Raptors barely rate

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:01 AM ET

This much we know: The Raptors are not Canada's team.

Here, in Year 11 of a franchise forever searching for better days, television ratings remain minuscule, the lowest of the low of Toronto's four mainstream teams.

In truth, so few people are watching the Raptors that a week ago the International Bowl, an obscure college football game played at Rogers Centre between two teams to which nobody had any emotional attachment, drew a larger Saturday afternoon audience on TSN than did the Raptors-Atlanta Hawks game the previous night.

That borders on the pathetic if not the troubling.

The average Raptors game on TSN this season has drawn an audience of 131,000. The average game on The Score, where the majority of their games are found, has been at 95,000. No one is even willing to estimate how few people are watching the games on Raptors NBA TV, their digital cable outlet.

The Raptors' numbers are somewhat startling when compared with those of other Toronto teams:

* On average, Raptors games on television draw about one-quarter the number of viewers the Argos draw.

* On average, Raptors games on television draw less than one-third the number the Blue Jays draw.

* Predictably, the Leafs' numbers dwarf everyone else, with Hockey Night In Canada audiences proving to be almost nine times greater than that of the average Raptors game.

So, are the Raptors concerned with the fact they're selling tickets at home but seemingly not expanding their market within Toronto or certainly within Canada?

"It's still too low but it's starting to come back," said Tom Anselmi, the chief operating officer of the ever-optimistic Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. "The Score is up 25% over last year and they're hitting a younger audience. TSN's numbers are up about 15%. For a team coming off three pretty bad years, our gate numbers are coming back nicely -- we've had seven sellouts -- and historically it takes awhile for the TV numbers to catch up."

Here is one of the Raptors many problems: On Sunday afternoon, they played a thrilling game against the Dallas Mavericks, who have the best record in the NBA. The crowd at the Air Canada Centre was electric. The result should have been a last-second Raptors win.

But how many saw the game?

About a million Canadians at the time were tuned in to watch the Chicago Bears play the Seattle Seahawks. The Raptors, meanwhile, miss out on an opportunity to strut their stuff. And you can't blame it on bad broadcasts, either. The Raptors broadcasts, with Chuck Swirsky working with either Jack Armstrong or Leo Rautins, happen to be terrific.

From the outside, though, the Raptors are beginning to take on the look of the average American NHL franchise. They have a loyal fan base. They sell tickets. They found their niche in a busy market. But their audience doesn't extend much beyond that.

They have not, as they expected, become Canada's team. "We haven't been good enough to draw people in Alberta or B.C.," said Richard Peddie, the CEO of MLSEL. "But do I believe we can be Canada's team? There was a time in the '90s when baseball was outdrawing hockey on television here. We're not discouraged with the numbers."

They are not discouraged but they have not broadened their fan base. All the losing, all the mistakes, eliminated the casual fan.

"When Vince Carter rimmed out in 2001 in the playoff game against Philly, the audience on TSN was just under a million," Anselmi said. "We know what we have to shoot for. We know what's possible.

"I still see basketball interest in Canada. All our market research tells us that. Last year we went to Edmonton for our 3-on-3 tournament and it was during the Stanley Cup final and every car had an Oilers flag on it. The city was going completely wild over hockey and we still got 5,000 out to West Edmonton Mall for our event. They were kids totally into the NBA who had no clue about the hockey playoffs.

"When we first started, we had a lot of seven- and eight- year-old fans. Those people are now 17 and 18. We're building an audience. It takes time. We have the second busiest website in the NBA."

As of this morning, the Raptors are in first place in a rather wobbly division. In first place, but so far still to climb.


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