Toronto Raptors: Finding true north
The NBA Finals has given the world a glimpse into Canada’s rabid support of the Toronto Raptors. Thousands of fans, many wearing “We The North” T-shirts and Kawhi Leonard jerseys, have packed Jurassic Park outside Scotiabank Arena this spring to cheer the Raptors during their run to the first Finals appearance in the franchise’s 24 years of existence.
It’s almost impossible to believe that only five years ago, Raptors executives briefly considered changing the team’s name as part of a brand overhaul intended to jump-start lackluster fan interest.
“That is how disconnected our brand was,” said Jeff Deline, chief revenue officer for the Raptors and its Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment parent.
Today, following the team’s drive through the postseason and into Canada’s collective sports consciousness, the state of the Raptors’ business in most areas is second in the 30-team NBA behind only the gilded Warriors. Team revenue is expected to grow between 15% and 20% this year from last season, and the Raptors’ business metrics now match revenue levels at the MLSE-owned Maple Leafs franchise that sit at or near the top of the NHL, team officials said.
“We The North” — names to know
Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment President and CEO Michael Friisdahl and Raptors President Masai Ujiri lead the Toronto Raptors’ business and basketball efforts, but they aren’t the only front-line executives at the organization leading the team’s growth. Here are three others:
Chief revenue officer
■ Deline is a veteran MLSE executive. He joined the company in 1997 and has negotiated some of the property’s biggest deals, including the 20-year, $800 million (Canadian) arena naming-rights deal with Scotiabank in 2017 as well as the Raptors’ jersey patch agreement with Sun Life and MLSE’s deal with MolsonCoors. He also helped bring the Raptors’ partnership with Drake and integrate his OVO retail line into the Raptors brand.
Chief marketing officer
■ Hosford has been an MLSE executive for 19 years and now leads all of the property’s branding efforts. She was a key architect of the Raptors’ successful “We The North” marketing campaign, and oversees all fan experience and marketing efforts for the Raptors as well as for the Toronto Maple Leafs, Toronto FC and the Toronto Argonauts.
Chief technology and digital officer
■ Teherany joined the company in June 2018 from Compass Group North America. He oversees MLSE’s digital and technology strategy, including its esports Raptors Uprising Gaming Club. In his first year with MLSE, Teherany has reorganized the company’s 100-member tech lab department while also relaunching the Raptors’ team app.
Winning on the court, of course, has driven the business. But the off-court turnaround began after the team created its wildly successful “We The North” branding campaign in 2014.
“From a business standpoint we were ranked 18th in the NBA,” Deline said of the team’s business prior to its rebranding effort. “Now we are on the Warriors’ tail. Before the ‘We The North,’ we didn’t have an identity.”
“We The North” was developed in cooperation with MLSE Marketing and Sid Lee Agency. It was going to be the basis of the team’s rebrand for the 2014-15 season, but when the Raptors won the Atlantic Division in 2013-14, it was put together in time for their first playoff appearance in six years. It caught fire immediately, as fans embraced the We The North anthem that celebrates the team’s Canadian culture while bringing a sense of swagger to the franchise.
“There have been a lot of fits and starts, but the Raptors brand wasn’t sticking until ‘We The North,’” said Brian Cooper, chairman of MKTG Canada, who also helped launch the Raptors in 1995.
Sponsorship revenue now ranks behind only the Warriors, according to Raptors executives. Game-day revenue and merchandise sales also rank near the top of the league. The team, which caps its season-ticket sales at 14,500 in the 19,800-seat Scotiabank Arena, now has a season-ticket waiting list of 7,000, which skyrocketed during this year’s playoffs. The team is renewing its season-ticket base at about 96% as it builds in a 5% price increase to drive revenue even higher. Sponsorship revenue has climbed 20% this past season, buoyed by the 20-year, $800 million (Canadian) arena naming-rights deal it struck with Scotiabank in August 2017 and by a strategy of signing only exclusive but high-priced deals with sponsors.
The Raptors count only 60 sponsors, about half of a typical NBA team, yet even without the massive naming-rights deal, saw a 10% increase in sponsorship revenue this year.
“We made some big bets on ourselves,” said Shannon Hosford, chief marketing officer of the Raptors and MLSE. “We want to be globally relevant. We decided that we were going to build our brand and have a big vision.”
The vision included hiring Masai Ujiri, now team president, as general manager in 2013 to remake the roster, and that same year adding rap superstar Drake as the organization’s global ambassador to help promote the team. The former move ignited the greatest stretch of sustained success — six consecutive playoff berths — in franchise history, while the latter greatly amplified the team’s profile.
So strong is the organization’s brand in Canada that the Raptors are the only NBA team to sell practice jerseys adorned with a separate patch deal, which is with Drake’s OVO brand. The practice jerseys are priced at $150 at retail and the deal is separate from the team’s game jersey patch arrangement with Sun Life — which the team recently renewed at a 20% price increase of a deal originally worth about $5 million per year. Merchandise revenue has grown about 30% this year. Overseas, the Raptors’ Weibo social media channel in China ranks third among NBA teams.
“This team has captured the imagination of the country and in many cases, if you have a Raptors sponsorship, you take the brand across the country,” Cooper added. MKTG represents seven clients, including Scotiabank, that have sponsorship deals with the Raptors.
Beyond the geographic advantage of being the only NBA team in a country of roughly 37 million people is a franchise known within the industry for its sophisticated business approach.
“They do a significant amount of data and analytical mining,” Cooper said. “They look around the world at how to extend their brand. They put a lot of money into research and they have great talent.”
The Raptors have also taken an aggressive approach in using technology to drive their brand. There are 100 employees within MLSE focusing on technology, and under chief technology and digital officer Humza Teherany, the Raptors this year relaunched the team’s app that included mobile ticketing, food and beverage, retail, and merchandise ordering. It also aggregated reams of content, including pregame and postgame press conferences, and even streamed some of the team’s G League games.
“We built a technology company within MLSE,” Teherany said. “We’ve recrafted our business strategy to use digital as an enabler and that has been a cultural focus.”
While the Raptors may not carry the big business reputation within the U.S. like the Los Angeles Lakers or the New York Knicks, the team is a regular winner at the annual NBA marketing awards that recognize industry performance. The Raptors have won three of the past four sponsorship activation of the year awards at NBA meetings for Swiffer, Ford and GoDaddy activations, respectively, as well as a number of sponsorship retention awards. The team also won the NBA’s 2018 NBA Inclusion Innovation Award.
“They execute methodically well across all areas of the business,” said Amy Brooks, president of the NBA’s team marketing and business operations division and NBA chief innovation officer. “They realized far earlier than most and truly knew what it means to integrate partners into all aspects of the business.”