Risky approach lured Raps

PAUL FRIESEN -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 8:23 AM ET

Kevin Donnelly was reading the Globe and Mail on a weekend earlier this year, when he noticed a brief story outlining how the Toronto Raptors had acquired exclusive NBA marketing rights across Canada.

As the only NBA team in the country, the Raptors seemed intent on becoming "Canada's team."

That caused a light to go on inside the head of the man in charge of bringing events to the MTS Centre.

"I picked up the phone on Monday," Donnelly recalled. "And said, 'Hey, Canada's team, come and play in Canada's newest venue.' And within about three conversations later, I had secured the game."

Last week's NBA pre-season game between the Raptors and Portland Trail Blazers turned out to be a slam dunk, drawing 10,900 fans to the one-year-old facility.

The key to securing the game wasn't just the fact Donnelly had a nice, new building to offer.

He also banked on the event being a box-office hit, taking the risk of offering a financial guarantee to the Raptors.

Entrepreneurial bent

It's an approach True North Sports and Entertainment has taken with other sports events in its first year, and one that separates it from the old Arena, run by Winnipeg Enterprises.

You think Enterprises officials would have been willing to put public funds on the line like that?

"Not a chance," Donnelly said. "As a private company who has a very, very strong entrepreneurial bent to it, we are able to do exactly what I did for the NBA game: see an opportunity, strategize how it's going to lead to a date for our building, and then walk the walk.

"I don't have to ask permission of a city councillor ... it allows that process a much quicker path."

The strategy helped bring events like the Grand Slam of Curling's Canadian Open, too, and the World Team Challenge figure skating event.

The only sports event in the MTS Centre that can't be considered an unqualified success over the past year was the NORCECA men's volleyball championship, Sept. 10-15.

Donnelly is convinced that tournament would have drawn more than 9,500 fans if it had been a week or two later, giving organizers more time to promote it in schools.

So what can we expect in Years 2 and 3?

For starters, the Canadian Open of Curling plans to return. One of the hottest current tickets is the New Year's Day Olympic women's hockey preview between Team Canada and the U.S.

Donnelly says he wouldn't hesitate to go after another NBA game, either. Lacrosse and arena football exhibitions are also possible.

"And from there, you take a look at the bigger opportunities," Donnelly said. "Should we be considering another tenant, one to complement the Manitoba Moose?"

In any event, the success of Year 1 bodes well for the future.

"The challenge will be coming up with something new again," Donnelly said. "Our commitment to quality, variety programming and good value will be as strong, or maybe stronger, in Year 2. We have to convince the people to keep coming back."


Videos

Photos