How Toronto Raptors fans used the Internet to stave off extinction
Sam Toman, Special to Macleans.ca | Apr 24, 2007 | 14:23:55
The Toronto Raptors are finally getting some revenge. The red-headed stepchild of Canadian sports, formerly known as the “Craptors,” have emerged from the darkest period in team history and are headed for the franchise's first division title. But if you go online you might think the Raptors were already a basketball dynasty.
Leaguewide, Toronto fans have earned a nasty reputation for savagely defending their team online, even when the Raptors couldn’t defend for themselves on the court. The official team website(www.raptors.com)is the second most popular in the NBA receiving 80 per cent more page views than the league average. There are more websites and blogs devoted to the Dinos than any other franchise and local podcasters have been celebrated in the New York Times and Sports Illustrated. Through the power of online balloting, fans recently flexed their muscle by voting star forward Chris Bosh onto the Eastern Conference all-star team.
“[The Raptors] have the most rabid fans of anyone in the league,” wrote sportswriter Bill Simmons of ESPN.com in a recent column. “There are more of them than you’d ever think, they take every slight personally, and they’ll absolutely keep sending emails to people like me until their team is given the credit they deserve.”
Until recently the franchise didn’t deserve much credit. They’d suffered four losing seasons in a row, disgraced superstar Vince Carter had given up on the team and fled town. Rock bottom came late last season when they had the dubious honour of surrendering 81-points to basketball villain Kobe Bryant.
In the face of such humiliation and shattered expectations, the team’s dwindling fan base regrouped and fled underground – to the blogosphere – where they could cheer for and talk about their team without anyone knowing their secret shame: they like the Raptors.
Toronto Star basketball beat writer Doug Smith equates this phenomenon to group therapy. “It’s a place where like-minded fans can vent; whether they’re venting about the right things doesn’t really matter,” he says.
Chuck Swirsky, play-by-play announcer for the Raptors, daily blogger and voice of the franchise, bears the brunt of this cyber-venting every single game. “I probably get 70, maybe even closer to 100 e-mails from fans during the actual game,” he says. “Fans ask questions like, ‘Why isn’t Chris Bosh in the game?’ and ‘Why aren’t we playing zone defense?’ I’ve worked in Chicago, I’ve been in Detroit and I don’t think I’ve ever been around a fan base that is so crazy."
Demographics have a lot to do with this online fervor. “It’s a younger audience that follows basketball,” Smith says. “They are Internet savvy and much more able to get information and share thoughts online than many hockey or baseball fans.”
There is also something fundamentally Canadian about Raptors fans: the inferiority complex. The team is largely ignored by the U.S. media and here at home, where hockey is gospel, the Raptors are openly disdained by puck-headed hockey Brahmins like the Toronto Sun's Al Strachan, who once called for the liquidation of the franchise to free-up resources for Hogtown's fortunate son, the Maple Leafs.
Geography is another important factor. With fans spread from Port McNeill, B.C. to Gander, Newfoundland and six players on the team’s 15-man roster having played internationally, both Smith and Swirsky get countless e-mails from fans in places like Italy and Spain, Yellowknife and Israel.
Adam Francis and Dave Randell began cheering electronically three years ago when the team was at it’s lowest. They launched Raptors HQ(www.hooplife.ca/raptorshq), a sober and sophisticated website with daily updates, game previews and analysis. It’s one of at least seven frequently updated Raptors fan sites on the web, more than any other NBA team.
“It’s a lot more fun to talk about a team that’s bad,” Randell says. “There is more speculation, you’re desperate, grasping for something, anything, that could make the team better.” With 10,000 daily hits from around the world there seems to be a lot of desperate fans out there.
In a gesture to the international flavour of the club Raptors HQ posted an entire entry in Spanish, catering to fans of the team’s two Spanish stars, Jose Calderon and Jorge Garbajosa. “We’re not trying to be the voice of the Raptors, but rather the voice of the fans of the Raptors – in any language. It’s a voice that wasn’t that loud when we started. But it’s loud now,” Francis adds.
It’s also a voice that is about to get louder. As the Raps charge into the playoffs it’s clear that general manager Bryan Colangelo has molded the once-moribund franchise into a real contender and a team with the potential to be very good for very long.
But if you don’t see a lot of Raptors fans on the street, it’s because they’re hunched over their keyboards hounding guys like Bill Simmons to recognize the club. “Stop emailing me. I like your team,” Simmons wrote. “I was wrong. OK? I was wrong! LEAVE ME ALONE…!” However, the true test of the fans’ online power still lies ahead. Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report recently announced the Raptors were “dead to him” for some perceived slight or another. Will fans return the scorn? Bloggers, you know what to do.
RaptorBlog - http://www.raptorblog.com/
Raptors RealGM message board - http://www.realgm.com/boards/viewforum.php?f=32
Basketball Jones - http://www.thebasketballjones.net/