Recently I wrote an article on the Rudy Gay trade to and from Toronto and a reader was upset when I referred to Toronto as a “smaller market team”. To be fair, the statement was made a little out of context, and I take responsibility for that. However, the statement is valid, or at least it was valid a few years ago.
Let’s get this out of the way right now; Toronto is a gigantic sports market. Toronto is currently the fourth largest city in North America. It actually jumped Chicago for that honor, and is only playing catch-up to Mexico City, New York and Los Angeles. The inner city boasts a population of 2.5 million, with the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) supporting over 6 million people. There are a ton of individuals who have the means to purchase and support a sports franchise. This is evident by the Toronto Maples Leafs being the first (and only) NHL franchise to sit on the Forbes “50 most valuable sports teams” list. Currently residing at #26 with a worth of $1.15 Billion (with a B).
The list is almost exclusively football teams (North American and European Soccer) with a few MLB and NBA franchises sprinkled in. The Leafs and Ferrari stick out as odd ducks in an otherwise very predictable list. So with the Leafs as the most valuable franchise in the NHL, how are the Raptors ranked 14th on a list of most valuable NBA teams?
Back to my original point. Toronto isn’t short on people, it’s short on basketball interest, or at least it was. The playoffs last year put Toronto on notice that this team is not a joke. The seven game series against the Brooklyn Nets was one that showed heart and grit. Re-signing Kyle Lowry only shored up a sense of hope and optimism in the 416 (or if you’re a Drake follower it’s simply “the 6”). Drake signing on with the team too shows a level of celebrity involvement that the team hasn’t had before. The Los Angeles Lakers have Jack Nicholson. The New York Knicks have Spike Lee. Toronto needed someone at the games all the time that showed that this team was worth taking note of.
The other big thing that has helped the Raptors this year is the continued mediocrity of the Leafs. Last year, the Leafs were sitting at home watching the playoffs, the Raptors were playing in the postseason, and the city took notice with their heart as well as their wallets. Team gear is flying off the shelves, season tickets are being sold in record numbers, and attendance is up. In 2006, the Raptors ranked 17th in the league with 17,056 fans per game in attendance. In 2011 that number dropped to 19th with 16,566 fans per game. The team is ranked 5th with 19,731 fans per game for 2015. When you consider the capacity of the Air Canada Centre is 19,800 for an NBA game that’s a pretty sterling number.
But even with all this added attention, the Toronto market is still hockey first. Were it something like the NFL that shuts down mid-NBA season, there would be more room to maneuver. For those of you not living in the city I’ll try and explain it for you. Local Toronto sports coverage always begins with the Leafs. Game on or not, they will always begin with the Leafs. Last year was no exception: the Raptors were in the playoffs and Leaf’s coverage came before Raptors’ highlights from the playoff game. Even local news outlets sprinkle Leafs’ news in with non-sports news.
The Basketball market in Toronto is growing, and continued playoff success will only continue to see the team excel, but the success needs to be consistent. The Leafs are entrenched with consistent sell-outs. Several times since 2001, the Raptors have been in the leagues top 10 when it comes to ticket sales, back when Vince Carter was the start attraction. The basketball community at this time was fully behind the Raptors, but that community is a vast minority compared to the hockey population. As soon as the team slipped the ticket sales did too. The team needs to show a consistent ability to win in order to win over the hockey faithful into the same sort of blind support they show for the Leafs. The other thing that could happen is the Leafs could get so bad that people in Toronto actively start to jump ship to support the Raptors just to follow something, anything, other than the Leafs. Perhaps more than anything for the Raptors to become a bigger market team, the hockey market has to shrink a little.