Raptors playoff run makes Jurassic Park the nest for team's young, diverse fans

The Raptors may be in tough and tied 2-2 with the Miami Heat in the second round of the NBA playoffs. But no matter what happens in game five and beyond, the team is already a winner with its fan base that has quickly grown to become one of the most raucous — and diverse — in the league.

A look at the frenzy outside the Air Canada Centre confirms it. On game day, the place is a hive of activity, bursting with loud and proud fans who love the team and never get tired of "repping the 6ix" as rapper Drake would put it.

Unlike some of the city's other pro teams, the denizens of Jurassic Park, as it's called, skew younger than most, and often hail from diverse ethnic groups. That's because instead of being born into their fandom, a large number of them are ethnic minorities who have latched onto the team as a symbol of their Canada.

Almost half of the Raptors players come from somewhere other than the U.S., a rarity in a league still dominated by Americans.

raptors fans jurassic park

Raptors fans congregate in 'Jurassic Park' outside the Air Canada Centre to watch every home and away game this playoff run. (John E. Sokolowski/Reuters)

The Raptors have become the most multicultural team in the league — and it's no accident that the fan base largely shares that diverse nature. Rather, it's the culmination of a long-time strategy by the team to market itself globally and among different ethnic groups within the city. 

From Drake and the "We The North" brand on down, it's clear the franchise is trying to leverage its status as the only non-American NBA team in the league with fans who don't fit into the league's traditional American base either.

It's a message that resonates with fans like Rajan Gahunia. The 21-year-old rapper says he's "probably one of the biggest Raptors fans out there," and says he's loved the team ever since his dad sent him to a Vince Carter basketball camp as a child.

"Basketball has always been a part of my life and the Raptors [are] the first team I fell in love with," he says.

He's not alone. Clement Chu latched on to the team as fan from Day 1, and has been an official ambassador for the Raptors since 1998 in his community.

Now the president of the Chinese Canadian Youth Athletic Association, Chu credits his fandom to steps the franchise took to court his community years ago.

In the late 1990s, the Raptors targeted Chinese-Canadian fans who weren't necessarily familiar with the game, a strategy that's starting to bear fruit today as those kids have grown up and now have disposable income to spend on sports and related paraphernalia.

Chu still has a flyer the Raptors sent out in 1998, written in Cantonese and with a 1-800 number where someone who spoke the language offered step-by-step instructions on how to buy a ticket. Regular price seats were $80, but by calling the number, tickets could be had for $40.

Toronto Raptors marketing China

Clement Chu says the team used flyers like this one offering discounts to the Chinese community, a strategy that is now paying off. (Janna McGinn/CBC)

"The way we worked it was if you could read the Chinese on this flyer, then you could get the discount," says Chu, who used to do live Chinese-language radio broadcasts of every Raptor game at the time, and took the time to explain the finer points of the game to a Chinese audience.

Like many others, Chu says he was drawn to basketball because "it seemed to be a little different, it wasn't quite Canadian."

"There was something cool about it — a certain grittiness and street element to it that I gravitated towards," he says.

The strategy seems to have worked for the team's owner, Maple Leafs Sports Entertainment, a fast-growing company that also includes the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey club and soccer franchise Toronto F.C. 

The Raptors averaged a little over 200,000 TV viewers per game during the regular season this year, a figure that has  jumped to more than a million a game for the playoffs.

But that's only a tiny slice of the global audience, according to Cheri Bradish. The professor who teaches a class called The Business of Basketball at Toronto's Ryerson University says the Raptors draw as many as 10 million television viewers in China every game. With numbers that big, the obvious potential is enormous, and something the Raptors are keen to take advantage of.

"MLSE has a specific strategy for the Chinese market and they have targeted it for a while," says Bradish, the Loretta Rogers Research Chair in Sport Marketing at the Ted Rogers School of Management. "They want to be one of the premiere sports properties in the world and the Chinese market is a big part of that."

Bradish, who teaches a class called The Business of Basketball at Ryerson, says the Raptors' success from a marketing standpoint stems from a perfect storm of two big demographic waves: new Canadians and Millenials.

jonas valanciunas raptors

Lithuanian Jonas Valanciunas is one of seven Raptors players who are from somewhere other than the United States. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

"The Raptors are really resonating with both groups," she says. "It's off the charts."

None of the franchise's off-court successes would be possible, of course, if the team wasn't winning on the court. But Bradish says if the team can make winning a habit, the sky is the limit for the franchise as a global icon.

"Kids don't inherit their fandom from their dads anymore, they want to be with teams who are winners," she says.

"It all comes down to winning."

The Raptors' new fan base has thus far remained passionate regardless of wins and losses, but winning always makes everything better. So if the Raptors can manage to pull it off, the team might manage to avoid the fate of the eponymous dinosaur they're named after.

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