Late morning on the day of each Toronto Raptors home playoff game, intriguing images start to filter out on social media that carry meaning for the fans. Those images might involve an angry beaver, a snowball with a snarling face, or the letters YYZ.
After the players finish their morning shoot-around at Air Canada Centre, media members arrive for interviews. They are the first to click and share photos of what awaits fans later that day: every seat in the ACC decked out in the latest from a collection of the Raptors' offbeat and buzz-worthy playoff shirts.
Freebie shirts that cloak fans in team colours and strengthen home-court advantage in the playoffs are nothing new. They're a given in today's pro sports – another bit of inventory to sell to sponsors, another chance to strengthen a brand, and an obvious invitation for fan selfies. The Raptors, though, wanted to break from the NBA pack and take a creative risk with their giveaway tees during this post-season run.
During a planning meeting for the Raptors' playoff run, president and general manager Masai Ujiri issued a general challenge to the marketing department at Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment.
"Masai challenged us to live up to what the brand is about and be disruptive and different and unexpected," said Shannon Hosford, MLSE's vice-president of marketing and communications. "He wanted us to do something that other teams don't do, something you would only see in Toronto."
Many teams put a team slogan or logo on the same-coloured T-shirt for the whole crowd to create a unified look at a playoff game. The Raptors chose to put a different – an unexpected – artwork on their shirts for every home playoff game and then arrange those shirts on the seats to create a different eye-popping pattern or message across the stadium.
The artwork has all been graffiti-inspired and an extension of the team's wildly popular "We The North" campaign. It takes nicknames for Toronto or urban-styled imagery of Canadian stereotypes and spins them as things to brag about.
The shirts have featured different graffiti-styled artwork, like an angry beaver, a muscled maple leaf, a basketball dripping in paint, or an aggressive flying snowball with a face – all spurring conversation from fans. A flaming "6" offered a nod to Toronto's area code, while a "Since '95" harkened back to the club's humble inaugural season.
Some fans on social media call the shirts edgy; others dismiss them as weird or say the references are way too vague for an NBA playoff game.
One game, red, white, black and grey shirts were placed out to create a camouflage backdrop. Once they divvied out red and white ones to create the shape of a Maple Leaf. They've used the tees to spell out Toronto's monikers – like "6ix" (a Drake-created spin on the 416) or "YYZ" (you know, Pearson Airport). The team is etching out these endearing little messages that only the Raptors faithful can truly appreciate.
"There are no Canadian NHL teams in the playoffs, so we looked at this as a real opportunity for us to do something that would get people's attention," said Dave Freeman, MLSE's head of brand marketing. "Put a mad snowball on there – it's cold here in Canada, so let's turn that on its head and make snow aggressive and a part of what we are. That's what 'We The North' stands for – we're outsiders, we're different. No other team in the NBA is putting an angry snowball on their playoff T-shirt."
The idea of coaxing playoff fans to dress identically is often credited to the Winnipeg Jets back in the 1987 NHL playoffs, when they asked Jets fans to arrive at the game in white shirts. The powerful idea caught on and has grown over the years.
This year, the Cavs have given out shirts in gold, wine and white with their slogan "All In." The Portland Trail Blazers gave out "Rip City" shirts. The Oklahoma City Thunder have had a new playoff slogan for each hosting opportunity, often creating blocks of blue and white with them. The Charlotte Hornets created sections of teal and purple shirts which read "Swarm." The reigning champs, the Golden State Warriors, have been lauded for their idea "Strength in NuMbers," where the "M" on their gold shirts is made of tally marks recording the team's achievements.
"We've got some great marketers in the NBA and Toronto is certainly among the top," said Tracy Marek, senior vice-president and chief marketing officer for the Cleveland Cavaliers. "Their ideas this year have been really fresh and new. Toronto is like Cleveland – civic pride has grown in Cleveland and there's something really special happening in this marketplace. Just like 'The 6ix' has a special meaning in Toronto, and local vendors and celebrities are grasping on and making it uniquely yours, that's happening here in Cleveland, too. It's nice to see the two cities using this big stage to showcase that kind of pride."
The Raptors' shirts have kept fans clicking photos, sharing, discussing and anticipating – more fodder for a group already bantering about the Raps' pick-and-roll defence, or fretting over how best to defend LeBron James.
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"The competition is not just on the court, it's also on the business side, and this is a chance for MLSE to show itself as an innovative business that is pushing the borders on creativity, galvanizing the fan base, and aiming to create best practices," said Vijay Setlur, sport marketing instructor at York University's Schulich School of Business. "These different shirts set out in a special pattern – it's done to help create a sense of wonderment. We live in an experience economy, and turning each playoff game into its own spectacle heightens the fervour and affinity that people have for the team."
Printing more than 20,000 T-shirts for every home game – often on very short notice – is complicated. They're produced at a large Oakville facility called Entripy Custom Clothing. When the Raptors lost Game 6 to the Heat in Miami on a Friday night, Entripy worked around the clock to process and deliver shirts specifically planned for Sunday afternoon's Game 7.
"There is a new theme for each game, and we don't know too much ahead what we'll be printing, so we've got to be fast when we get word to start the order," said Jas Brar, Entripy's chief executive officer. "They work up a pattern in advance of each game, and then they tell us how many they want printed of each colour. It's really unique, and we love the challenge."
Entripy delivers skids loaded with some 400 boxes of T-shirts to the ACC, and an army of MLSE employees is there to receive them – usually in the wee hours of game day. The staff meticulously places the shirts on the seats to achieve the desired pattern. They use a map of the stadium seating manifest with a colour-coded overlay from MLSE's marketing team. It's all in place before the players arrive for their morning shoot-arounds – and the colourful scene screams playoffs.
"When those first pictures go out on social media on a game day, it creates a sense of anticipation for people coming to the game," said Freeman. "It shows other people what they're missing and kind of makes them want to be there."
While MLSE is keeping quiet about what's in store for Games 3 and 4 in Toronto, they said the shirts will have special commemorative meaning for the club's first-ever appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals.