Under the Influence

How the Raptors turned hockey country into basketball nation

Sports teams can’t always count on winning games. That means marketing becomes the other player on the roster. A lesson the Toronto Raptors took straight to the bank.
Fans cheer at Jurassic Park as they watch the Golden State Warriors play against the Toronto Raptors holding a "We The North" banner. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
Listen to the full episode27:28

Every sports team needs to put fans in the stands. And that's not an easy task.

There is a lot of competition for entertainment dollars these days. Sports teams need an ever-evolving marketing strategy to keep selling tickets.

And they can't always count on a winning team. That means marketing becomes the other player on the roster.

It all comes down to one critical thing: creating a memorable experience that fans crave.

This week, we look at the fascinating ways sports teams market themselves. We’ll unpack why one stadium replaced its ushers with librarians, why another encouraged fans to wear “awful" clothes and how a grammatical error put Toronto on the map. It all comes down to a strategic game plan. Hope you'll join us. 0:57

When the Vancouver Grizzlies moved to Memphis in 2001, that left the Toronto Raptors as the only NBA team in Canada.

The team tried to leverage that fact in its marketing, but the excitement around the Raptors had worn off.

The fans were disenfranchised. The brand was limping.

2015 would mark the 20th anniversary of the Raptors and it provided an opportunity to rebrand the team.

So in 2011, the Raptors marketing department, led by Chief Marketing Officer Shannon Hosford, embarked on a four-year rebranding plan. To begin with, it invited advertising agencies to pitch the team on a brand-new identity.

The assignment contained a big challenge: How do you turn a hockey country into a basketball nation?

Hosford and her team had ambitious plans.

The first goal was to put the Raptors back on the map nationally. Second goal - to attract a celebrity ambassador. Third - to attract the NBA's biggest event - the All-Star game - to Toronto. And fourth - to put the Raptors on the map in the NBA.

The ambassador goal clicked into place in 2013 when Toronto-born rapper Drake jumped onboard.

When the notion was raised to try and bring the All-Star game to Toronto, some didn't think it was possible, saying the game happens in February when the weather is freezing. Americans need passports to get to Toronto. No one would come.

That pushback got the marketing department thinking. Winter runs through Canadian veins. It's part of our culture. Yes, 29 of the 30 NBA teams are located in the U.S. - but why can't we be proud of our geography instead of apologetic?

Meanwhile, advertising agencies were pitching their rebranding ideas.

One agency, called Sid Lee, unveiled an idea that was dramatically different from all the other agencies. The core idea was that Canadians were outsiders playing our own game - after all, basketball was invented by a Canadian.

Sid Lee presented three simple words: "We The North."

We the North t-shirts adorn seats at the Scotiabank Arena prior to the start of the game in Toronto. (Albert Leung/CBC)

The Raptors organization loved it. There was debate whether the line should be "We ARE the North," but the Sid Lee ad agency disagreed. They believed "We the North" sounded wrong in just the right way. They saw it as declaration. Like "We the people."

Sid Lee shot a 60-second video to launch the rebranding. Instead of actors, they put out a casting call for local basketball players.

The video did not contain a single Canadian cliché. There were no Mounties, no moose, no mountains. Instead, it featured concrete playgrounds, graffiti-covered back alleys and gritty urban landscapes.

The final shot of the video showed a black flag that said "We The North."

Sid Lee tried filming the flag in the sunshine but it had no impact. So in the wee hours of the night, as the final shot of the video, they filmed the flag flapping in the cold air against a dark night sky.

It was dramatic.

While all this was going on, the Raptors made the playoffs for the first time in seven years. So the video was rush-released:

It was a manifesto.

It caught on like wildfire. Drake and Justin Bieber both retweeted it. That generated 500,000 views in the first two days.

Then, against all odds, Toronto won the bid to host the All-Star Game in 2016. With that, three of the Raptors' four massively ambitious goals were achieved.

Now only the biggest puzzle piece remained: putting the Raptors on the map in the NBA.

Kawhi Leonard celebrating the Raptors' championship. (Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)

Then came the historic 2019 season.

The Toronto Raptors won the NBA championship in a remarkable series against the seemingly invincible Golden State Warriors.

"We The North" thundered across - not one - but two nations.

With that, the final piece of the Raptors' audacious set of goals clicked into place.

Marketing-wise, it was one of the biggest, most successful sports rebrandings in recent history.

Because it wasn't just a marketing campaign. It was a revolution.

For more stories about Sports Marketing, click or tap the "Listen" tab above to hear the full Under the Influence episode. You can also find us on the CBC Radio app or subscribe to our Podcast.

Under the Influence is recorded in the Terstream Mobile Recording studio, a 1969 Airstream trailer that's been restored and transformed into a studio on wheels. So host Terry O'Reilly can record the show wherever he goes.

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