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THE PLIGHT OF THE RAPTORS -- AN INSIDE LOOK AT EXPANSION
Published December 13, 1994
Last year the NBA awarded the league's 27th franchise to Professional Basketball Franchise, Inc. of Toronto led by John Bitove, Jr. It was the first franchise granted outside the U.S., as the NBA planned this venture into Canada as the stepping stone to a more ambitious international expansion. But it hasn't been easy for the expansion Raptors. The NBA imposed an unprecedented sales mark -- 12,500 season-tickets to be sold by December 31 or the NBA will revoke franchise rights. This steep number, along with questionable moves by team management, has left many in the Toronto area skeptical that the new franchise has the ability to meet the deadline. Over the past week, THE SPORTS BUSINESS DAILY spoke with members of the Toronto media and a team official on the job facing the franchise in the coming weeks. THE NUMBER: The Raptors need more than 3,000 ticket sales in the next 19 days to meet the goal. A major reason the team has struggled is the lack of an arena. The Raptors will play their first two years at SkyDome, but they do not have a site on which to build a new facility for '97-98. Raptors Dir of Communication Tom Mayenknecht admitted the lack of an arena stadium has hurt sales, "the real question is how much, and that has been difficult to gauge." The TORONTO STAR's Jim Byers said the Raptors have "scared away buyers of lower-end tickets because people are afraid of the SkyDome." Byers also believes the team got off to a "bad start" by implementing a seat-licensing plan, that they have since dropped. Byers: "They still have that stigma on the seats. Ironically, they sold out their most expensive seats, but the cheaper ones have not been selling." Mayenknecht agreed: "Our biggest challenge has been to draw attention to the least expensive seats in the house, we have had no problem selling the high-end seats." THE MARKET: Did the Raptors misread their market? The TORONTO STAR's Jim Proudfoot said the team "couldn't have imagined that it would be such an ordeal" to create a fan base. Proudfoot: "There is undoubtably enormous interest in basketball among young people in Toronto, whether that translates into ticket sales is another matter. A 14-year old kid wearing a Shaquille O'Neal sweatshirt isn't necessarily a prospective customer for the season-tickets they need to sell." Mayenknecht notes the challenge: "Here we are nine months before opening tipoff and it is a new market to NBA basketball, not to basketball, but to the NBA. We have the challenge of not having as much high level basketball background to sell our fans on." WHERE'S ISIAH? The role of Isiah Thomas remains a point of controversy. Originally thought of as the front man in the operation, his focus has been on scouting and basketball operations and he has not taken a high profile during the ticket drive. Thomas is now on TV and radio, and the club last week unveiled a campaign featuring his plea to the fans to help bring a winner to Toronto. The TORONTO SUN's Craig Daniels said Thomas has "been taking some heat for being somewhat inconspicuous and that may in part account for why he has been more visible of late." But Mayenknecht counters that Thomas has been a key part of the process: "I would describe his role as multi-faceted." IS IT FAIR? When asked if the 12,500 mandate by the NBA was fair, Mayenknecht said the team is "going into arguably the most successful sports league on the planet, and we understand there is an initiation fee involved as a entry requirement." Stressing that the league will divide up its marketing and TV revenue to the Raptors, Mayenknecht said "the league needs to know that new franchises in a brand new business market have a strong core and one of the most important cores is the season-ticket base. And we understand that is our part of the deal" (THE DAILY). For today's update on the Raptors.