THE PLIGHT OF THE RAPTORS -- AN INSIDE LOOK AT EXPANSION
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.