In what will start out looking like a publicity stunt and may end up changing the face of a franchise, the Toronto Raptors are about to begin a major partnership with the city’s most globally recognizable citizen.
On Monday, MLSE will announce the first of several initiatives with hip-hop impresario Drake, which will see him acting as a host, business partner and consultant for the team.
In a league driven by shiny-object syndrome, the Toronto-born musician has always had an earthy feel to his fandom.
Three years ago, just as it was about to get really bad, he laid out his bona fides.
“I am a Raptors fan to the death,” Drake told ESPN.
How grim was it back then? Whoever transcribed the ESPN interview included the 26-year-old global brand-factory “sighing” as he said it.
Last week, he appeared on the same U.S. sports network’s daily screaming competition, First Take.
“The real goal here is to build up the Toronto Raptors,” Drake announced in the midst of wider conversation about the league.
Host Stephen A. Smith burst into laughter. Then he got quiet (a first).
“The Toronto Raptors? Really? Really?!”
Yeah, pal. Really.
Over the years, Drake’s been a regular in the courtside seats. When he shows, he usually sits a few chairs over from another boldface name — Bell CEO George Cope, the guiding force in the MLSE boardroom.
Unlike a lot of the one per centers at the ACC, the pair spends the basketball game watching basketball, rather than their cellphones.
That loyalty — and also his immense following inside the game — has been noted.
The nuptials will start Monday with an announcement that Drake is partnering with the Raptors as they accept the 2016 NBA All-Star Game.
He’ll be drafted in as a non-official host of festivities. An actual MC, as well as a figurative one.
The hip-hop star will also launch a clothing line in conjunction with the team. Most intriguingly, he is being asked to consult on a complete redesign of the club’s image to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the franchise in the 2014-15 season.
According to sources at MLSE, everything about the team is on the table . . . aside from the name. Give up your Huskies dreams. MLSE and Drake are sticking with dinosaurs.
Going forward, this will be more than a business arrangement.
It would be wrong to call what comes next a renaissance. That would imply that the Raptors have a legacy to build on. After 18 years, all they have is one playoff series win and Vinsanity to draw from. That’s it.
It’s within Drake’s power to change that.
The template is the Brooklyn Nets.
A terrible franchise marooned in a city no one in the NBA wanted to go to. It was the sort of team good players left. This will sound familiar to you.
An ownership change was a part of it. Moving to the correct side of Manhattan was a bigger part. There was a rebrand.
But the key element of Brooklyn’s resurgence is Jay-Z, and the trail of glamour he was able to lay down.
Hip hop’s cool uncle took an (incredibly tiny) ownership position in exchange for polishing the shield. He didn’t have to do much. Switch from Yankees to Nets ball-caps. Show up to a few games. Whisper in the ears of a few guys who grew up on The Blueprint.
The result is an almost instant contender, the sort of marquee brand future hall of famers want to be associated with.
Drake is already doing many of these things for free, but it’s never been directional. He is friends with many of the game’s stars (“No relationship is closer than me and LeBron,” he was once said), but he hasn’t taken an active interest in luring them to Toronto. In the past, there was no reason to do so, and no conduit through which to operate even if he felt like it.
Now he has the ear of MLSE CEO Tim Leiweke, and the attention of everyone in the organization. There is, as yet, no suggestion he will take an ownership stake.
Last week, Raptors centre Amir Johnson taped himself buying up hundreds of copies of Drake’s new album and handing them out at Dundas Square.
At the time, it seemed like he was helping out a pal. Maybe he was in fact doing some promo for his new boss.
After laying the groundwork, Jay-Z gave up his share of the Nets in order to start a sports agency business. Look at all he managed in just a couple of years.
That same sense of possibility suffuses Drake’s arrival into the family. After so many years of executives who couldn’t lure major talent up to the land of bad cable TV or keep the what they had, they finally have a pitch man NBA stars will listen to.
Guys in this league don’t listen to suits. They don’t listen to former players. They listen to the only people they look up to — pop cultural icons. Drake’s bigger than any of them right now.
He’s got a two-year window in which to work. Most of the money comes off the Raptors books in the summer of 2015. That’s his target.
The potential is so exciting, they’re already starting to worry about it in the tower over the ACC.
“We just hope he doesn’t want to be an agent,” one key MLSE figure said, joking.
And also not joking at all.