Ricciuti: Analysis Of The Toronto Raptors Fan Base
Basketball is one of the most popular sports in North America, and even though there is a heavy American presence, the Toronto Raptors strive to represent a true Canadian identity. The Toronto Raptors, established in 1995, currently represent the National Basketball Association’s only present Canadian team in a league filled with twenty-nine other American teams (NBA, 2016). Along with the Vancouver Grizzlies (later relocated to Memphis), the Raptors were apart of an expansion, which aimed to bring NBA basketball into the untapped Canadian market. The team has had it’s struggles, but over the last three seasons the Raptors organization has developed into a fast-paced exciting team that has not only achieved success on the hardwood, but also revitalized their brand identity through effective marketing strategies. As a result, the Toronto Raptors fan base continues to grow nation wide, allowing for fans across the country to call the Raptors “Canada’s basketball team.” Even though the team itself is made up of various players from different ethnic backgrounds, the Canadian identity is prevalent with some of the most passionate fans in the NBA supporting them. This essay will attempt to examine the Toronto Raptors fan base and what steps the organization has taken to ensure the successful uprising of Canadian fans for their beloved NBA team.
Overview Of The Raptor’s Audience
As previously stated, the Raptors represent the only Canadian basketball franchise currently in the NBA, giving fans across the country a reason to cheer for a Toronto-based sports team even if they are not from that geographic region. In the past few years the Raptors have begun to change their identity to represent all their Canadian based fans with a new slogan entitled “We The North.” This campaign blew up in the NBA, with teams all across the league recognizing that Toronto was now a force to be reckoned with after making the playoffs for the past three years. It not only made competing teams aware that Toronto was rejuvenating their team with roster additions and logo changes, but the Raptors fans seem to have emerged out of no where to create one of the best home atmosphere arenas in the NBA. The success of the Raptors on the court proved to spark a passion for all the hungry basketball fans in Toronto, suburbs around Ontario, and eventually other big Canadian cities such as Vancouver and Calgary. Furthermore, the Raptors even began sectioning off a portion of the street outside the Air Canada Centre known as Maple Leaf Square. This allowed for hundreds of fans to come out to support the team by watching on a massive screen attached to the arena, and would later be dubbed “Jurassic Park.” Fans of the Toronto Raptors have clearly shown a resurgence of energy and passion in the past few years, led by the hunger of wanting to be recognized by the other twenty-nine American based teams.
The nature of the Raptors fan base circulates around the various geographic locations in Canada, with the majority coming from the Toronto area and the Greater Toronto Area. Raptors fans are active and driven to support their team to make the playoffs year after year, to hopefully have a chance at the NBA championship. In terms of cultural competency, Raptor fans must have an interest in sports (basketball in particular), understand the rules of the game, and have a desire to support their hometown, whether that be Toronto or Canada as a whole (Shin, 2016). In addition, some fans may have a slight advantage over others of how much knowledge of the game they have based on the amount of basketball they watch, if they have actually played the sport, and if they understand the mechanics behind trades, competition and other analytics. The broad range of factors that apply to the Raptors fan base results in various types of fan culture, with some being more hardcore and passionate than others. However Toronto itself is a very diverse city, and having fans of all ages, races, and genders shows how representative the Raptor fans are of their team and country.
Uses & Gratification:
The uses and gratification theory proposes how the Raptors fulfill the specific needs of passionate fans, and what the fans are physically doing with the “We The North” campaign (Staiger, 2005). This theory also claims that the reception of the Raptors is largely based on a common fan base that has the same goals, desires, and beliefs of the team being successful (Laughey, 2007). With fans being so interactive with the “We The North” campaign, watching the Raptors in the regular season and playoffs gives fans the ability to fulfill particular needs in their individual lives. The overall assumption of this theory is that the audience is using the media to some effect to fulfill a need, instead of the media using the audience (Laughey, 2007). Escapism suggests that the fans of the Raptors consume their products and watch their games to escape from the ordinary realities they face on a regular basis (Shin, 2016). In addition, the large fan base and consumer culture that the Raptors have created around Canada has allowed fans to create social interactions with each other when it comes to the common theme of Raptors basketball (Fiske, 2014). Another recent addition to the Raptors franchise that affects the way audiences interacts with the team was the addition of hip-hop superstar Drake as the team’s global ambassador.
The addition of Canadian native Drake as the global ambassador created a buzz around the league, and resulted in attracting fans of Drake’s music to merge them with the ongoing support of the “We The North” campaign. With everything clicking at the right time for the Raptors, the team was able to promote their own brand in conjunction with Drake and his blossoming OVO brand. Other fruitful business ventures stemming from this partnership includes limited edition clothing, Drake themed nights at select games, and an alternate OVO themed jersey. With Drake’s influence and the team having success on the court, the Raptors have seemingly shed the former image of being a laughing stock and now have a sleek hip-hop influence about their team and fan culture. Drake’s influence on the Raptors allowed fans to have a personal identity with Toronto, proving that if an artist from Toronto can become a global icon, their team also has a chance of proving they are a dominant force, being the only team north of the American border. Putting Toronto on the map in terms of all the stereotypes the city and Canada have received translate over to the team and fan culture, as previous fans were not proud of the Raptors franchise. The “We The North” campaign has now created the sense of belonging to a team, and formed a basketball fan community with fans representing the “6,” which is commonly referred to as Toronto by Drake himself. By wearing the Raptors jerseys, supporting the “We The North” campaign, and by wearing Drake influenced Raptor-OVO gear, fans now have a common goal they can band together to cheer for while the Raptors are successful.
In terms of situated culture, almost all Raptor games are structured around a time in which an average consumer can either go down to a game at the Air Canada Centre or watch/listen on TV, radio and smart phones. To maximize fan culture and ensure the NBA makes suitable profit, Raptor games (like the rest of the NBA) are played on evenings during weekdays or afternoon times on weekends to ensure fans can support their team after work or school. In addition, the evening games also allows fans across Canada from the east and west coast to tune in or listen via radio broadcast to Raptor games, further proving how interconnected the fan base really is.
There are various types of audience reactions when it comes to the Toronto Raptors fan base on a game-by-game basis. Since the Raptors have such a diverse range of fans, it is hard to judge how active or how passive audiences really are. Although it is hard to create fan-fiction and have a participatory culture for a sports team, there is no question that the Raptor fandom is something that Toronto sports have not witnessed in a long time. The Raptor fandom the past couple years have always been supportive, but fans seem to increase their intensity come playoff time with the concept of “Jurassic Park” outside the ACC. The example of fans packing the arena during regular season games, and even outside during playoffs shows how committed they are to making the Raptors games an important event. “This melding of the [sports] team or [music] performer and the fan into a productive community minimizes differences between artist and audience and turns the text into an event, not an art object (Fiske, 2014).” The value of packing the stands makes the experience of the game better for the audience, players, and viewers watching over various types of mediums compared to having no fans in the stands at all.
Although it is hard to pinpoint the ways in which audiences are active and passive within the Raptors fan base, they interact in several different ways throughout the season to ensure there is a participation culture. Throughout the season, audiences can interact with the Raptors over the various social media accounts the Raptors hold to win prizes. The Raptors have numerous social media accounts on platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram that gets updated on a daily basis for fans to interact with. In addition, Toronto hosted the all-star game in 2016 for the first time outside of the United States in NBA history, which allowed fans of the league to vote for the starting line-up for the all-star game. Fans could tweet and post on social media accounts using #NBAvote with the name of the specific player they wanted up to ten times a day (NBA, 2016). This is where the “We The North” campaign played a big role in assisting the Raptor’s own Kyle Lowry to earn a spot as a starter on the Eastern conference all-star team, as fans from all over the country voted him in.
Based on levels of activity, fan culture varies between hardcore fans and fans that just tune in to watch for fun every now and then. A fan from Jurassic Park during game 1 of the playoffs this year stated that with no NHL teams in the playoffs, the Raptors have been the team to watch and “It got the entire country into sports (King, 2016)”. He also stated that “It means everything, there’s never been a better time to be a Raptors fan than now (King, 2016).” For personal experiences, I would include myself as a hardcore Raptor fan, as I try to watch as many of the 82 season games as I can, and go down to Jurassic Park during playoffs. Finally, fans that stay active and engaged with the Raptors social media accounts and participate in other basketball related activities such as fantasy basketball are more likely to have a passion that regular Raptor fans would not have.
Overall, it is clear that Toronto Raptor fans are extremely diverse, and can range from the everyday average fan, to a hardcore fan that tries to watch all 82-season games. In addition, Raptor fans participate as much with the team as they can through social media, events, and buying tickets to their home/away games. Raptors fans can also use their team for different purposes based on the type of fan including social interaction, personal identity, and escapism. Finally, the Raptor fan base will continue to grow and support their team to hopefully bring an NBA championship to Canada’s lone pro basketball team.