On February 18, 2013, I wrote about how inconsequential the Toronto Raptors are in the big scheme of the NBA. I discussed how Terrance Ross basically won the Sprite Slam Dunk Contest as a member of the witness protection program. At the time, I referred to the Raptors as a statistic. They exist so that New York or Boston have a team to play on their way to Los Angeles. After all, merely existing so that your rivals can make more money is not an enviable spot for any business to be in.
Later this year, once MLSE hired Tim Leiweke, I outlined the Raptors as his biggest opportunity for sporting growth at MLSE. I stated that MLSE would hire a new world renowned executive and try and grow the Raptors brand by winning basketball. This move would also help future Raptors who end up being All-Stars or participate in league events like the dunk contest, or play for their country. However, one thing that I never thought of was to host the NBA All-Star Game.
But, as reported by the Toronto Sun earlier this week, the Raptors will host the 2016 NBA All-Star Game as part of their 20th anniversary celebrations. Furthermore, the All-Star Game is expected to be a part of a larger rebranding effort by the team. For the Raptors and MLSE, this is fantastic news.
When a team rebrands or undergoes a relaunch, there are normally two scenarios. One, they announce the new name and logo and do some fan appreciation type stuff, put together a meet and greet with the owner or executive staff, and then offer some games at a discount to reinvigorate the fan base. The other option is to host a signature event to launch the rebrand around. If a team has a once in a generation player like Lebron James, the rebrand can be based around a home opener. Otherwise, it is based around an outdoor game, or an event like the All-Star Game.
For MLSE and the Raptors, option 1 was not wise. The Raptors already do well in attendance. They are well supported relative to other teams in the NBA. So discounting their tickets to get fans reinvigorated would not achieve any reasonable goals. Additionally, because MLSE is still a faceless corporation, there aren’t many executives the average fan wants to meet (you could argue MLSE is getting more bland). Thus, they needed option 2. They needed an All-Star Game, the NBA equivalent to an outdoor game, or the once in a lifetime star.
And the All-Star Game is exactly what they got. Now the team can launch the rebrand, hook in new sponsors with the lure of an All-Star Game, and entice fans to get Raptors’ ticket packages. It is a great way to excite a fan base that for the entire lifespan of the team has had minimal things to get excited about. It has the potential to be the ultimate tribute to fans that have had little to cheer about. The game itself can take on multiple roles.
For the Raptors, it will be a rebirth. And it is an enormous opportunity for MLSE. By 2016, the team should be a fringe playoff team and they will have some type of new logo and name. However, from a basketball standpoint, there won’t be much reason to talk about the team. But with an All-Star Game, regardless of how good the team is, commentators will have to talk about the city and team briefly whenever they promote the All-Star Game. Thus, giving the team guaranteed national exposure.
Another important part of this is that it will give the Raptors a chance to really show elite NBA players how great the city is, and maybe get them thinking about moving their careers to Toronto. Granted, that is a wishful thought, however it will give the players a better taste of Toronto. Thus, if the Raptors are ever in a recruiting situation, they will not resemble Siberia as much as they do now. Take note, for the 2016-17 season (offseason after their All-Star Game), the Raptors have no salaries committed (Jonas Valanciunas’s qualifying offer will be extended, Terrance Ross has a qualifying option but that is not a guarantee for renewal, and Demar has a player option). They could use this All-Star Game as a subtle recruitment drive. However, while this is more of a dream scenario for the suffering Raptors’ fans, there is another way this All-Star Game will be key for basketball in this country.
One can safely assume that the All-Star Game will be promoted as “Canada’s All Star Game”. Surely, the connection with Basketball Canada and the Raptors will find some way into this event. Thus, getting the Senior Men’s National Team a bit more exposure, and hopefully raise more funds. Not to mention, if all goes well, Canada will qualify for the Olympics that same year. The All-Star Game could potentially be the kickoff to that whole movement. With casual fans talking about basketball in the city, the mainstream media discussing the barrels of potential that Canada has on the hardwood, and this could be Andrew Wiggins coming out party as it will be his sophomore season. With the potential of people talking about basketball in this country, Andrew Wiggins doing big things at the game, and then eventually leading Canada to its first Olympic basketball tournament since Steve Nash and the heartbreaking 2000 team, this has all the makings of the most important weekend in Canadian basketball history.
For most NBA cities, the All-Star Game is a nice reward for the fans. For the Raptors, the game becomes so much more. For so long the team’s fan base felt like they were an NBA afterthought. Additionally, it could be the beacon for all things basketball in this country. The Raptors are a unique NBA occurrence, in many ways for unfortunate reasons. Thus, it is fitting that the All-Star Game becomes so much more important for the franchise. It buys the team a few more seasons before the fans clamour for real success and not just organizational success. It allows the national program to promote itself, and it validates an established franchise with a fan base that is always seeking validation. For Canadian basketball fans, the countdown is on.