Three reasons why basketball is gaining popularity in Canada

We asked Canadians what sports do you watch most often with your kids?

You can make an argument that lacrosse and curling are historically the sports of record in Canada, but realistically hockey has been the be-all, end-all across our nation. This is still a hockey country, but don’t be surprised if basketball gives it a run for its money over the next 150 years.

Tim Leiweke said it back in late 2014: “Within 10 years, the Raptors are going to be the most popular team.”

According to the former MLSE CEO, “They will be more popular than the Leafs in Toronto. Promise you.”

Although that’s a very ambitious timeframe because habits change slowly, you can see the move in that direction because the face of the country as a whole is changing. The change in Canada’s demographics and the sensibilities of the massive millennial generation are creating a perfect storm for basketball to become Canada’s pastime.

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None of this should be all that surprising, a Canadian invented the game, after all. James Naismith studied and taught physical education at McGill University before inventing basketball south of the border in 1891.

The first NBA game, in 1946, was played at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto between the Toronto Huskies and New York Knicks. The first international player in the NBA, Hank Biasatti, was a Canadian. We’ve had success in the sport before, with Canada’s men earning a silver medal at the 1936 Olympics, as well as finishing fourth at both the 1976 and 1984 Summer Olympics.

Canada’s women finished fourth in 1984 as well.

Though the country hasn’t had as much international success since then, the game has never had a brighter future — on multiple levels — because of three separate factors.


Thanks to the culture of the NBA in relation to other major North American sports leagues, basketball is becoming more and more popular with millennials.

In the recent Canada Project survey of more than 1,500 Canadians, 11 per cent of millennial respondents said basketball would be the sport they’d want their child to excel in, while just 19 per cent said hockey. When the question was “Which sport do you watch with your parents?”, millennials were seven times more likely to answer basketball than baby boomers.

Those types of findings are echoed elsewhere.

A recent report by Solutions Research Group, a Toronto-based consumer research firm, found basketball to be the second-most popular sport to follow among Canadian millennials, behind hockey. The firm’s 2014 Canadian Youth Sports Report found that basketball has the second-highest participation among kids aged 3 and 17, behind soccer and (notably) ahead of hockey. Basketball also leads hockey among immigrant children, coming in second behind soccer.


Much of this is due to the rise in immigration — currently 20 per cent of Canadians are foreign born.

In 1977, the Citizenship Act was changed — making it easier for foreigners to naturalize and have rights as Canadian citizens. In 1978, Canada’s Immigration Act outlined a new policy making eligibility for immigrants transparent and eliminating discrimination from the process.

The legacy of the immigration reform is that more than two million foreigners settled in Canada between 1996 and 2006. Now more than one million immigrants move to Canada every four years and basketball trails only soccer in popularity among first-generation Canadian children, according to a 2014 study by Solutions Research Group.

You just need to look at the country’s best players to see the impact. Two-time MVP Steve Nash was born in South Africa before growing up in British Columbia. Jamaal Magloire was born to Trinidadian parents in Toronto. Anthony Bennett’s mother moved to the area from Jamaica. Tristan Thompson’s parents are also Jamaican.

Andrew Wiggins’s mother is Marita Payne, a Canadian Olympic sprinter originally from Barbados. Nik Stauskas is of Lithuanian descent, and eligible for both national teams. Melvin Ejim’s family is Nigerian.

Many first-generation Canadians are second-generation Raptors fans who don’t know a Canadian existence without the Raptors.

The Raptors very own Superfan, Nav Bhatia, a Sikh immigrant turned sports celebrity, is testament to how basketball has been an assimilation accelerator in Canada like few other sports.

3) NBA

It’s important to remember that the NBA has existed in this country for just over two decades. That’s not long at all considering the country is 150 years old. What that has done is inspired a new wave of NBA players of Canadian descent.

The Raptors, who came to Canada in 1995, have the third-highest attendance in the league. And the Forbes valuation of Canada’s only NBA franchise currently sits at $1.125 billion.

The 2016 NBA All-Star Weekend in Toronto (the first outside of the U.S.) was a huge success.

Canada has become a first-round-pick factory in recent years, and the Greater Toronto Area specifically had back-to-back No. 1–overall picks in Bennett and Wiggins. That is something that doesn’t happen for the same U.S. state, never mind the same city.

This year, Mississauga’s Dillon Brooks was picked in the second round, extending the streak to eight years a Canadian has been drafted.

Not only are they in the league — they are excelling. A Canadian has played in the NBA finals in each of the last five years, including Thompson, who brought the Larry O’Brien trophy home last summer.

The pipeline doesn’t seem to be drying up any time soon, either, as RJ Barrett and Andrew Nembhard are two Canadians ranked in the top 25 of the 2019 high-school class. Barrett currently sits No. 1 overall in the class.


The basketball following in Canada has steadily grown from niche to nationwide obsession.

And with changing demographics, that’s only going to be increasingly the case. So don’t be surprised if your grandchildren’s grandchildren are shooting swishes before they learn how to skate.

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