Hoop Dreams: Can the Raptors capture a nation’s interest?

By Dave Korzinski

Research Associate

The Toronto Raptors are in the midst of their most successful season since the franchise’s inception in 1995. Fans in the ‘Six’ celebrated their first ever best-of-seven playoff series victory by defeating the Indiana Pacers earlier this month, and have gathered increasing support from around the country.

And if ever there was a time to shine for the Raps, it’s the year where no Canadian teams are playing in the NHL playoffs. The void left by declining NHL viewership must have had the Toronto ownership group at MLSE salivating. However, the Raptors viewership numbers are still on par with the Capitals – Penguins second round NHL series, and (for NBA fans) disturbingly close to the 25th game of a marathon Toronto Blue Jays season.

From this standpoint, ratings have been less than inspiring. And while that may be story right now, how much viewership potential does the sport of basketball have in Canada? The data suggests there is plenty of room to grow.

Competing with the NHL

Hockey is undoubtedly the crown jewel of the Canadian sports broadcasting market. Compared to other major sports leagues, the NHL is in a class of its own.

Take, for example, the percentage
Toronto Raptors Ratingof Canadians who say they follow the NHL either ‘very closely’ or ‘closely’ compared to other leagues. Hockey’s premiere league garners the keen interest of fully two-in-five Canadians (40%), while fewer than one-in-ten (8%) say they follow the NBA this closely. Other major sports leagues – the MLB and the NFL – have less than half of the interest that the NHL commands, at 18 and 17 per cent respectively.

The news isn’t all bad for  Drake and the Raptors. Yes, it’s true that the Raptors’ game 7 victory on May 1st drew less viewership than the NHL’s Draft Lottery presentation the night before, but the future looks rather rosy if the age of viewers is considered.

Angus Reid Sports

Raptors All-Stars Kyle Lowry & Demar Derozan celebrate a win with team Ambassador Drake (Chris Young/AP)

The NBA resonates at a much higher rate with the coveted male 18-34 demographic than it does with older generations. With this group, a key ratings demographic for broadcasters, the number who follow the NBA (21%) is commensurate with the MLB (22%), and the North American sports juggernaut – the NFL (22%). Combine this with the knowledge that basketball is Canada’s fastest growing sport among youth, and the future for Canada’s only NBA franchise looks bright.

Toronto Raptors Rating

Where basketball lags is in viewership among men 35 and older. Just 14 per cent of the 35-54 group say they follow the NBA. By contrast, this group is the NHL’s most loyal demographic – 58 per cent from this cohort say they follow the NHL closely. This majority is unlikely to be within reach for the NBA, given that the NHL has the benefit of 7 Canadian franchises spread across the country.

That said, the Raptors have targeted other parts of Canada for growth, playing exhibition games in Vancouver and Halifax over the past few years. They’ve also made a concerted effort to engage with ethnic communities around Toronto in an effort to tap into the multiculturalism so many Canadians hold dear. For example, the Raptors organize a series of “Heritage Nights” throughout the season to celebrate diverse groups from around the city. They also generated a good deal of press hosting a citizenship oath ceremony for 34 new Canadians at the Air Canada Centre in 2015. These endeavors  are not only inclusive, but they appear savvy when looking at the data. Toronto Raptors Rating

While you’ll recall that just 8 per cent of Canadians follow basketball closely, among visible minorities, this number jumps to 19 per cent. In a city as diverse as Toronto engagement with these groups is a no-brainer, but it appears to be paying off around the country as well.

Many Canadian women follow sports, just not basketball

Male viewers are the target of much of this analysis because they are much more likely to watch sports, in most cases three to four time more likely than women. However, it should be noted that despite relatively small followings in other major sports, the NHL is followed by almost one-in-three Canadian women (29%). One-in-ten also report following the CFL, MLB and NFL. This implies that there is an opportunity for the NBA to grow its following among women as well – only 3 per cent say they follow basketball:

Toronto Raptors Rating

Given this data, it appears Canadian viewership of the NBA is likely to grow significantly over the coming decade. The sport is on the rise in this country and the Raptors have never been more relevant. A date with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals will certainly help draw some more Canadian attention.

Some of the data presented is drawn from a previous Angus Reid Institute survey regarding sports in Canada.

Feature Image Credit – Vaughn Ridley/Getty

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