In what seems like a very short amount of time, the Toronto Raptors became an experience everyone could really sink their teeth into. Going from a highly skeptical new sports venture for Canada to a nationwide cultural phenomenon, let’s take a look at the team that took Ontario by storm, and turned its population [pre]historic.
We The Raptors (1994)
In 1994, John Bitove threw Canada’s hat into the ring for the first-ever Canadian basketball team to participate in the NBA (National Basketball Association) and who, “shortly” after, became the well-known founder of the Toronto Raptors.
For many, it was difficult to picture another sports team from Toronto–as it was already home to the Maple Leafs and Blue Jays–let alone a sport dominated primarily in America; so, the idea of a Canadian basketball team in the NBA was met with a wild amount of doubt and skepticism.
With the added obstacle of capturing the attention of a dedicated hockey and baseball audience still reeling from the Toronto Blue Jays world series win, Bitove did not let this opportunity in basketball slip through his fingers. Instead, he focused his efforts to target those who didn’t particularly fit the primary hockey or baseball audience and opened Raptors targeting children, women, and new Canadians. “Our target market from the day we got the team was to go after children, women and new Canadians. We were kind of leaving the older, white establishment to hockey,” says Bitove. From the get-go, Bitove wanted to make the experience one for the people, all the way down to the conception of the name.
When it was finally decided that Toronto would have a basketball team, John Bitove turned to the public for input on the name and logo, sparking a nationwide naming contest. There were over 2,000 contributions for the team name, possible mascots ranging from the T-Rex’s to the Terriers; but with the influence of the wildly popular movie Jurassic Park, released in 1993, the Toronto Raptors was the ultimate winner and the new team began to hatch.
Curious about a few of the team names that were up for votes? Here are a few of our favourites.
(*Fun fact: Even though the Raptors was chosen as the name, people were still curious about the team designs that could have been! For a bit of fun and to satisfy curiosities, Art & Mechanicals developed alternate logos and merch in 2018, based on the original list of possible mascots! Check out the designs HERE.)
In 1994, the final logo was revealed, featuring the iconic Raptor, proving to be extremely popular among the fans.
(fun fact: the silver used in the 90’s Raptors logo was originally supposed to be bronze before it was switched to “Naismith silver”, a nod to James Naismith, the Canadian inventor of basketball.)
Including the fans into the team’s branding efforts didn’t stop there, though. When the Raptors began promoting their name, they made a point to almost ALWAYS include at least one child in every commercial. They wanted to make the experience fun and show that basketball was an experience that anyone could understand and participate in celebrating.
But the hardships didn’t end there. Basketball was a new sport to Toronto, which meant the Toronto Raptors didn’t even have a proper stadium to practice or play in. Instead, for years, they practiced out of the cavernous Skydome, which was built and designed for baseball… Along with freezing their fingers off, due to the Skydomes open ceiling concept, they also trained against the elements as the wind would often blow the ball in strange directions when thrown. That wouldn’t stop the Raptor’s from persisting, and this struggle actually sparked the development of a new stadium. In 1999, the Air Canada Centre was finally complete, allowed the Raptors a little normalcy to their training.
For a while, things were pretty normal. The Raptors did their thing, the excitement falling to the wayside… until 2014, when a creative spark of new life brought the Toronto Raptors back into the limelight.
We The North (2014)
Fast-forward about 20 years and meet Shannon Hasford, the lead marketer on one of the largest rebrand efforts in Canadian sports history, to date. With only a 60-second video ad to kickstart it, the #WeTheNorth campaign was just the first step to bringing the Raptors international renown.
The goal of this campaign wasn’t to change for newer fans, but to grow with their already established fanbase, now in their 20’s and 30’s; to shift perceptions of a team regarded as outcasts–when compared to other teams in the NBA–to being viewed as a ‘global basketball destination’.
Once the initial concept of the Raptors rebranding was put into planning, a creative agency was hired to help progress these efforts. After being pitched a concept revolving around unity and identity, the iconic 60-second #WeTheNorth video was created in just over 2 days. This video embraces the Raptors ‘outside’ image while simultaneously uniting not just the people of Toronto but the entirety of Canada.
The ‘We The North’ campaign wasn’t looked at as just a campaign, it was looked as at an identity to Canada and an evolution of Canadian culture.
The ad exploded nationally, with success attributed to its authenticity and Canadian pride, as the video features recognizable Toronto landmarks; and was created without actors, using dedicated Torontonians and Raptors fans instead.
From 2014 on, We The North became a rallying cry that allowed the Raptors and their fans to take pride in their identity. “None of it is manufactured, which I think is why people gravitate towards it outside of our borders because we’re not trying to create some new ritual or say something about our fans that isn’t true,” states Dustin Rideout, MLSE’s head of brand and fan experience. “The press on the other side of the border writes about it all the time, how our fans are amazing, and crazed and have such pride.”
This campaign was so popular, others even tried to mimic the We The North tagline to intimidate and demean the Canadian war cry. Last season we saw that the Pacers had their “We the Gold” campaign against the Raptors, and even some Miami fans wore “We the South” T-shirts to the Heat’s second-round series against Toronto to spark a… fire between the teams.
Did you notice the now-iconic “We The North” flag waving in back-lighting? The crew tasked with creating the 60-second video had been trying to capture this image for nearly an entire day. They tried multiple times throughout filming to capture this moment but eventually gave up after facing endless amounts of bad lighting that dulled the effect they were looking for.
Once they were done filming the promo above, though, the crew turned to leave and noticed the We The North flag floating against the moonlit backdrop, which was perfect. Quickly they pulled out their camera equipment, recorded the moment and voila.
Leading into the playoffs in 2019, it was clear that they were bound for greatness. Realizing this, brands and marketers were quick to integrate Raptors into their branding. Quickly, businesses like Unilever, Mastercard, and Sportchek jumped into partnerships, and eventually, nearly every well-known, local, small businesses, and independent creators were jumping at the chance to push out and show off their unique ‘We The North’ or Raptors inspired content and advertisements.
Not only was this experience big for the Raptors, not only did it put Canada on the map in terms of basketball, not only did The Raptors crush all doubts, but this spectacle also brought together and united Canada like we’ve never seen before.
First originating in Toronto, Maple Leaf Square set up large amounts of TV’s, food, and entertainment for fans and people all over Toronto, so that they could gather and watch the game together. It wasn’t long until fans even made this their own, and started calling this area Jurassic Park. Soon, Jurassic Parks started appearing all over Canada as the hype of the team’s success caught wind. The excitement spread, until nearly all of Canada gathered outside of the designated Jurassic Park viewing areas, leading to thousands upon thousands of people assembled in the streets of Toronto to watch and celebrate. They climbed on top of public transit, streetlights, scaffolding, EVERYTHING; they occupied every little bit of street they could find in order to share in this experience together and support their team.
Not only did the fans come together, though, people who didn’t even like the baseball hosted and attended viewing parties, bought and repped Toronto Raptors Merch, or joined in the celebration; people from around the world, from coast to coast, flew the We The North Flag with pride.
And when The Raptors won, the world heard Canada’s roar.
Though chaotic, the Raptors winning the NBA championship was a historic win for Canada. We put ourselves on the map.
Hold up… oh, you thought we forgot about Drake?
…Come on, how could we forget about one of our favourite, enthusiastic brand ambassadors?
Though some would call the Drake and Raptors partnership “courtside antics”, Drake has actually played an integral part in the Raptors quick climb to fame and success.
When Drake first started showing up to Raptors games, he was nothing more than a fan sitting on the sidelines and (loudly) cheering his team on; until 2013, when Drake was offered a partnership with the Raptors, and inevitably became the Raptors’ official “global ambassador”. Since then, Drake has contributed a great deal to the rebranding efforts. He not only helped inspire a whole new generation of young fans, he also helped design the Raptors alternative team jersey featuring the OVO brands classing black and gold colour scheme.
Though Drake–on countless occasions–has been spotted acting like a fool on the sidelines, his partnership with the Raptors has also made a huge impact on the Toronto community. Did you know that 2018, Drake and the Raptors pledged $3 million (Canadian) to help refurbish community basketball courts, and then another $2 million to Canada Basketball itself?
This may just be a coincidence but before Drake has partnered with the Raptors, the team hadn’t made the playoffs in over 5 years! Once the partnership started, the Raptors has made it to the playoffs every year since; and the team’s value has more than doubled (according to Forbes).
Say what you will, but thanks to Drakes efforts the Raptors has seen fandom like never before as more “fans” than ever are attending games, viewing parties, etc. in support; new concepts and styles in branding, and both personal and financial team growth.
Now that you know even more about the Toronto Raptors and everything they have gone through since becoming a team, go out there and represent the only way we should know how: like a Drake.