian flag or YYZ, the code for Toronto's Pearson Airport. At last Saturday's Game 1 between the Raptors and Bucks, fans got red or black shirts featuring a fist clenching a handful of net twine. They were placed throughout the stadium seats in a plaid pattern.
Some fans appreciated the quirky originality, while others puzzled over the shirts. Opinions on social media ranged from "mad wack" to "looks like someone snatched a handful of DeMarre Carroll's hair" to "ugliest shirts in the league."
For the Leafs' first post-season home game Monday against the Capitals, fans were given 001 rally towels, a nod to Stand Witness. The campaign had kicked off with a TV commercial from Sid Lee to open the season, in which an elderly Leafs fan remembers the Leafs over the decades, from Stanley Cups to heartbreaks, even the low years that made fans want to chuck a television through a window. The edgy spot ended with images of the team's current youngsters and the 100 flipped to 001, foreshadowing an intriguing start to the next century.
Even with top overall pick Auston Matthews in the mix, most assumed this was a rebuilding season. Who knew the campaign would come to fit the squad so well – a rookie-heavy squad which would make the playoffs?
"It's tough to create an ad or a campaign that the players can say, 'Yes, this is who we aspire to be,' and that also resonates with the fans," said Shanahan. "Shannon talked to me about how the Leafs were being built and how we see ourselves – from the perspectives of me, the players, Lou Lamoriello and Mike Babcock, and then we took ideas to Sid Lee. The concept of Stand Witness was a great one."
Shanahan has worked closely with Hosford on many initiatives. There was the re-branding of the iconic Leafs logo, for which they locked down the Air Canada Centre one night early in the design phase so Shanahan could watch two players skate around on the ice with the new insignia on. He watched from all vantage points in the arena and then questioned the players about how it felt on their chest as they skated; he then gave that feedback to Hosford.
The re-branded Raptors logo leaked early two years ago, preventing MLSE from launching it the way they wanted to. The Leafs launch went much more according to plan, debuting with the team's newest players.
Shanahan was involved in choosing a new anthem singer – 15-year-old Martina Luis-Ortiz. They brought in new in-game hosts and tapped Anton Wright, the long-time head of Raptors game operations, to come up with fresh ideas for the fan experience at Leafs games.
"Brendan challenged us to challenge the status quo. In the past, there was a belief that, 'Oh, Leafs fans won't like us to mix up the music, or they might not get into games like Raptors fans do, or they won't sing along,'" said Hosford. "We decided to challenge those old beliefs, and we found Leafs fans really embraced the changes and the atmosphere has really improved."
They made special efforts to celebrate the Leafs' centennial season, from an eye-popping opening night to inducting four former greats to Legends Row.
"In Toronto, you are promoting a team to a very knowledgeable and savvy fan-base, and that can be tricky," said Susan Cohig, the NHL's senior vice-president of integrated marketing. "Being bold and willing to make statements can be risky, especially when you don't know how a season will turn out, but that's something I've always admired about MLSE. Shannon is able to take the learnings from one league and apply them across others. As marketers, we share best practices around the league, and the Leafs are consistently in the top tier of ideas we draw from."
Hosford's staff has generated several unique ideas, including riffing on St. Patrick's Day by wearing throwback jerseys of the team's predecessor franchise, the St. Pats.
Think back to Toronto's wintry 2016 NBA All-Star weekend and the luxurious 40,000-square-foot heated tent that MLSE built near the CN Tower, complete with stylish winter decor, dining and concerts by Gwen Stefani, Usher and Flo Rida. It was a hot ticket for VIPs and some 15,000 NBA fans, and it left lasting impressions across the league.
"They really brought their We The North campaign to life with that experiential destination," said Kelly Flatow, the NBA's senior vice-president of events. "They booked world-class talent, and they were able to integrate basketball with Canada's rich landscape. They brought such tremendous creativity."
Not every idea has worked out as serendipitously as We The North or Stand Witness. When Toronto FC signed English striker Jermain Defoe in 2014, MLSE and Sid Lee delivered clever ads that screamed, "It's a bloody big deal," with Brits spitting out their drinks at news of the Tottenham star heading to Toronto. Instead of becoming the city's next great sports hero, Defoe spent an unspectacular, injury-plagued season with TFC, which instead prompted punchlines like, "It's a bloody big bust."
There have been other misfires. In the 2007 NBA playoffs, MLSE put a red playoff shirt on every fan's seat, only to discover that the visiting New Jersey Nets would wear red that night.
MLSE has won several Clio Sports awards in recent years for excellence in sports marketing. It hasn't hurt to have teams that have surprised, delighted and won.
"We all feel fortunate to work in Toronto with such a passionate fan base," said Shanahan. "When you have a fan base that is passionate about your team's history, present and future, it makes your job easier, but Shannon never takes that for granted. She's always looking for ways to reach new fans."