Lockout won't boost Raptors

BILL HARRIS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:00 AM ET

KEVIN O'NEILL used to joke about the "disgruntled hockey writers" who might show up at Raptors games during an NHL lockout. As it turned out, it was a waste of time for O'Neill to worry about a glut of newspaper guys, since he was axed as coach of the Raptors last spring.

But with the NHL now closing its doors, perhaps for an extended period, is this really an opportunity for the NBA to make inroads in Toronto, as many have assumed?

Or are the fans of the two sports so separate that the absence of hockey will have almost no impact on basketball?

We lean strongly toward the latter argument.

This is a bit of a touchy subject at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., which owns the Raptors and the Leafs. It isn't wise to pit one side of the operation against the other.

Toronto is a hockey-first city and no one disputes that. The question is whether Toronto has any interest in adopting a temporary replacement.

MORE MEDIA COVERAGE

Undoubtedly, media coverage of the Raptors will increase, especially on all-sports TV and radio stations.

Newspapers can adjust the sizes of their pictures, or their headlines, or even their entire sports sections based upon how much is, or isn't, going on. But there are 24 hours in every day, and that never changes. If The Fan 590, Sportsnet, TSN and The Score don't have hockey to talk about, they'll have to find something else.

The NFL, the baseball playoffs and the NBA all can expect a boost in blab on the airwaves. But will that affect Raptors ticket sales or TV ratings?

Extra cameras and microphones have the potential to help the Raptors only if things are going well, and to be blunt they rarely are. Deficiencies will be magnified. The Raptors' goofy quotient always has been high, and during the past six months they have presented us with a nasty power struggle between O'Neill and former general manager Glen Grunwald (both lost), a protracted search for a new GM, a trade demand from fading superstar Vince Carter, and even a $1.5-million lawsuit against Morris Peterson, filed by a woman who claims he gave her genital herpes.

The Raptors are not a novelty in this market anymore. The NBA has been here for a decade. Some like it and follow it. Many do not.

If you look around the Air Canada Centre during Leafs and Raptors games, there are obvious differences. Patrons at Leafs games predominantly are middle-aged men. Raptors games attract more women, kids and visible minorities.

Some of that has to do with the Leafs' season-subscriber list, which dates back multiple decades. But whatever the reason, we basically are dealing with different groups here.

Understandably, the bean-counters at MLSEL would like nothing more than for every hardcore hockey fan suddenly to become a hardcore basketball fan. But that isn't going to happen just because basketball stories gain more prominence in the media.

MINIMAL IMPACT

When flicking through channels, a few competition-starved hockey lovers may linger on a basketball game. But the impact will be minimal, probably immeasurable and extremely short-lived.

You can bet that the split-second hockey comes back, hockey folks will be hockey folks again, and hoops folks will be hoops folks.

The Leafs will sell out in all circumstances. The Raptors will come close to selling out if they're good, but they will take a hit at the gate if they're bad. 'Tis the way in Toronto.

No matter what Kevin O'Neill or anyone else thinks, the hockey lockout will not transform the basketball business in Canada.


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