The Cleveland Cavaliers 31-point blowout win last night notwithstanding, this year is a banner year for the Toronto Raptors and basketball in Canada.
The NBA’s Canadian experience has hardly been a success story. The league added the Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies for the 1995-1996 season. The Grizzlies would last only six seasons, winning only 28% (101–359) of their games—the lowest winning percentage for a franchise in NBA history. They finished last in five of their six seasons, were the worst team in the league three of those season and never made the playoffs or produced an All-Star. (Oh, and their uniforms sucked.)
Up until recently, Toronto has fared only slightly better. In their first 18 years, the Raptors won only 41% (581-847) of their games, making the playoffs only five times and winning only a single first round series. In the last three years, they have won 62% (153-93) of their games, won three consecutive Atlantic Division titles with each season surpassing their prior best record and finished fifth in the NBA in attendance. The Raptors not only have an All-Star for the first time since Chris Bosh left after the 2010 season, but they have two for the first time since 2001 with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan.
Timing is everything and the Raptors may have seized a golden opportunity. The very year that Canada has no team in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 1970, the Raptors have advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time. Is Canada taking note? Yes and no.
Basketball ranks 6th for youth activity in Canada behind swimming, soccer, dance, hockey and skating.
The NBA is the 5th most followed sport in Canada with 8 percent of Canadians watching the league closely, barely ahead of Major League Soccer. Most of this support is in Ontario and the Atlantic provinces. The NBA is on par with the CFL, NFL and MLB when it comes to the coveted 18-34 demographic.
The number of Canadians who have played in the NBA, twelve of whom are playing now including Raptor backup guard Corey Joseph
Average Canadian audience for Game 7 of the Raptors-Heat series. Making it the most watched sporting event of the week and most watched Raptors game ever in Canada. It broke the record of 1.53 million from two weeks earlier for the Raptors first round Game 7 win against the Pacers, but this was still less than the 1.57 million who watched the NHL draft lottery the night before.
The Raptors no doubt are benefiting from the absence of Canadian teams in the NHL playoffs, as last year’s first round matchup between Montreal and Ottawa average 3.2 million viewers. This is coming a long way from the NBA’s early days in Canada when Lionel Hollins, former Grizzlie assistant coast complained,
I remember coming into the press room and every TV in the press room had hockey on. There was not one TV that had an NBA game on. That was weird. There was no ESPN in Canada. TSN showed a lot of curling.
The Raptors are now valued at $980 million (14th overall). This is below the $3 billion value of the top NBA team (New York Knicks) and $1.25 billion team average, but above the median of $960-975 million.