If homegrown superstar Drake hadn’t already put Toronto in the global spotlight like never before – complete with the creation of its now renowned nickname “The 6ix” – the Raptors have definitely turned eyes toward Canada’s largest city.
As the numbers reveal, the NBA champs also attracted people, and their dollars along with them, to Toronto throughout the duration of the dramatic playoff run.
From boosting tourism and the economy, to a shattering of socioeconomic divisions, the effects of the Toronto Raptors playoff series and win are definitely worthy of attention. But, how big of an impact does the win really have on the city moving forward?
Perhaps most notably (and most heartwarmingly), the playoffs united the country, as fans of all ages from coast to coast amalgamated across our home and native land to cheer on the team.
“The biggest takeaway was that if you give people something to cheer about, they’ll do it. If you offer them a place to come and cheer together, they will come,” said Toronto Mayor John Tory to Daily Hive. “Just the experience of being together, having someone to cheer for and having a place to do it makes everyone feel good and helps bring a big, complicated city together.
“As a bonus, the whole world saw that and in a world full of division and conflict they saw that there is another option. The Raptors big win will have a very long-lasting positive effect in that the Raptors fan base truly is the face of 21st century Toronto and now we know the joy of seeing people from every corner of a big city coming together to cheer on our team and our city.”
Of course, the celebrations weren’t limited to Toronto. “It’s impossible to measure the impact of the Raptors’ playoffs without talking about the impact it had on the psyche of Canadians,” said Jennifer Keesmaat, Toronto’s former Chief City Planner and recent mayoral candidate. “What was particularly special about this win is that it not only had an impact on the city and the region; it became part of the collective story of the country – not just Toronto.
“We saw people from all walks of life and from all geographies coming together and rallying around our team nationally. I was amazed following the win to be in Saskatchewan or Vancouver and see Raptors flags flying. That’s a pretty special thing that’s usually only achieved in countries through things like an Olympic games – all of us cheering for the same thing.”
In a city as diverse as Toronto, this strong sense of cohesion offers an important and impossible-to-ignore takeaway.
“Despite a lot of challenges we face as a city — racial inequality, social justice issues, rising levels of poverty — here at this critical moment in time, we came together and crossed all those boundaries under the banner of a shared opponent and a shared team,” said Keesmaat. “You can measure the hard numbers, but the impact on the psyche of the city of a winning team is very powerful.”
As Keesmaat highlights, even relatively small cities can have larger-than-life reputations as a result of some of their sports teams and local fans. “Think of Boston; Boston is a smaller city, but in part because of the legacy of its sports teams, it lives much larger in the American consciousness than a typical American mid-sized city would,” she said. “ I think that’s an important part of the story of the city as well.”
In terms of hard numbers, the ripple effects of the playoffs on the economy proved fruitful. Last week, StatsCan released figures that show the Raptors helped Canada’s economy during the month of May, contributing to increasing the GDP by 0.2% (something that was also boosted by construction and manufacturing). The economy grew more than economists expected during this timeframe, with a 0.5% increase in the arts and entertainment industry, and a 0.4% jump in accommodation and food services playing a notable role. These sectors include sporting event ticket sales, as well as attendance at TV screen-filled bars and restaurants across the country.
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According to credit and debit processing firm Moneris, transactions in Ontario bars and restaurants increased by 23% during Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals between the Raptors and the Milwaukee Bucks. In Toronto, this figure climbed as high as 76%. Most notably, however, in Vancouver, they peaked by a whopping 90% and 79% in Calgary, revealing the strength of a nationwide fan base. In terms of the live-action, with even modest playoff tickets selling for the cost of a year’s university tuition — and coveted courtside seats going for a cool $120,000 — the resulting economic boost isn’t entirely surprising.
Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) was as much of a winner as the Raptors were as a result of ticket sales – and they weren’t struggling to fill seats before the Raptors began to dominate headlines.
“Throughout the playoffs, [not only did] the Toronto Raptors sell out every game, but they in fact sold out 236 games in a row at Scotiabank Arena – a figure that dates back to November 11, 2014,” said Dave Haggith, senior director of Corporate Communications at MLSE.
The win, he says, will only amplify the demand. “Winning the first NBA championship in franchise history, and the first ever for a team outside of the United States, was not only a historic moment on the court, but it united the entire city and country in a way that has not been experienced before. The impact of the moment on the sport of basketball in Canada is also something that will be felt for generations,” said Haggith.
Naturally – and especially as excitement began to mount – the playoffs drew sports fans to Toronto from surrounding towns and cities across the globe. Everyone from Barack Obama and Richard Branson to Wayne Gretzky graced the Scotiabank Arena to take in the action. “Toronto saw the short-term benefits for hotels and restaurants and an influx of people experiencing the city. That included the official delegations like teams, media, league officials, and sponsors, as well as fans that wanted to be a part of the games and celebrations,” said Andrew Weir, Executive Vice President at Tourism Toronto.
“When you look at the media coverage that dominated the playoff run, what you saw truly captured Toronto at its best — the energy of Jurassic Park, the diversity of the city and fans, a buzzing city looking summery and warm. That kind of vibrancy captures attention and shifts perceptions, leading people to consider travelling here because they see something exciting.”
Riding this wave, the latest Tourism Toronto campaign called “Let Yourself In” celebrates the city’s diversity and features the Raptors and the team’s superfan Nav Bhatia – who became a celebrity in his own right during the playoff run – in all of their glory. Now that the playoffs are a distant memory, however, the question is whether the city’s shine will wear off in the tourism department – especially now that Raptors’ playoff superstar Kawhi Leonard wears another team’s jersey. Weir is hopeful it won’t; at least, not any time soon.
“The biggest impact on tourism comes from the exposure Toronto saw on the international stage. That’s where we hope to see the long-term tourism benefits with potential visitors deciding to come to Toronto that may not have considered this city before,” said Weir. “Toronto’s a city that sees 44 million visitors every year and they spend $9 billion while they’re here – it’s a huge economic driver. So the Raptors’ run came at a key time for the city. That kind of exposure is great for the city and it helps entrench Toronto’s place as the most visited destination in Canada.”
Of course, it’s too soon to measure the longer-term impacts of the Raptors’ win on tourism, but it will be telling to see whether there was indeed a spike in post-playoff summer tourism in 2019 compared to other years.
“In my view, Toronto is going to benefit in a number of areas – hosting opportunities, tourism, merchandising, etc.,” said Richard Powers, a professor and National Academic Director at U of T’s Rotman School of Management. “And I believe that the economic benefits will extend up to three to five years based on what has happened – Toronto has a good place in the minds of those looking for an exciting and vibrant place to visit. If Toronto gets further attention in those years – if the Raptors can win again, or in the case of the Leafs, just win once – that will extend the benefits.”
In addition to attracting tourists, thrusting Toronto into the spotlight helps the city’s cause as a contender to host large-scale events. “Every year, various sporting governance bodies are making choices as to where to hold their national trials, competitions and games,” said Powers. “The City of Toronto regularly sends representatives to these meetings and conferences to drum up interest in hosting these events in Toronto. Depending on the event, the economic impact can be significant.”
Of course, nothing is certain.
“In terms of the activity we saw during the playoffs, the kind of spending we saw in restaurants and sports bars and sports shops for merchandise is unlikely to be sustained,” said Robert Hogue, Senior Economist, Economic Research at RBC. “There may be some intangibles, however that could result in a longer lasting impact – for example, if it increases tourism because Toronto’s reputation has been enhanced as it’s been showcased over the playoffs. The Olympics, for example, have drummed up interest in certain cities by giving them visibility. These are intangibles, however, and only time will tell whether Toronto tourism will be affected.”
The learning experiences
Naturally, some of the lasting impacts of the Raptors’ win involve learning experiences. Logistically, some may say Toronto’s ability to manage the win and its byproducts was far from a slam-dunk. Among inevitable traffic woes throughout the playoff series, the celebratory parade literally halted the city for a majority of a Monday, with traffic at a complete standstill.
While things ran “as well as could be hoped” on public transit, according to the TTC’s senior communications specialist, Stuart Green, the overcrowding led to the temporary closure of Dundas, Osgoode, and Queen stations as the TTC transported an estimated 2.1 million riders.
“We always look at events like this as an opportunity to learn and do better,” said Green. “We used the foundations of the plan we have for events like New Year’s Eve and Nuit Blanche. However, since this was on a weekday and not a weekend, we had the additional challenge of moving parade-goers and regular weekday commuters. The next time Toronto wins a major sports trophy, we’ll be even better prepared.”
Part of the issue – in addition to having mere days to plan for such a spectacular event – was the city simply wasn’t set up to handle such a large-scale win.
“Ironically, I think that the fact that the parade was kind of botched was because we were overwhelmed with our own success. So many people wanted to be a part of celebrating this moment in a public space,” said Keesmaat. “That provides a really good clue into the historic psyche of Toronto, which is that we haven’t quite been ready to grow up and win. We’ve never been quite ready to be a player on the global stage, and – of anything – it should be a clue that city needs to be more aspirational in seeing the role we are going to play in the future of the country and plan for that.
“The parade is a great metaphor for that; we weren’t ready.”
To be truly prepared for our success, Keesmaat said this means things like (finally) investing in a world-class transit system and in strategic spaces. “Toronto is a phenomenal city with phenomenal opportunities. As we continue to grow we need to have the transit that will support that growth. We also need to invest in spaces that can accommodate the rapid gentrification we are seeing in the city. We need to shift our thinking to being a real modern, sophisticated global city.”
In the TTC’s defence, it has been awhile since Toronto has experienced a winning team; in the years since the Blue Jays’ back-to-back World Series wins nearly three decades ago, Toronto has only increased in density. So, we really didn’t know what to expect. What we definitely learned (perhaps the hard way) was that the city – and the country – is busting at the seams with basketball fans of all ages and from all walks of life.
Given this reaction, it’s only natural to ask: Could we be shifting away from hockey as the nation’s most popular sport? Perhaps the way the playoffs redefined basketball is the most impactful byproduct in the long-term. The playoffs attracted the eager attention of people who weren’t basketball fans before. It undoubtedly inspired countless young children to take up basketball; a sport that’s much more affordable and inclusive than hockey – the latter of which many parents struggle to have enough money for in cities like Toronto thanks to the city’s sky-high costs of living.
If you think about it, can hockey still be called the national sport of Canada if millions of marginalized youth can’t afford to participate? On the other hand, everyone has access to a basketball and net. Toronto mom Julia Fenton has always encouraged basketball over hockey for her two sons and points to the fact that our national sport isn’t even taught in school gym class. While her now 13-year-old son used to “feel left out” because all of his friends played hockey, now that the Raptors are all the rage, his focus on basketball has been vindicating in an “ok, maybe my mom was onto something way,” said Fenton.
“As a mom, I like basketball and soccer. You don’t need to rent ice time to practice; you don’t need to take out another mortgage to pay for equipment and leagues,” she said. “I love that you can play in your own driveway or schoolyard and the incidences of concussions and injuries aren’t nearly as bad.” Perhaps the biggest long-term impact will come from the interest in basketball from children like Fenton’s.
“The Raptors playoff run and championship win have already ramped up interest in basketball,” said Mayor Tory. “I had more than one friend say they had never watched a whole basketball game before this year and now it’s a must watch sport for them. So yes, more kids will take basketball up but it will never replace hockey as “our game” because you can’t fundamentally change the DNA of your country and that will be even more true after the Leafs win the Stanley Cup!”
In the meantime, judging from the lingering buzz and Raptors gear-clad Canadians, it’s clear that Toronto is still basking in the Raptors’ celebratory glory – at least, for now.
After all, some of the world’s most famous faces have nothing but love for Toronto – and they’re not afraid to be vocal about it. “Don’t understate the impact of a Charles Barkley saying that he loves Toronto on national TV,” said Powers. And, of course, we’ll always have the priceless pride and promotion offered by Drake, who practically became an honourary team member during the Raptors’ playoff run.