Now that there’s been a few days to let the Toronto Raptors game 7 heartbreaker sink in, the time has come to not only reflect on the year that was, but look forward to the future as well. When it comes to the facet of fan support, there’s no denying that Canada’s lone NBA franchise made some serious strides this season.
Despite supporting somewhat of a mediocre team for more than a few tough years, Raptor fans have made it clear that they’d still be willing to come out to show their appreciation. Looking back at attendance stats since the 2008-09 campaign shows that Toronto has averaged the 14th highest number of spectators when it comes to ranking teams in the league between back then and right now (2013-14). While this isn’t a very compelling piece of data, the fact remains: these fans didn’t have much to cheer for, but they still showed up. Outside of players making spotty appearances to participate in NBA All Star Weekend events (whether in competitions or in the game itself), there wasn’t much to really justify the amount of attention that the team was able to garner during the dark half-decade that preceded the 2013-14 season.
This year, it seemed like everything changed overnight. What began with a shaky 6-12 start ended as a franchise record-setting 48-34 season for Toronto’s beloved team. Toronto returned to the top-10 in game attendance, and the Raptor faithful were given so many things to smile about. The funny thing is that many fans, analysts, and experts viewed this as a transitional “tanking” year— especially when Rudy Gay and others were sent away in a season-defining trade back in early December. Kyle Lowry was rumoured to be the next big piece to be removed, but it didn’t happen. Instead of faltering without the swingman perceived as the “star” player, the team immediately gelled, showing that “addition by subtraction” could actually be a viable option in some cases.
What makes this so special is the way that the city has gotten behind this team’s sudden improvement. We all know that Toronto is a hockey town, but the 2013-14 season shed a ton of light on the re-discovered goldmine of basketball fans that actually enjoy on-court occurrences more than the on-ice ones. Coupled with the unfortunate late-season collapse of the Toronto Maple Leafs, the “uprising” of the Toronto Raptors has recently gained somewhat of a spotlight around here. The never-quit attitude that the Raptors have played with all season has been idolized by fans in this market, and it’s gotten to the point where casual spectators are beginning to view the “heart” of the basketball team as something in which the other teams in the city lack.
The “best kept secret” in this sports culture is no longer classified. Even though the Raptors return to the postseason ended in a first round series loss to the Brooklyn Nets, there’s been enough proof put forth for one to assume that something is brewing here – something that these basketball fans haven’t seen before, or at the very least, haven’t seen in a long time. That’s why the “#WeTheNorth” and “#NorthernUprising” campaigns have worked so well.
Not only are the people within the environment noticing something special, but people from an external standpoint are starting to see what they’ve been neglecting too. For a bit over two weeks during the first round of this year’s postseason, Toronto was a sight that basketball fans from all over just had to witness.
Fans packed the ACC for all four home games in the seven game series, and thousands more filled Maple Leaf Square to watch the Raptors battle the Nets on a remarkable 30-by-50 foot screen to show their support – even if the team was playing away from Toronto.
Will this mean that the Raptors will be getting more coverage in the United States in the foreseeable future? Maybe. Will this mean that the team will be getting more support from the Canadians who are now supposedly watching them? I sure hope so.
With this being said, the bar that has been set shouldn’t be hitting a plateau already. I hope that it continues to raise. It’s a known fact that the basketball fan support north of the border is a real thing now. There’s no excuse why the Toronto Raptors shouldn’t have a starter in the NBA All Star Game next season, and definitely the season after that – when this great city hosts NBA All Star Weekend. This is Canada’s only NBA team. There’s no reason why fans should complain if deserving Raptor players get snubbed under this player selection format in place. There are more than enough people to vote Toronto’s players into the big game, so why not?
The next challenge is to prove that this “Northern Uprising” won’t just be a short-lived segment of Toronto Raptors history. The tools are in place to keep growing this movement. So far, the fans are off to a great start. It’s important to not allow this shift in team adoration to simply fade away. With Masai Ujiri and Tim Leiweke at the helm not settling for anything less than success, there is reason for optimism. I believe that the experience of this year’s playoff appearance was only a taste of things to come.