Day 6

We The North: Does the Raptors' NBA Finals push signal trouble for the NHL in Canada?

Sean Gordon, a hockey writer with the Athletic, says there are many things the NHL could learn from the NBA and the Raptors about creating excitement, mass appeal and attracting a younger, more diverse fan base.

'The growth potential for basketball far outstrips the growth potential for hockey,' says writer Sean Gordon

The Athletic's Sean Gordon says the NHL's cultural supremacy in Canada can no longer be taken for granted. (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images and Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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Nothing says "summer's here" in Canada quite like the Stanley Cup Finals — and that's the case even when there aren't any Canadian teams left in the running.

It's always been safe to say that the NHL playoffs have a lock on Canada's sports fans.

But this year, there's a new game in town.

If you haven't noticed — for the first time in history — the Toronto Raptors are in the NBA Finals.

Raptors fans are losing their minds, and their numbers are growing. When it comes to viewership in Canada, the Raptors are trouncing anything the NHL can throw at them.

But Tim Leiweke predicted this. Speaking in 2014 when he was chief executive of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment — the company that owns the Raptors, the Leafs and the Toronto FC soccer team — he said, "Within 10 years, the Raptors are going to be the most popular team. They will be more popular than the Leafs, in Toronto. Promise you."

At the time, that was a provocative promise to make. Today, maybe not so much.

Jurassic Park in Toronto has drawn diehards and new-found fans as the Raptors are enjoying their most successful season that includes a first-ever trip to the NBA Finals. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Sean Gordon is a hockey writer for the Athletic. He tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury that the NHL better watch its back.

Here's part of that conversation.

It was five years ago that Tim Leiweke promised the Raptors would overtake the Leafs. When you look around this spring do you think he was onto something?

I thought that was just a crazy thing to say and hyperbole — a guy who's a very good salesman trying to drive his numbers upwards, I guess.

And when you look at the way the interest in the Raptors has just taken off this year. Television ratings, which I think are a handy shortcut, metric ... for interest in basketball relative to hockey — well look: the Raptors have just been more watched this spring.

We have to go back to April to find a hockey game involving the Maple Leafs, of course, that comes close to the viewership number.

And so in terms of the moment, in terms of the national conversation, in terms of what people are invested in right now, it's happened.

I think you're finding it more difficult and more expensive to play hockey in a lot of places now than it was 25, 30, 40 years ago.- Sean Gordon, the Athletic

But how much of that is really just about there being no Canadian team in the Stanley Cup finals, whereas the Raptors are a few games away from the NBA's top prize?

Yes, there is an element — a shining-moment-in-time kind of aspect to this. However, I think it also accentuates a broader trend, quite frankly, and something that's been happening since probably even before Tim Leiweke started talking about it.

So you believe the NHL cultural supremacy in Canada can no longer be taken for granted. Why do you think that is?

I think so, and there are people in hockey as well who think this. And I'm not going to say that it's a hand-wringing, woe-is-me, the-sky-is-falling type situation — it's not.

But there is more concern coming out because I think when you look at the demographics of the country, when you look at the cultural appeal of basketball relative to hockey [and] when you look at the global nature of the sport, hockey is something that we care very deeply about — and that a lot of countries in the world care very deeply about — but not as many as those who care deeply about basketball.

And so I think when you look at where the country was, where it is and where it's headed, it seems to me that the growth potential for basketball far outstrips the growth potential for hockey for lots of different reasons. 

Tim Leiweke might have seen that when he was looking at the fans in Jurassic Park. Here's something else that he said back in 2014 when he predicted that the Raptors might become more popular than the Leafs:

"If you go look at Jurassic Park, if you look at the demo of that audience, you look at how young that audience was, that's the future of Toronto. 51 per cent of the people that live in Toronto were not born in Canada. It takes you one second to figure out where this is all going."

So if that's the future of sports in Canada, Sean, do you think that the NHL expanding into Las Vegas is addressing any of that?

I don't know. I mean, I think that you can certainly make a convincing argument for broadening the appeal of hockey and that the expansion to sunnier places has, of course, made it a larger pool of people who are interested in hockey.

But I don't think it's a very deep pool. Especially when you look at the way in which the NHL is lagging behind as far as social media [and] as far as appealing to younger viewers.

The demographics for hockey skew older and for basketball they don't. And I think part of that has to do with the way in which basketball has leveraged technology and media: shortened the distance between its big personalities.

And not only does it celebrate [them], it promotes these huge personalities. One feels more modern whereas one feels somewhat more anachronistic.

The Carolina Hurricanes' creativity in their viral 'Storm Surge' celebrations seems to know no bounds. 0:46

But if the NHL wants a piece of that pie — it would seem if you wanted a deep fan base in Canada then you want to try and appeal to those multicultural kids that are coming out to stand outside the stadium while the games are being played.

And that would say to me, if you're going to expand then why not expand into the Golden Horseshoe, or expand into Burnaby or some of these other urban places in Canada where there might be an opportunity to get a piece of that pie?

Absolutely. And I think that there is an element of the democratization of the sport. It's becoming more and more exclusionary by virtue of the fact that participation sports like soccer and even basketball are overtaking hockey in terms of public funding and in terms of youth sports and grassroots.

I think you're finding it more difficult and more expensive to play hockey in a lot of places now than it was 25, 30, 40 years ago.

So when the North Carolina Hurricanes started doing these cornball, fan-oriented post-game celebrations, Don Cherry called them a bunch of jerks. [Is] what the Hurricanes are doing a sign to you that the NHL is trying at least in some way to break out of the box — and is it enough?

Absolutely it is. And I think that the backlash to that sort of irreverence and zaniness is very telling. And I think ultimately the Hurricanes are on the right side of history here.

And the people who insist that players need to wear the black suits and a white shirt and a black tie to games, and that you need to talk about moving your feet and getting pucks deep and all these other sorts of things — I think all of these people haven't really considered the broader world and where we're at right now.

And the contrast I think couldn't be greater.


This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview with Sean Gordon, download our podcast or click 'Listen' above.

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