From virtual fans to drive-in viewing parties, Toronto Raptors know their fandom is still alive

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Toronto Raptor fans gather at Ontario Place for a drive in viewing party of game one of the Raptors series VS the Brooklyn Nets on Aug. 18, 2020.

Yader Guzman/The Globe and Mail

There are no basketball games at Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena during the pandemic. No rollicking sold-out crowds to dress up in playoff T-shirts. Jurassic Park can’t open to the thousands of fans who love gathering shoulder-to-shoulder outside the arena for those raucous viewing parties.

But that does not lighten the workload for those in charge of marketing and in-game operations for the Toronto Raptors.

There are other challenges the club’s owners, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE), are tackling. How do you create a home-court vibe for the Raptors when the team is playing every game of its title defence in Orlando? How do reproduce that feeling of Raptors fan unity when your supporters can’t gather in large crowds? How do you help your players keep the racial-equality conversation alive?

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“Everything we’re doing isn’t just for this bridge moment, it’s for the future of sports and how we’re going to engage with our fans when even our fans come back,” said Shannon Hosford, MLSE’s chief marketing officer. “I think it’s an interesting opportunity and we’re learning from this.”

Hosford’s team members are reimagining how to deliver live sports experiences. They’re inserting Raptors fans virtually into the games in Orlando. They’re making Toronto’s designated home games in the NBA bubble look and sound more like those held inside Scotiabank Arena. They’re working with Black artists on apparel that helps the players keep a spotlight on the pressing issues of racial inequality.

Each time the Raptors are the home team in a playoff game, MLSE can invite approximately 220 of its fans to attend the game virtually – those are the fans you see on the videoboards during Raptors game broadcasts. Sitting in front of their webcams at home, each fan enters an online platform created by the NBA. Once inside the platform, those fans have a Raptors-themed virtual experience, customized by the same game-operations staff who run the sounds and visuals during live games at Scotiabank Arena. The fans, who get in by MLSE invitation only, must remain in front of their webcam the whole game, without breaks.

MLSE staff and Raptors family members have helped troubleshoot the virtual fan experience and provided feedback. The members of Raptors Uprising – MLSE’s undefeated NBA2K gaming team – have also been fans and given opinions.

MLSE’s game-operations crew sends audio and video to Orlando to make each Raptors home game sound more like Scotiabank Arena, with familiar cheers, faces and voices. They surprised the team with the special touches for Game 1 of the playoffs: the pre-game introductions recorded by players’ families and singer-songwriter Jessie Reyez singing O Canada while kneeling atop the CN Tower.

“It’s the little special things that kind of hit you right here,” said Raptors coach Nick Nurse, pointing to his heart during a video call with reporters, speaking about those pre-Game 1 features. “Those things matter.”

MLSE is working on how to deliver favourite stadium foods to fans at home via its restaurant, Real Sports Bar & Grill, and plans to have celebrities interacting virtually in Raptors games, too.

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Owning teams in many sports, MLSE takes part in regular idea-sharing sessions with colleagues across several leagues, figuring out how to deliver live sports during this unprecedented time.

“We’re in a fortunate spot that we get to learn from NBA, NHL and MLS and take all those best practices and apply them,” Hosford said.

Like many players in the NBA, the Raptors wanted to use their platform in the bubble to help stamp out systemic racism. They had Black Lives Matter printed on their buses. The team collaborated with Black artists and manufacturers on apparel to wear before cameras, featuring individual names of Black lives lost unjustly.

Typically during the NBA playoffs, areas in downtown Toronto – especially around Scotiabank Arena – are decorated in large Raptors playoff images. Instead, MLSE repurposed and rescaled such art work for Orlando, where Raps staff decorated the team’s hotel floor to create a postseason vibe for the players.

MLSE has also refashioned the Raptors outdoor viewing party for 2020. Instead of inviting thousands to stand in Jurassic Park, the club welcomes 250 cars for a drive-in viewing party at Toronto’s Ontario Place – and makes sure the team in Orlando sees the video.

“It’s not Jurassic Park as we know it, but it’s important to have a place for fans and we want to show the team all the different things we’re doing here, to show that Raptors fandom is still alive and well,” Hosford said. “We’re looking forward to a time when everyone can be together cheering on the team again. But at this time, there is tremendous opportunity, and we have to be thinking and moving ahead.”