The Toronto Raptors are often dubbed, “Canada’s team.” However, despite their strongholds in Toronto and the GTA, the Raptors have yet to make a significant mark on the rest of the country, especially here in Quebec.
“The people in Spain think it’s a great team,” said Spaniard Jose Calderon, Toronto’s starting point guard.
This simple example of patriotism has actually been a useful marketing tool for the Raptors. This is because, in Canada’s big cities especially, diversity is a way of life. From little Italy to Chinatown, ethnic enclaves consume and enrich our metropolises. In fact, this is one of the main reasons why the Raptors are managing to stay relevant in Quebec and other weak markets.
“We have many Italian and Spanish people coming in for Bargnani and Calderon jerseys,” said Santana Encrique, owner of Crescent Sports in Montreal. “But basketball is nothing, maybe 5 per cent of sales.”
As we all know, the popularity of the Raptors in Toronto and the GTA is strong. Although they lag behind the Leafs and the Jays in terms of news coverage, one need only check out a playoff game at the ACC to see and feel the passion. But in a hockey crazy country like Canada, basketball needs all the help it can get. And the international makeup of the Raptors is helping them to slowly chip away at hockey’s superiority by drawing in a dynamic demographic of European immigrants from across the country.
Consider that the Raptors starting lineup this year will include a Spaniard (Calderon), an Italian (Bargnani), and a Turk (Turkoglu) and you can see why many immigrants to Canada will relate to these guys. To be sure, this aspect is helping but it is not the solution. To be fair, we should remember that the Raptors are still a young team, only 15 years old.
“They don’t exactly have a deep tradition yet,” said Eric Smith, play-by-play radio announcer for the team. “And, to be fair, in the 15 years of existence, playoff success has been few and far between and the club has only been out of the 1st round once. So it may take some time.”
A high-flying superstar wouldn’t hurt either. For example, Encrique admitted that when Vince Carter was dazzling the sports world with his acrobatic dunks in a Raptors uniform, sales were high in Montreal. But the biggest draw for fans remains success.
“They need to go to the playoffs consistently to bring in fans,” Encrique said. “At the least, they must be in the semifinals.”
So what more can the Raptors do to promote their brand nationwide? It seems like they are already doing a lot.
“From charity events to things like the 3 on 3 competition, I believe the Raptors do a solid job of getting out in the communities across the country and not just in Toronto, whenever they can,” said Smith. “ And don’t forget that every Raptors’ game is broadcast across the country. That doesn’t happen in the U.S.”
But even with the hockey-centric fans and the struggles they have had outside of the GTA, Calderon is staying upbeat, maintaining that he feels the support of the country.
“I see Raptors jerseys all over the world,” he said. “I think the other teams are just playing for a city but we play for a country. I feel a lot of support in Toronto. It’s true that hockey is the first sport in Canada, but we are working on that.”