Until the Toronto Raptors won the National Basketball Association championship last week, we Canadians really had little idea of who we really are. We pictured ourselves as a middle-aged nation, mostly white and mostly male, that loved nothing more than to hunker down on Saturday evening in front of the TV with a beer in hand and Hockey Night in Canada on the tube.
That was then. The Raptors are very much now. Young, diverse, energetic and just in from the ‘burbs, Raptors’ fans are the new face not just of Toronto but also of Canada. Indeed, one of the most telling aspects of the Raptors’ enormous popularity is how completely it transcends municipal borders. The Toronto Maple Leafs, by contrast, are as limited by their association with this city as they empowered by it. The Raptors’ popularity is neither defined by Toronto nor restricted by it. The team appeals to fans for reasons that go beyond the usual tribal identifiers by which traditional teams attract their supporters.
Its appeal is not geographic except in the larger national sense. Instead, its popularity is rooted in the richly multicultural makeup of the squad, representative of a remarkably global reach. Of course, the same could be said of the Leafs, but the difference lies in demographics; while hockey is overwhelmingly a white middle-class sport, basketball straddles all income levels and national and racial backgrounds. In other words, a kid doesn’t have to come from a wealthy family to play basketball; all you need is a ball and hoop. Hockey, on the other hand, requires an outlay of cash beyond the means of many families in the Greater Toronto Area.
Little surprise basketball is taking over from hockey as Canada’s game. The numbers may still be with hockey, but it’s basketball that has the momentum. According to an Angus Reid poll taken earlier this month, 45 per cent of Canadian men between 18 and 35 would choose to watch the NBA finals compared to 39 per cent who preferred the Stanley Cup playoffs. Similarly aged women chose the NBA over the NHL, 35 to 32 per cent. Hockey’s strength remains with Canadians 55 and older.
Clearly, if basketball is the future, hockey is the past. Just look at the “ambassadors” of the two sports — Don Cherry versus Drake – who between them pretty much personify the differences between hockey and basketball. The former is so violent players must wear helmets and full-body armour. The latter, by contrast, requires nothing more than shorts and a T-shirt. Basketball is loose, accessible and transparent. Hockey feels rule-bound and aloof.
Of course, nothing succeeds like success; the hype surrounding the Raptor’s success has made first-time fans of millions of Canadians who never gave basketball a second thought. Before the Raptors’ championship, only ten per cent of Canadians followed the NBA; today that has ballooned to 40 per cent.
It doesn’t help either that the Leafs have a long history of failure. Though the team hasn’t won a Stanley Cup since 1967, it still manages to sell out regularly. Athletic success is not necessary to its economic success and it shows. The Raptors, on the other hand, had to start from scratch and earn success. The organization learned to take risks and push harder. It developed close connections with its fans, who could afford a ticket and couldn’t wait to get back into their seats after intermission. Where the Leafs became corporate, the Raptors remained gritty and youth-oriented. As the Leafs grew stale, the Raptors stayed fresh. Most importantly, while the Leafs continue to lose, the Raptors keep winning.
Given the direction in which the two teams are moving, it seems clear who will be on top a decade or two from now. Already Forbes tells us that after just 24 years, the Raptors, worth $1.8 billion (US), are more valuable than the Leafs, worth $1.45 billion (US), long the country’s richest sports franchise.
Needless to say, basketball, like hockey, is just a game. What makes the Raptors interesting is the fans. For better or worse, they are the future of Toronto and the GTA. No wonder a trio of Canada’s most powerful politicians – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Toronto Mayor John Tory – all showed up to bask in the reflected glory of Monday’s victory rally. How telling it was, too, that the crowd cheered Trudeau and Tory and loudly booed Ford. What does this tell us about where we are headed as country, province and city? No one can say, but speculation will soon become a sport in its own right.