Toronto Raptors At The Forefront Of A Golden Age For Basketball In Canada – Forbes

DENVER, CO – MAY 12: One of many Canadians in the NBA, Jamal Murray (27) of the Denver Nuggets drives past Rodney Hood (5) of the Portland Trail Blazers during the second quarter on Sunday, May 12, 2019. The Denver Nuggets versus the Portland Trail Blazers in game seven of the teams’ second round NBA playoff series at the Pepsi Center in Denver. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)


It’s becoming quite clear that this is a golden age for basketball in Canada, and the Toronto Raptors have been driving the bus.

Their successful postseason run and the electrifying play of superstar Kawhi Leonard are having a pronounced effect in audience engagement and along business sectors.

The Game 7 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers on Leonard’s buzzer-beater in the Eastern Conference semifinals on May 12 was the most watched NBA game ever in Canada with an average viewership of 2.2 million, with 5.8 million Canadians watching some or all of the game.  For the third round of the playoffs, viewership is up 163% year-over-year (Sportsnet and TSN combined), NBA Canada reports.

When tracing the history of when this golden age started, some may point to the NBA drafts of 2013 and 2014 when Canadians Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins became back-to-back No. 1 picks. This was a milestone that didn’t escape the attention of Canadian Steve Nash. 

“It’s obviously a golden era for talent in Canada,” the two-time NBA most valuable player said in 2015 shortly after announcing his retirement. “It’s exciting for me and for all of us Canadians.”

The golden age has shown no signs of ending.

NBA Canada’s Managing Director Dan MacKenzie said the season marked a banner year for the NBA in the country with records set not only for broadcast viewership, but also for national partnerships and licensed merchandise sales.

MacKenzie said this growth speaks to the level of success enjoyed by the Raptors, the level of talent coming out of Canada and the heightened profile of this country’s top-level players.

TORONTO, ON – APRIL 07: Kawhi Leonard #2 of the Toronto Raptors celebrates a three-pointer scored in overtime by Pascal Siakam #43 against the Miami Heat at Scotiabank Arena on April 7, 2019 in Toronto, Canada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)


The NBA now has a record 32 partners in Canada, including Canadian-specific deals with Bell, Molson-Coors and the OLG (Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation). NBA merchandise sales across retail and online outlets in Canada grew 26% year-over-year, marking the strongest year of sales ever for the league in Canada, MacKenzie said.

Fueling this growth has been the success of the Raptors. With six straight years of postseason appearances, they have become a hot ticket in the city. The club had the fourth-highest attendance in the league this season and Forbes’ evaluation of this country’s only NBA franchise sits at $1.125 billion.

But despite being one of the largest NBA markets, the Raptors don’t have the brand of a legacy team like the L.A. Lakers, where LeBron James sits at No. 1 in jersey sales, according to the end-of-the-season ranking released on April 25 by the NBA. Golden State’s Stephen Curry is No. 2 and Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo is No. 3. Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard is not even in the top 15 in jersey sales. But as far as team merchandise sales go, Toronto is at No. 9, ahead of the New York Knicks.

Prior to Leonard’s arrival, two players in particular made a big impact in the sport’s rise in Canada in the late 1990s. The first was Nash. And the second was Vince Carter, who captured the imaginations of this country’s fans when he burst on the scene with Toronto in the 1998-99 season.

The Nash Family Court was unveiled last Sept. 29, 2018 at an event on the grounds of the Pacific National Exhibition in East Vancouver. The newly refurbished court was dedicated to the legacy of Nash, who was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

NBA Canada

Carter is responsible for something called The Carter Effect, which actually became the title of a 2017 documentary by Sean Menard that takes an in-depth look at Carter’s impact on pop culture and the basketball scene. Of course, Carter’s insane performance at the 2000 Slam Dunk Contest is still must-see video.

Carter’s influence is widely credited with spawning a basketball factory that now serves as a pipeline to the NBA. Canada, with a population of 37 million, is now the biggest producer of NBA talent of any country outside the United States.

Hockey still is king in Canada, but other sports like basketball are making inroads with a growing population of immigrants taking up the sport and millennials becoming the core fan base.

Studies support the fact that basketball in Canada is growing in popularity. And much of this growth owes to Canada’s changing demographics. According to 2016 census data from the country’s national statistical agency, Statistics Canada, more than 22% of this country’s population was made up of visible minorities, the highest share in 85 years.

People might know that Nash grew up in British Columbia, but who knew he was born in South Africa and emigrated with his parents? His story is not unique.

Jamaal Magloire was born to Trinidadian parents in Toronto, Bennett’s mother moved to the Toronto area from Jamaica and Tristan Thompson’s parents are from Jamaica, while Wiggins’ mother was originally from Barbados and Nik Stauskas is of Lithuanian descent.

The names of Canadians who have made a mark on the NBA in recent times speak for themselves. There were six Canadian-born players to start the NBA playoffs this year:

  • Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, LA Clippers
  • Khem Birch, Orlando Magic
  • Cory Joseph, Indiana Pacers
  • Trey Lyles, Denver Nuggets
  • Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets
  • Chris Boucher, Toronto Raptors

In all, there were 13 Canadian players on NBA rosters at the start of the 2018-19 season:

  • Khem Birch, Orlando Magic
  • Dillon Brooks, Memphis Grizzlies
  • Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, LA Clipper
  • Cory Joseph, Indiana Pacers
  • Trey Lyles, Denver Nuggets,
  • Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets
  • Kelly Olynyk, Miami Heat
  • Dwight Powell, Dallas Mavericks
  • Nik Stauskas Portland Trail Blazers (later traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers)
  • Tristan Thompson, Cleveland Cavaliers
  • Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves
  • Chris Boucher, Toronto Raptors (started the season on a two-way contract; later converted to an NBA contract)
  • Naz Mitrou-Long, Utah Jazz (started the season on a two-way contract).

And here is a selection of draft-eligible Canadian players who played on 2018-19 NCAA rosters with the hometown and NCAA school listed:

  • RJ Barrett (Toronto; Duke)
  • Brandon Clarke (Vancouver; Gonzaga)
  • Luguentz Dort (Montreal; Arizona State)
  • Nickeil Alexander-Walker (Toronto; Virginia Tech)
  • Mfiondu Kabengele (Burlington; Florida State).

The biggest name on the list is Barrett, the Toronto-born star who is projected to be among the top selections in the first round of the NBA draft this June. Playing for the Duke Blue Devils, Barrett was regarded as one of the best finishers in college basketball with an average of 22.6 points per game. Many consider Barrett the second-best player in the draft behind teammate Zion Williamson.

Dan MacKenzie, Managing Director of NBA Canada, is responsible for the development and growth of the game in Canada.

NBA Canada

MacKenzie said the trendlines continue to point up, not only in Canada but around the world. The NBA has offices in 13 markets worldwide, including Beijing, Hong Kong, Johannesburg, London, Madrid, Manila, Mexico City, Mumbai, New York/New Jersey, Rio de Janeiro, Shanghai, Taipei and Toronto.

NBA Canada’s role is to grow the game across the country, and MacKenzie sees evidence of its success from the number of players jumping to the NBA.

“The great news for us is that the pipeline of players coming into the NBA continues to grow,” MacKenzie said. “There could be as many as seven Canadians drafted in the first two rounds, which for us would be a record. Canada continues to produce top-level talent. We can see a day within the next few years when there are more than 20 Canadians in the league. It’s pretty exciting.”

And as Carter did almost 20 years ago, Leonard’s buzzer-beating play, referred to as “The Shot,” may spark a new wave of stars to come.

“We may not know the full impact of that shot for years down the line,” MacKenzie said.

CORRECTION: This version corrects the fact that the NBA has offices in 13 markets worldwide. A previous version misstated the number.