TORONTO — Over the years, the Toronto Raptors have heard all about the perceived disadvantages of NBA life north of the border.
The complaints have run the gamut — from the long, snowy winters, to concerns about taxes to the lack of ESPN on cable TV. Instead of playing defence when it comes to perception, the franchise is going on the offensive.
The Great White North is embraced and the Ontario capital takes centre stage in the team’s new “We The North” campaign, which features a 60-second video that kicks off a massive franchise rebrand over the next two years.
“This is the statement we want to make to Canada and I think this is the chip we have, which is we’re the north and there’s no one else,” Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment president Tim Leiweke said Wednesday from New York.
“It’s just us and everyone looks past us. But we’re OK with that now.”
The video is not meant to be an advertisement for a team preparing to make its first playoff appearance in six years. Instead, the franchise wants the spot and the campaign to serve as a foundation for a team revolution.
“This is a crusade now,” Leiweke said. “This is not just a rally cry, this is, I think, our identity.
“I think that’s what we like about this is for the next two to three years, this is who we are and this is who we represent and this is who we fight for.”
The team is still finalizing release plans for other components of the campaign. However, new colours and a new logo will be rolled out “in short order,” Leiweke said.
Toronto hip-hop artist Drake was “heavily involved” in the inspiration for the spot, and Leiweke said the team’s global ambassador was also involved in logo plans and the decision to stick with the Raptors name.
“He thinks that the Vince Carter generation, those kids that grew up and got inspired by Vince, these are now the (Anthony) Bennetts of the world and the (Andrew) Wiggins of the world,” Leiweke said. “And they relate to the Raptors in a very different way than that Barney dinosaur or Jurassic Park marketing campaign.
“Now this is a cultural thing and Drake said, ‘Stick to it and just define your culture and make it you.”‘
In the video, clips of the city skyline are mixed with snippets of basketball action from local neighbourhoods and highlights of the Raptors in action.
“And far from the east side, miles from the west side, nowhere near the south side, we are the north side,” a narrator says in the piece. “A territory all our own. And if that makes us outsiders — we’re in.”
“My favourite shot is the kid bouncing the basketball through the field of ice,” Leiweke said. “And it’s like, ‘That’s it right there. That’s what we want.’ People don’t understand we have a revolution going on in Canada. We’re producing great players. We’ve got kids inspired that are playing the sport in record numbers. We have the highest growth level in North America.
“We are a team that suddenly people are rallying around and are excited about. And by the way, all of our guys love playing for Canada and we’re it. We’ve got 35 million people. No one has 35 million people in their marketplace.”
It has been a remarkable rebound season for a franchise that has been hamstrung by mediocrity.
Toronto opened the current campaign with a poor 6-12 record but things turned around last December after Rudy Gay was dealt to Sacramento in a seven-player trade. The Raptors were energized by the move and have been one of the strongest teams in the Eastern Conference since.
Toronto recently clinched the Atlantic Division title and took a 48-33 record into the regular-season finale Wednesday night in New York.
The Raptors’ turnaround has been a pleasant surprise in a city where post-season action in any of the major sports is a rarity.
Fans are still stinging from the Toronto Maple Leafs’ late-season collapse that cost them a playoff spot this year. The NHL club has made the post-season just once in the last decade.
Down the road at Rogers Centre, it has been over 20 years since the Toronto Blue Jays last made the playoffs. The Blue Jays are coming off a last-place finish in the American League East division and are not expected to contend this year.
The Raptors will take a page from the hockey team’s playbook by hosting a “Party in the Square” in Maple Leaf Square outside Air Canada Centre for playoff games this spring. It was a hotspot last year during the Maple Leafs’ first-round playoff series with the Boston Bruins.
Ticket demand also appears to be quite high for Canada’s lone NBA team.
Toronto’s average playoff ticket price is $125. However, a recent Forbes website report said the Raptors have the highest average playoff ticket price ($370.62) on the secondary market.
“To me it’s less about what people are paying on the secondary (market) and more about we have a greater demand for NBA playoff tickets than any market today in the NBA,” Leiweke said.
“So out of those 16 markets, right now Toronto is the hot ticket. I think that bodes well.”
Toronto has reached the NBA playoffs on five previous occasions, the most recent being a first-round loss to the Orlando Magic in 2008. The Raptors’ lone series victory came in 2001 when they beat the New York Knicks before falling to the Philadelphia 76ers in the second round.