Buffalo's case to host Raptors centred on proximity, fan familiarity

In this March 18, 2017, file photo, an official game ball with the March Madness logo sits in the court during a second-round men's college basketball game between Villanova and Wisconsin in the NCAA Tournament in Buffalo, N.Y. (Bill Wippert/AP)

TORONTO – While the Toronto Raptors are still facing a dilemma of where they might play their coming season in case the Canada/U.S. border remains closed for travel, one option could be where their baseball-playing cousin Toronto Blue Jays decided to take up shop in 2020: Buffalo.

New York state senator, and born-and-raised Buffalonian, Timothy Kennedy recently sent a letter to NBA commissioner Adam Silver and Raptors president Masai Ujiri requesting that the Raptors make Buffalo their temporary abode in the event they can’t play in Toronto.

In a press release sent out earlier this week, Kennedy suggested making KeyBank Center, home of the Buffalo Sabres, the “home away from home” for the Raptors.

“I sent a letter to the NBA commissioner and the president of the Toronto Raptors, urging both to use Buffalo as the Raptors' temporary home in the 2020-21 season if the border restrictions remain in place,” Kennedy said in an interview with Sportsnet on Friday. “We recognize that we're continuing to deal with this very difficult pandemic and the border has been shut down for non-essential travel and it had a terrible impact on the Toronto Blue Jays, who ended up using Buffalo as their home temporarily and it worked out magnificently.”

Kennedy said he has yet to hear back from either the league or the Raptors, but appears confident that Buffalo would make the most sense as a temporary location, pointing out that the Blue Jays just turned Buffalo's Sahlen Field (home to the triple-A Bisons) into their temporary home. Kennedy also noted that the close proximity of Toronto and Buffalo has made the two cities something of cross-border neighbours.

“I think our entire community rallied around the Blue Jays, and bringing them here we rolled out the red carpet,” Kennedy said. “And in a matter of days, the entire Sahlen Field stadium was transformed from a triple-A, minor-league team stadium to a real, true Major League Baseball home that the Blue Jays could be proud of. And aside from providing for our parent team, our parent organization, we also brought a lot of attention to the region and that is beneficial both for Toronto as much as it's beneficial for Buffalo. And when the border reopens, I can promise you that there will be more excitement for people to go see a Toronto Blue Jays game in Toronto than there was before they played their season here, just as there will be more support for the Toronto Raptors after if, in fact, they play their season here.

“We are in the same market and it allows for a great sense of camaraderie, especially given the fact that we don't have Major League Baseball or a basketball team. When those teams come here, we adopt these teams as our own and Toronto already has a very strong fan base here in Buffalo as it pertains to basketball and baseball. When those teams recognize our fan base and they move, even if it's temporarily, their teams here, it demonstrates a level of respect and camaraderie and support and goodwill that is reciprocated among our fan base in coming up to Toronto to watch these teams.”

Kennedy later added: “Honestly, we've gotten hundreds of phone calls and emails and people are excited about the opportunity to bring the Raptors to Buffalo. They know it's on a temporary basis, they know it's because these very extreme circumstances of the pandemic, but it also is a demonstration of our very strong professional sports fan base. And, look, we have the Buffalo Sabres, we have the Buffalo Bills and we have fans from southern Ontario that cross the border to see our teams play all the time. We go up to Toronto to do the same and so this is just furthering that connectivity between our great cities.”

Kennedy’s proposal has the support of the Buffalo Common Council and, as Kennedy revealed Friday, the Erie County Legislature, something he said will be heard more publicly in the next week or so.

Of course, Buffalo isn’t the only city hoping for a chance to host the Raptors. The city's most serious rival known right now appears to be Kansas City, which also looks like a strong candidate after its mayor recently told Sportsnet that there’s mutual interest between Kansas City and the Raptors.

Still, the travel time of just over an hour by plane from Buffalo to the Raptors’ division rivals in New York, Boston and Philadelphia is significantly less than the near three hours from Kansas City to the homes of the Knicks, Nets, Celtics and 76ers, making Buffalo another good-looking solution for the Raptors.

Like Kansas City, Buffalo was once an NBA city, as the home of the Braves from 1971-78 with Hall-of-Fame players Bob McAdoo, Moses Malone and Adrian Dantley among the club’s distinguished alumni.

Buffalo also has a potential ready-made venue to host the Raptors in the KeyBank Center, a facility that’s the current home of the NHL’s Sabres and has played host to NCAA Tournament games with a basketball seating capacity of 19,800. Additionally, the LECOM Harborcenter could potentially be used as a practice facility for the Raptors should the building undergo some work to convert it from being exclusively a hockey facility that the Sabres practice out of.

“Our KeyBank Center already hosts the Buffalo Sabres, the Buffalo Bandits, the NCAA men's basketball tournament; Buffalo is a former NBA city,” Kennedy said. “Within the Harborcenter and within the KeyBank Center we have all of the amenities, whether we're talking about team facilities, whether we're talking about media facilities, everything is professionalized already. So it's already ready to host an NBA team if, in fact, the Toronto Raptors make Buffalo their temporary home. It would be a very simple move.”

Buffalo is making its case, and it does appear to have the infrastructure needed to house the Raptors for a season. Whether the local ties the city has with Toronto is enough is yet to be seen, though.

“We jumped in at a moment's notice with the Blue Jays, we will jump in at a moment's notice with the Raptors as well,” Kennedy said. “If we can plan this out, I think this could be a real regional win. It could help to cultivate that regional fan base that the Raptors already have, but it will further expand that regional fan base into western New York and the western Pennsylvania region.”

It’s unclear when the 2020-21 NBA season will start, with reports saying the league is pushing for something closer to Christmas and the National Basketball Players’ Association leaning more toward a Martin Luther King Jr. Day start in January. No matter when the season starts, however, the Raptors likely need to figure out where they’re going to play sooner than later and it looks like Buffalo could be an option.

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