The All-Stars Are Coming
Photo: Mauricio Calero
Preparing a city for NBA All-Star Weekend is like preparing your child for his or her first date. You help get the kid dressed up nice, you set some boundaries and expectations, plus you hope like hell that you’ve done a good job raising this person. How the date goes is on them. In this case, Dan Mackenzie, NBA Canada’s Managing Director, is the parent. He’s ushered the NBA north of the border to where it is today, and what a job he’s done. As they prepare for the final stretch leading up to the first All-Star game outside of the US, it’s certain that this will be the hottest February on record in Toronto.
The Raptors Arrival and 20 years of the NBA in Canada
Looking at the groundwork laid with the arrival of the Raptors in 1995, how far has the NBA, and game of basketball in general, come in Canada in the last 20 years?
From 1995 until now, this moment right now is such an amazing to be be involved in the NBA, especially in Canada.
To have the All Star game in Toronto couldn’t happen at a better time for Canada, especially with 2016 being the 125th anniversary of the game of Basketball. The game was invented by a Canadian, James Naismith, but you also have a Raptors team that is, for the last couple of years, making great strides on the court. They’re always going to be a big drive for basketball in Canada and the We The North campaign really cemented their status as the country’s basketball team.
There’s also two other big trends that we feel are really pushing the game forward across the nation.
Firstly, there’s been this great influx of Canadian players to the NBA in recent years. This year, there’s a total of 12 Canadians on NBA rosters on opening night, which is the second only to the US. Not to mention, Canadians are making an impact on the court with guys like Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett going number one overall in the draft for two straight years. Then you’ve got guys like Corey Joseph and Tristan Thompson who are winning or representing their teams in the Championships and playing big roles too. The talent is awesome.
Secondly, basketball in Canada right now is on the right side of a lot of immigration trends. When you look at where most new Canadians are coming from — India and China predominantly — they’re coming from countries that already have a deep passion for the game. This has helped drive the growth of basketball to a great degree. When people come from these countries that already have 300+ million basketball fans, they embrace our programming, the game and their place as fans.
What have been some of the key challenges in that time?
The truth is, it’s taken some time to grow the game into a viable sport for corporate Canada. But we have had a lot of recent success. This year we’re really starting to see the impact with big companies like Bank of Montreal and Miller Genuine Draft doing NBA-specific creative, which is a great sign that basketball is a strong way to reach consumers. That said, I think the biggest opportunity for NBA Canada is getting people to embrace the game that is long-lasting. The path we see to this is really embracing families. One of our big focuses right now is on our recent launch of the Junior NBA, which is all geared towards getting young kids to pick up a basketball and join an organization to play the game. What we know is that if you’re engaged in the game and play the game, not just the kids but the parents too, than you’re likely to be a fan of the game for a long time.
The last piece to the growth of the game has really been the star power that Canadians are starting to show in the NBA. In the past, there’s really only been two guys that Canadians could look to as their NBA heroes: Steve Nash and Vince Carter. I know that if you were to poll the current 12 Canadians in the NBA, they’d probably all say their favourite player would be one of those two. Now we’ve got so much talent, like Andrew Wiggins, Tristan Thompson, Corey Joseph and Anthony Bennett, who have really upped the star power and give Canadians playing the game more people to look up to and emulate.
The Raptors today and the All-Star Game
Toronto is playing host to the NBA All-Star game in 2016. What does the arrival of this major event mean for fans, businesses, tourism and the Canadian basketball community?
From an economic perspective, the projected impact to the local economy will be north of $100 million being brought to the GTA, which is phenomenal.
For fans, they’re going to have an opportunity to be involved in the weekend, and while there may be too much demand and limited capacity to attend the main events on Saturday and Sunday, there are a bunch of other great places where they can interact with the stars of the game. In particular, on the Friday of All-Star Weekend at Ricoh Coliseum there will be the NBA Celebrity All-Star game, as well as the Rising Stars Challenge held at the ACC. On Saturday, fans will also have a chance to watch the All-Stars practice.
What do you feel is the current perception of Toronto as a basketball city, and Canada as a basketball country?
I think Canada is starting to be recognized as a country that loves the game of basketball. Just looking at the TV ratings as an example, over the past three years our viewership has more than doubled, so it’s clearly starting to pick up steam. Sponsorship is also continuing to grow as we’ve locked in six new sponsors in the last 12 months. When you look at the top talent that’s coming out of Canada, that really does a lot to further solidify our reputation across the league in terms of the game itself.
As well, a big driver for all of this has of course been the We the North campaign that the Raptors ran two seasons ago. Heading into the playoffs really crystalized a lot of Canadian’s feelings of being outsiders banding together. Now, as the Raptors continue to progress on the court, they’re on the right track on the court, and as we know, that’s the piece that really propels interest in the game.
Bottom line, I trust that the perception of basketball from outside of Canada is that we’re in a great place.
What can the fans and community expect as a takeaway from the All Star festivities?
One of our goals with All-Star 2016 is really to make it not just about a February weekend in Toronto, but instead a national event. To do this, we’re launching an All-Star fan initiative that will take place across the country to 14 cities and sponsored by Bell, BMO, Samsung, AIR MILES and the YMCA. The initiative has two key components, with the first being the Bell NBA All-Star challenge presented by AIR MILES. It is effectively a re-creation of NBA All-Star Saturday night, giving fans the chance to compete in the traditional All-Star skills contests like the Slam Dunk, 3 point contest and skills challenge. This also gives them a great opportunity to compete within their communities with the ultimate goal of winning a trip to come to All-Star Weekend in Toronto.
The second part of this initiative is the BMO NBA All-Star Kidsfest at the YMCA that is really focused on community celebrations, speaking to the benefits of the game. In all of these cases, we’ll bring an authentic NBA experience to these cities with NBA legends, dancers and personalities. This will really help to cement the impact of All-Star weekend throughout the country and will also go a long way in showcasing the Raptors and how great of a city Toronto is to be hosting such a monumental event.