The Toronto Raptors’ transformation from forgotten team to one of the NBA’s most popular franchises reaches its final phase on Thursday when they make their first-ever NBA Finals appearance against the reigning champion Golden State Warriors.
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Led by superstar Kawhi Leonard and celebrity ambassador Drake, the Raptors’ championship run came after years of gradual on-court improvement that allowed Toronto to creep toward the forefront of the NBA landscape. A passionate, engaged fan base, often seen at the Raptors’ standing-room-only “Jurassic Park” outdoor viewing party, has fueled a steady rise in the team’s valuation, attendance and revenue stream.
While a boost to the Raptors’ financial prospects is easily linked to the team’s strong play in recent years, a multipronged business strategy has helped turn Toronto into an unlikely meeting ground for basketball and pop culture. By embracing Drake, who is a fixture at home games, and the team’s Canadian roots through their “We The North” rallying cry, the Raptors have parlayed their tight-knit fan community into a lucrative operation, according to Blake Lawrence, co-founder of sports marketing firm Opendorse.
“Toronto’s already a world-class city — Canada’s a media and business hub and the fastest-growing city in North America,” Lawrence told FOX Business. “But the team’s location makes them different — it’s the league’s only Canadian franchise. The Raptors saw this as an opportunity — they’re not just Toronto’s team. They’re Canada’s team.”
While NBA franchise values have spiked across the board in recent years, the Raptors have experienced notable growth. The team’s valuation jumped to $1.7 billion in 2019, up 20 percent compared to last year and up from just $520 million in 2014, when the NBA signed its current $24 billion media rights deal, according to Forbes. The team’s overall revenue ($275 million) and operating income ($76 million) each ranked among the league’s top 10.
Canada on the rise
A strong 2018-19 campaign that saw Leonard, a former San Antonio Spurs, team with longtime point guard Kyle Lowry and head coach Nick Nurse to post the NBA’s second-best record fueled strong returns from the team’s fan base. Raptors’ home games drew the league’s fourth-best attendance, while broadcasts on Canadian sports networks saw a 29 percent increase in viewership among Canadian audiences. The NBA’s merchandise sales in Canada grew 26 percent and set a record.
The Raptors’ growing success has generated interest from corporate sponsors including Ford, Air Canada and ScotiaBank, who pay a record $40 million per year for naming rights to the team’s arena, which also houses the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“The NBA is the most international of the North America sport leagues, so it was only a matter of time before it succeeded in Toronto,” said Jonathan Jensen, a sports sponsorship expert and assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Drake leads the way
The Raptors’ roster may be responsible for getting the team to the NBA Finals, but no figure has been more central to its rise in popularity than Drake. A Toronto native, the rapper has served as a global brand ambassador for the Raptors since 2013.
Aside from his promotional role with the team, Drake is a vocal presence at the Raptors’ home games, where his courtside seat is just steps away from the team’s bench. The Raptors drew criticism this postseason as Drake sparred with opposing stars such as Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers, and Milwaukee Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer publicly criticized the rapper’s antics after he was spotted giving Nurse a shoulder massage during a timeout in the Eastern Conference finals.
The Raptors declined to comment on whether they have spoken to Drake or the league about the situation, but said his role with the team is an honorary, unpaid position. Regardless, Drake’s fiery support on the sideline has resonated with local fans and gone viral on social media throughout the playoffs.
“Executives around the league might bemoan Drake’s courtside antics, but you can bet every franchise wishes they had an ambassador like him,” Lawrence said. “He’s the Jack Nicholson or Spike Lee of this generation’s basketball fans — just with a bigger microphone.”
The Raptors will host the first two games of the 2019 NBA Finals against the Steph Curry-led Warriors, who have won three of the last four NBA championships. After that, the series shifts back to California.
Game 1 tips off on Thursday night a 9 p.m. ET on ABC.