Raps look to expand fan base

LANCE HORNBY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:22 AM ET

EDMONTON -- The Raptors want to be known as Canada's favourite basketball team, not just its only team.

And seven years after the Vancouver Grizzlies relocated to Memphis, the Raptors have put together the kind of club that should be able to lure fans from the nation's non-traditional hoop habitats.

Tonight's sold-out visit to Edmonton (17,000 at the Rexall Centre) against the Denver Nuggets won't get the NBA expansion committee stampeding back into Canada, but it means there's a toe-hold for basketball in this market behind the traditional Western passion for football, hockey and rodeo.

"Well, they said the same thing about Toronto years ago (that basketball wouldn't work)," forward Chris Bosh said prior to the team arriving in Alberta yesterday.

"Whether we're the No. 1 team or not, I think people in Canada just want to see it."

Bosh, Kobe Bryant and the rest of Team USA pumped up the sport's ratings throughout North America during the Olympics and when tickets went on sale here ($9 in the nosebleeds to $449 at centre court), there only were a few hundred remaining after the first day.

The Raptors are growing in popularity among young sports fans and new Canadians and this season's anticipated return to the playoffs should foster that growth.

"The interest here is a combination of a lot of things," said Ken Knowles, president of Edmonton Northlands. "There's a wide demographic here, as in Toronto. It's a great sports city and the University of Alberta's team created a lot of attention.

"We had a big crowd here in 1999 when the Raptors played the Grizzlies and I know a lot of people here watch the Raptors on TV. I think it'll be 98% Raptor fans at the Denver game."

The team was to conduct a kids' clinic last night after arriving from Los Angeles.


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