Raptors fend off Warriors in NBA Finals, and marketers hop on bandwagon
Seen Drake recently? Of course you have.
The ‘6ix God’ and the Toronto Raptors are making the absolute most of a co-branding partnership as the team makes its historic first appearance in the NBA Finals, with Drake courtside – in full Spike Lee mode – at every single home game.
It’s the ultimate best-case scenario for a partnership that began in September of 2013 when the Raptors were perennial playoff underachievers and agreed to name Drake – already a Grammy-winning multi-number-one-album-making hip hop superstar - as the team’s global ambassador.
Raptors ownership, obviously, is thrilled.
“We couldn’t be happier with where this relationship has gone,” Shannon Hosford, chief marketing officer, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment told BNN Bloomberg in a phone interview on Thursday. “Mostly because when we started out, I think everyone looked at it and thought it was never going to work out the way it has.
“It just continues to evolve and has been one of the best partnerships the Raptors have had.”
The partnership, which began with the aforementioned loosely-defined global ambassador title, has evolved to include merchandise collaborations with Drake’s clothing line October’s Very Own (OVO), planned ‘Drake Night’s during select Raptors home games, community outreach programs as well as renaming the team’s practice facility the OVO Athletic Centre, complete with the brand’s ubiquitous owl logo in March.
Even the team’s co-founder praised the job Drake has done putting Toronto, and the Raptors on the map.
“He’s a great advocate of the city. Maybe the best endorser that we’ve ever had,” former Raptors co-owner John Bitove – who sold his stake in 1996, before Drake even walked the halls of Degrassi – told BNN Bloomberg in an interview on Wednesday.
“He loves his home town and what he does out there gets done in other NBA cities by other people… they’re just not one of the most famous people in the world doing it.”
But what’s in it for Drake?
“For Drake, the stage is massive,” Josh Roter, co-owner of Toronto vintage clothing store, In Vintage We Trust told BNN Bloomberg. “He sits courtside every home game and it’s like free press. He’s doing his thing, and how many eyes are on him every other night?”
But more important than being seen, Roter said, was an opportunity for Drake to break a new barrier in the evolving cross-section of basketball, hip hop, and fashion.
“Usually when sports teams design a jersey it’s behind closed curtains and there’s very, very little press for the design house that’s doing it,” Roter said. “There’s never been a clothing brand that’s been openly talked about and aligned to create an on-court jersey. It just doesn’t happen.
“Even at the height of early-to-mid-2000s urban wear, no New York urban brand was ever asked to create a jersey for the Knicks. It’s a big deal.”
MLSE, too, is aware of the new ground that was broken with the design.
“We knew at that point that working with him was so important for our brand, because the reach that we had globally with that announcement was unprecedented for us,” Hosford said.
However, Roter noted that one of the hidden pluses to the OVO partnership might be that it allows the Raptors to move one step further from their expansion-era past.
“I think the Raptors have been running away and hiding from the ‘90s for so long, trying to find this new identity in the NBA’s merchandising program,” he said, referencing the team’s original purple jerseys, emblazoned with a massive red dinosaur.
“No one wanted it. They were a schlocky little team. No one cared.”
The catch, however, is that now it is exactly those items that some Raptors die-hards want the most.
“Everyone who follows the Raptors right now would love a dino [jersey] with Kawhi Leonard, a number two on the back,” Roter said. “They would die for that.”
Not that there isn’t an equally-rabid demand for the OVO merch.
“Even this morning, we put out today what we’re going to have on the chairs for the Finals, it’s an OVO shirt giveaway,” Hosford said ahead of the team’s Game 1 victory over the Golden State Warriors. “People are lined up outside our store to buy it, and they’re not even available to buy.”
The passion Raptors fans have for the Drake-tied merchandise matches the passion the rapper himself has for the on-court product… a passion the league had to step in and warn the Raptors about.
While Hosford would not comment on the warning, she would not discourage Drake’s enthusiasm.
“I think it’s safe to say that Drake is embodying what the fans in Toronto are feeling right now,” she said.
Oh, and about that vintage jersey Drake sported Thursday with the name and number of Warriors superstar Steph Curry’s father and former Rators guard, Dell…
“I got five people asking me for a Dell Curry jersey this week,” Roter said before Drake stepped out on the court wearing one. “They were never mass-produced. You’d have to get a game-issued or game-worn.”
“Drake was wearing an authentic, which might have been a $180 jersey max,” Roter told BNN Bloomberg via text on Friday morning, “but now it would be three-to-five-times that.”
What do you think has given the biggest boost to the Raptors’ brand?