'Wait — Toronto has a basketball team?' The woes of being a Raptors fan in parts of the U.S.

Last Sunday, on a flight to Washington, D.C., from hoops-obsessed Toronto, a Canadian expat bedecked in “We The North” finery took her seat in a tizzy. A weather delay meant she would miss the Raptors’ ill-fated Game 2 against the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals.

The Toronto-born U.S. resident, an employee at a clean energy firm in D.C., grumbled about the lack of venues willing to show Raptors games in her adopted American city. As if to try to prove her point, she thumbed through her iPhone and searched the phrase: “Where to watch the Raptors in Washington.”

A hit came up: “The Raptors of the Nation’s Capital.” 

“Google always knows!” she said.

But when she loaded the link for more details, the woman frowned. The D.C. event was for a falconry seminar — not a viewing party for Canada’s only NBA team.

She activated airplane mode, sat back and resigned herself to a cup of wine.

Resignation is something diehard Raptors fans in some U.S. markets are used to when it comes to finding enough hype for Canada’s team. It seems a history-making first NBA Finals played outside the U.S. isn’t enough to overcome low ratings south of the border.

Never mind that more than a third of the Canadian population watched at least parts of the first two games, according to the NBA.

Andre Belelieu, a Toronto Raptors fan living and working in New York City, right, is shown at a bar before a Raptors game in Brooklyn a few months ago wearing a Pascal Siakam jersey. ‘I work at an organization in New York where there’s six or seven other Canadians,’ he said. ‘I can tell you for a fact I was the only one following the Raptors up until a few weeks ago.’ (Andre Belelieu)

And yet, show up at a sports bar in Washington and expect to have to watch the game without sound, or at least to plead with the bartender for volume. Search online for Raptors-Warriors watch events and stumble instead on a workshop on birds of prey. In Washington during the Raptors-Sixers series, Toronto supporters longing for any kind of communal fan experience ended up at Philadelphia Eagles joint.

“The few games I’ve watched in bars here in New York over the course of these playoffs have been with friends rooting for the other teams. They’re for Philadelphia, or they’re for Orlando,” said Andre Belelieu, 40, a Torontonian living in New York.

Due to some basic cable TV packages excluding ESPN and TNT — the U.S. channels that aired Raptors games in the 2018-2019 season — home viewing isn’t always practical.

Hussein Hirji, a Canadian Embassy official from Thornhill, Ont., now living in D.C., conceded, “It hasn’t been super easy to catch games” with a Raptors crowd.

“There’s a bar I go to in Eastern Market where I can generally get a TV on with a game. I’ve generally been able to find a place to watch, but maybe not with sound … I’ll have my ‘Toronto Versus Everyone’ shirt on.”

So Hirji, 40, helped persuade embassy staff to put a call-out for a Game 1 watch event for Canadians at a local bar. Poutine was served for roughly 40 fans. The embassy put off promoting a Game 2 event last Sunday because organizers were iffy about whether a large enough crowd would commute from the D.C.-Virginia-Maryland area to participate. (The bar, Penn Quarter, said it had “pre-negotiated” with the embassy to show Game 3 on its screens with volume up Wednesday night.)

Although the Raptors are Canada’s must-see team, they still have an oft-dismissed status south of the border. Despite having the best record in the NBA in December 2018, they were still denied a high-profile game on Christmas Day, apparently due to perceptions they aren’t a big enough revenue engine.

On basketball panels, the Raptors often get short shrift from American commentators, said Tas Melas, the Toronto-born co-host of NBA TV’s The Starters.

Faheem Noor Ali and Aliya Ladha, shown at a Canadian Embassy-hosted Raptors viewing party in Washington, D.C., live in northern Virginia and were both born in Toronto. (Faheem Noor Ali)

“National media broadcasters will spew points about the Toronto Raptors that just aren’t all that accurate throughout the regular season because they generally aren’t being watched,” said Melas, who lives in Atlanta, Ga. “Not because they’re in a foreign country, but because they also weren’t necessarily a favourite for the title. And less coverage breeds lack of knowledge.”

In the 2017-2018 season, only five Raptors games were nationally televised in the States (excluding NBA TV subscriptions), compared to 39 games for Golden State. This season, with the acquisition of superstar forward Kawhi Leonard, the schedule increased to 15 nationally televised games, compared to 28 for the Warriors.

Ratings for Game 2 of the 2019 NBA Finals were down 20 per cent from last year. U.S. doom-and-gloomers have bemoaned the lower American viewership.

To that, Canadian J.E. Skeets, who co-hosts The Starters with Melas, responded sarcastically: “Boo-hoo.” 

“Of course the 2019 Finals are gonna be down 20 per cent or whatever it is from last year’s Finals,” said Skeets, who grew up in Toronto before relocating to Atlanta. “That one pitted two teams against each other for the fourth consecutive year.”

The Canadian co-host of The Starters on NBA TV, Phil Elder, known professionally as J.E. Skeets, is a Raptors super-fan. (J.E. Skeets)

The absence of “the LeBron guy” might help explain softer ratings, he said.

The Warriors aren’t facing the Cleveland Cavaliers, powered by LeBron James, arguably the league’s marquee player, this Finals. Another ratings draw, injured Warriors forward Kevin Durant, has also been sitting out.

But it’s not as if U.S. advertisers are suffering financial ruin, Skeets said.

“Sure hope Progressive Insurance’s Flo doesn’t end up on the street,” he quipped, referring to the insurance firm’s mascot.

Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard, left, drives around Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James during a regular season game in Toronto back in March. James’s absence from the NBA Finals, due to the Lakers missing the playoffs, has been a possible factor for why U.S. ratings for the Finals have declined from last year. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

Yet on Sportsnet, Game 1 broke Canadian ratings records. Toronto’s triumphant win was the most-viewed NBA game in Canadian history. Downtown’s main Jurassic Park square reached a capacity of 6,000 people for the opening game. Off-shoot Jurassic Parks have sprouted around Ontario.

It’s true that the Warriors facing a Canadian team means the U.S. can only count one home market.

“But that doesn’t mean the NBA is any less popular. It just means the NBA’s popularity is being reflected in a different country,” said Pat Crakes, a former senior Fox Sports programming executive. “It might hurt the ratings math; it doesn’t hurt the value of the league.”

Enthusiasm for basketball must count for something. In remarks to the World Economic Club of Washington, D.C., last month, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver spoke of the global nature of the sport and about “taking a page from international soccer” to expand its influence worldwide. Silver referenced how Canadian James Naismith invented basketball in Massachusetts in 1891 before it was brought to China a few years later.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver, left, standing next to former U.S. president Barack Obama, attends Game 2 of the NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and the Toronto Raptors at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto. Silver spoke last month in Washington about basketball’s global future. (Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY/Reuters)

Blaming Toronto for softer ratings can only go so far. Warriors fatigue is a potential factor, too. Golden State has won three of the last four NBA championships. A U.S. map showing states that want the Warriors to lose suggests every state except California, Nevada and Hawaii is rooting against the team. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean those markets are packed with Raptors devotees.

Many Americans may be getting their first major exposure to the Raptors in the Finals.

“Wait — Toronto has a basketball team?” a Denver-based political journalist for The Associated Press joked on Twitter.

Lack of awareness about Canada’s NBA team could be a “minor contributing factor” to the lower ratings, said Robert Seidman, co-founder of the website TV By The Numbers.

That said, Toronto can’t be that much more of a negative, relative to a small market like its Eastern Conference rival Milwaukee.

“If it were, say, Boston [competing in the Finals] instead of Milwaukee or Toronto, I think the ratings would be better. Primarily due to the size of the Boston market, but at least a tiny bit of it due to the Celtics brand resonating more with the casual fan,” Seidman said.

Even if the numbers are down, they look decent, he said. 

“All the games will be among the year’s most-watched TV programming.”

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