SBJ/March 24-30, 2014/Franchises

Raptors find success off the court as well

The Toronto Raptors’ rise in the standings is paralleling, if not fueling, off-court gains being made by the club this spring — with additional strides expected in the coming weeks.

The resurgent Raptors have already sold out more games than in all of last season.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
Sitting as the No. 3 team in the Eastern Conference as of last week, the Raptors are almost assured of returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2008, ending one of the longest active postseason droughts in the NBA. The rise hasn’t yet been reflected at the turnstiles — the team’s 18,000-per-game average is roughly flat with last year’s mark — but Raptors officials say they could see an increase by season’s end. Additionally, they’ve already seen gains with TV viewership and sponsorship revenue.

Gate revenue is up 7 percent for the season, in part because of an average 2.5 percent increase in ticket prices. But the club also had posted 17 sellouts on the season as of last week (with eight home games remaining), compared with 14 for all of last season.

“We are selling better-quality seats,” said Dave Hopkinson, chief commercial officer for Raptors owner Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment.

Television viewership for the team, the NBA’s only Canadian club, spans the country and is up 25 percent to an average of 150,000 viewers a game for broadcasts on TSN and SportsNet, Hopkinson said.

Sponsorship revenue also is on the rise. The club benefits from playing in North America’s fourth-largest market and leveraging corporate deals from its fellow MLSE-owned teams, the NHL’s Maple Leafs and MLS’s Toronto FC.

Leiweke has no regrets over his ‘losers’ comment

LEIWEKE
    Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment President and CEO Tim Leiweke generated controversy when he took the job in Toronto last year and called MLSE’s teams “losers,” but he said last week he had no regrets.
     “Our teams, our players, our coaches, our fans are now talking about winning,” said Leiweke, speaking during the opening panel at the 2014 IMG World Congress of Sports. “[The comment] provoked a conversation and a mindset they were afraid to have in the past.”
    In addition to the Raptors’ surge in the NBA, the Maple Leafs are in the hunt for an NHL postseason berth, and Toronto FC posted a victory to start its 2014 season earlier this month. “It’s good we set the tone,” Leiweke said.
    While the former AEG executive’s move from Los Angeles to Toronto hasn’t been without its hiccups, he joked that the biggest learning curve has been the weather. “You’ve been outside today, right?” he said, alluding to the sunny, 70-degree weather in Dana Point, Calif., where the conference took place. “It’s snowing in Toronto.”
    Outside of that, he said he failed to fully appreciate how large the Toronto market was before he took the job. He underestimated it. It’s “uniquely poised … to do some remarkable things going forward,” he said. “I had no idea it was that big, that dynamic, a marketplace.”
                                                 — Tripp Mickle
“There is a lag in sponsorship, but we have moved up from 11th in the league last year to seventh in the league this year in sponsorship revenue,” Hopkinson said.

Much of the success for Toronto this season has come since December, when the team traded away Rudy Gay to Sacramento as part of a seven-player trade. It’s a deal that revamped the Raptors’ roster, coming at a time when the team was 7-12 on the court. Since then, the Raptors have gone 30-17, surging to the top of the Atlantic Division and surpassing last year’s 34 victories with a month to go in the season.

It’s created talk of not only playoffs but also next season in Toronto. To date, the Raptors have sold 500 new full-season-ticket packages for next season, and they expect that number to grow as they package this year’s anticipated postseason appearance with the marketing of next year’s season tickets.

“We are very pleased,” Hopkinson said. “The number [of new fulls] last year was inconsequential.”

The activity comes as the Raptors are set to complete their rebranding efforts: A new logo and new team colors are expected by April 1.

The effort stems from MLSE President and CEO Tim Leiweke, hired last year, working to overhaul the Raptors franchise since coming to Toronto. The initiative has included Toronto-born rapper/entertainer Drake being added as a team ambassador.

Leiweke, speaking last week at the 2014 IMG World Congress of Sports, said a name change was even in his early plans for the club. “Yeah, I don’t like Barney the dinosaur,” Leiweke said, “but I got outvoted.”

Hopkinson would not disclose any specifics about what will be seen in the weeks ahead other than to say, “We are into the home stretch in making some final decisions on the team’s feel and logo.”

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