How Drake gives the Raptors more urban appeal | Basketball | CBC Sports

NBAHow Drake gives the Raptors more urban appeal

Posted: Monday, September 30, 2013 | 11:51 PM

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Toronto Raptors GM Masai Uriji (left to right), Raptors global ambassador Drake and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment President and CEO Tim Leiweke are hoping to be able to attract more big-name free agents to Toronto. Toronto Raptors GM Masai Uriji (left to right), Raptors global ambassador Drake and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment President and CEO Tim Leiweke are hoping to be able to attract more big-name free agents to Toronto.

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The Toronto Raptors' hiring of rapper Drake as their new "global ambassador" may give the franchise more 'urban' appeal, something that may benefit them in the long run.
For people who are cynical -- be they fans or media -- the instant reaction is to shred the Toronto Raptors' introduction of hip-hop superstar Drake as the franchise's new "global ambassador." 

That nugget of an announcement, paired with confirmation that Toronto will host the NBA's 2016 All-Star Weekend dominated local news Monday morning, if also because it allowed for thousands of tweets pointing out the photographic humour of the Toronto rapper seated next to the city's attention-magnet mayor, Rob Ford (who perhaps in a bizarre Freudian slip, later referred to the '16 event as the "NDP All-Star Game").

In other words, Monday caught people's attention. 

A Raptors news conference hasn't attracted that many people, ever. And that's the point. Sure, a musician doesn't improve a team's shooting percentage. And you can criticize the "hiring" of Drake the same way we criticize the mass-media existence of the Kardashian family. 

But if you are still holding out hope that this importance society has placed on celebrity will blow over one of these days, then you need to stop paying attention to society right now.

What we can say, is we know two things about Aubrey Graham's new gig: It's not going to hurt the franchise, and the move has Tim Leiweke written all over it. When he came to Toronto from Los Angeles and AEG in June, it was widely accepted that the long-suffering Raptors were going to be the powerful Leiweke's top priority. 

A full rebrand was expected, and any tool to raise the team's profile continentally and globally was in play.

Leiweke admitted Monday that he was out-voted by the Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment board on changing the team's name. But as it stands now, everything except the name -- colours and logo included -- will change for the 2015-16 season.

How exactly Drake fits in, is hard to predict. It's not like he's going to have an office or anything. Yet the best-case template for reference would be Jay-Z's involvement with the Brooklyn (formerly New Jersey) Nets

Well-branded entity

That rapper's name alone, not his comically tiny financial investment in the club, helped turn an afterthought of an NBA franchise into a cool, well-branded entity with a new arena in the hipster heart of New York City. 

And as Leiweke joked Monday, Drake didn't even have to pay any money.

Of course, the worst-case of this sort of celebrity adoption can be seen with R&B singer Alicia Keys' seemingly pointless naming as troubled BlackBerry's "creative director" earlier this year. 

But the Raptors are not a troubled tech company being traded on the global markets. Nor do they need a new arena.

"I have been expressing interest in this position...for a while now," Drake told Toronto media Monday, something that, along with Andrew Wiggins saying he wants to play for the Raps, probably comes as music to the ears of many fans who have been winded by a much-maligned franchise spinning its wheels for years. 

Like Wiggins -- and Anthony Bennett, Tristan Thompson and countless other Toronto-area natives of a certain age -- Drake got hooked on hoops as a kid at the Air Canada Centre during the Vince Carter era.

"I used to come to the games, I wasn't sitting courtside, but they were all very memorable," the Grammy- and Juno-winning artist said Monday. "Everywhere I go I preach the gospel that is the city of Toronto ... I want to bring exciting players here."

And there's the rub. Whether the superstar working for the team can coax superstars into signing with the team is a legitimate question. 

Older folks and the loud group of basketball-haters in Canada will dismiss this, but like it or not, having a name like Drake's attached to the franchise certainly won't do any harm.

That's actually why puckheads and other sports purists don't like the NBA, because something like this probably wouldn't happen in the NHL. Something that also probably wouldn't happen: Me seeing NHL jerseys being worn all over South China, as I did with multiple NBA jerseys one year ago.

That's the global potential of Drake's addition. The domestic potential remains to be seen. It's always made me laugh when someone tries to frame it that NBA players don't like Toronto. That's a baseless fallacy that for the most part couldn't be further from the truth. 

Drake doesn't need to sell the culture, nightlife, restaurants or opposite sex of Toronto to anyone. And that goes for both season and off-season. On Caribbean Carnival weekend, you can pretty much throw a ball out the window in the city and hit an NBA player.

Outside of the fact that the Raptors (and the Blue Jays for that matter) haven't won anything in two decades, I've always maintained it's the smaller things that tend to turn wealthy, all-too-often-spoiled Americans off about living here -- no ESPN, changing your mobile provider, etc. Cry them a river all you want, that's the way it is. But remember that a good many Canadian hockey players also prefer living in the States.

Yet no matter where you are, winning tends to cure all ills.

If Drake has a task here, it's helping turn Toronto's image as a great place to visit for NBA players ('White Vegas' as Fox Sports' Jason Whitlock coined a few years ago) into one that's a great place to play 41 winter home games in. 

Keep in mind that Toronto isn't the only NBA city that deals with this paradox. Atlanta has a similar perception, and for all its criticism as a lousy sports town, Toronto has infinitely better fans than the Georgia capital ever will.  

Drake shouldn't have a particularly hard task here either, because it's happened before. Carter was briefly the toast of the NBA while doing it -- even signing a long-term contract extension -- before going soft and never living up to his potential.

Power of celebrity

Yes, in my mind anyway, a business plan that involves the power of celebrity leads to cynicism. But in this case it won't lead to skepticism. 

The Raptors have done some short-sighted things in their history: Naming the team the "Raptors" for instance.

They've done some stupid things: Hiring Rob Babcock comes to mind.

And they've failed at following league trends in hopes it transcended in the win column: Focusing on Europeans, while circumventing that American player thing.

This is none of those. It's strictly show business, capitalizing on something generational and local, yet at the same time branded and global: A "cool" quotient that dare I say helps because he's what you'd call urban.

As someone who grew up listening to Public Enemy and the Wu-Tang Clan, I never thought I'd be old enough to say something like that. 

But now, staring at the onset of advanced age (my late 30s) maybe I can get past the fact that Toronto's most successful rapper grew up in Forest Hill and admit that Drake just might give the Raptors some street cred.

That's exactly what MLSE is banking on. 

Now the hard part: Turning it into better basketball.

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