The Toronto Raptors are ubiquitous in the Greater Toronto Area and maybe even across Canada. Their logo appears on almost every kids wardrobe. The arena sells out every home game. The cool factor of the claw is everywhere and something that other brands will jump through hoops to associate themselves with.
But longtime fans will tell you this wasn’t always the case.
And soccer fans, who are newer to basketball, would be surprised to find out that at one point, the Raptors were as much an afterthought in this city— and amongst MLSE offices — as some of those dreaded Toronto FC teams from the early 2010s.
The arena was often empty; the seasons ticket base was so low that MLSE had to incentivize Toronto Maple Leafs’ season ticket holders to buy Raptors packages in order to keep their Leafs tickets. The jersey sales were amongst the hardcore few and the games weren't on Sportsnet or TSN...they were on something very rugged, very Raptors: the new VR (RIP).
So what changed? Well, they started winning.
Sure it came in growths and spurts and had a few fallbacks, but once the team entered the Masai Ujiri era, the team was pretty much on the ascent of popularity across the country, and this was punctuated by the championship win in 2019.
So why all this Raptors history in a soccer column? Because there’s a lesson in all of this for fans of the Canadian Men’s Soccer Team (CANMNT): relax and enjoy the ride.
I have seen far too much of an obsession with TV ratings and what this means, and how come Canadians don't realize what a talent we have in Alphonso Davies, and how come they aren't paying attention? They will. Just start winning.
The Gold Cup success is a lifetime ago and failed to follow up with any sort of validation or an amplification win. It was almost a one-off. The casual fans across this country will tune in for a winning team slowly but surely, but qualification games against Central American opponents lack a certain sexiness that won’t hold appeal for people who are casual fans of the game.
There’s a reason why Andre De Grasse and Penny Oleksiak are so beloved during the Olympics, but how many of us soccer fans tune in to watch track & field weekly or whatever swim championships are going on? These two stars are just as qualified as Davies, but can we be accused of the same label of ignorance that we bestow upon Canadians who don't watch soccer? No, of course not. People will watch what they enjoy, they don't have an obligation to take in any sport as if its a matter of civic duty.
As this team wins, the fanbase will grow and will multiply, and if they qualify for the World Cup, a critical mass will have been reached which will then build a larger fanbase for the future. The success of this team will beget its fanbase, and not the other way around.
So for those of you who are tuning in: relax, enjoy the ride. Don’t lament about who isn't watching and what that means. Don’t obsess over the TV numbers, and don't think we can shame people into following this team. The inertia will only be destroyed once this team wins meaningful games and then follows it up with continued success that lasts and makes an impressionable impact.
For now, enjoy the quiet little secret, because my guess is one day very soon, it’s about to get very, very loud in here.