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The party that took over Maple Leaf Square in Toronto last April returns Wednesday night when the Raptors tip off to begin the NBA season.
Unfortunately last spring the post-season soirée ended too quickly with the Brooklyn Nets ousting Toronto in the first round of the playoffs with their best-of-seven series stretched to the final game.
(The Raptors also started a popular #WeTheNorth marketing effort that had the look and feel of a certain #WeAreWinter campaign but I digress, we’re all on Team Canada.)
This year, the Raptors return with heightened expectations behind a fan base that made its mark on the nation at the intersection of York and Bremner, colloquially re-dubbing Maple Leaf Square to Jurassic Park in honour of the Raptors name.
To take the Square – if unofficially – from a name more closely associated with hockey’s Maple Leafs is a big feat that, in a small way, suggests the future of Canadian sport may not be as hockey-centric as its present and certainly its past.
With the Toronto Maple Leafs continually struggling for respectability, combined with a demographic shift in the Greater Toronto Area, the Raptors are well poised to represent the first choice for sports entertainment in Canada’s biggest city in the long term, if they capitalize on this organic momentum.
Take those emerging demographic numbers and add the reality that Canadian basketball stars are quickly becoming a prized article in the NBA, now there is a recipe for change.
According to Statistics Canada, regular organized basketball participation among kids five to 14 rose from 6% to 8% between 1992 and 2005. Hockey dropped from 12% to 11%. Soccer, at a staggering 20% and arguably best reflecting the demographic shift, was the only major sport to gain momentum in those years along with basketball. Its growth is undeniable. (If you’re a baseball fan, don’t look at those numbers.)
There is other research that suggests basketball among youth has already surpassed hockey:
Hockey will always be in the hearts and minds of Canadians and probably remain their top passion for foreseeable generations (see Olympic hockey viewership ratings), but Canada should be known for multiple popular team sports, not just one.
The NBA has already reached international audiences the National Hockey League can only dream of and Canadians should be salivating at the prospects of names like Andrew Wiggins, Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph and others joining that global conversation.
As Canada’s lone NBA team, the Raptors represent much more than Toronto and is welcoming to anyone who wants to embrace its culture. No matter where you are, if you see that partisan Raptors crowd dressed in purple and red to celebrate 20 years of NBA in Toronto at Jurassic Park on Wednesday night, you may just be catching a glimpse of the country’s sport future.
Note: Canadian basketball players Andrew Wiggins, Nik Stauskas and Tyler Ennis were selected in the first round of the NBA Entry Draft in 2014.