'Superfan' Nav Bhatia on the Raptors' success
Kawhi Leonard’s buzzer-beater against the Philadelphia 76ers wasn’t the only thing that was trending a day after the Toronto Raptors won Game 7 of the NBA Eastern Conference semifinals.
The seemingly-bored expression of Canadian businessman Jim Treliving among a crowd of faces hanging in suspense set the internet abuzz almost as much.
“I’ve never had more calls on anything else in my life,” said Treliving, Dragons’ Den investor and Boston Pizza International founder, in a phone interview.
“It wasn’t that I was stone-faced. If the photo had been taken a second later, you would have seen me jumping. I looked up at the clock, there were four seconds left and when Kawhi took the shot all I could think was: ‘Oh my God, go in.’ I was so excited I couldn’t move. I couldn’t talk.”
Other business leaders at Raptors games may not draw nearly as much attention as Treliving, but he’s certainly not the only executive sitting in “Mahogany Row” of the team’s most exciting playoff run to date. Like the celebrity-spotting of a Los Angeles Lakers or New York Knicks game, Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena has become a who’s-who event for Canada’s CEOs and executives.
“Whether it’s Gerry Schwartz sitting in the front row, or banking executives – and, obviously, it’s Scotiabank Arena – there are executives from every industry sitting in box seats or in the first five-to-eight rows,” said Brian Cooper, chairman of MKTG Canada and a former vice-president of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, in a phone interview.
“It’s the epicentre of the financial district, of the business community in Canada, and there’s a lot of business going on. It’s the hottest ticket in town.”
A big draw this year is, of course, Leonard – the legend behind one of Toronto’s most iconic sports moments and now just the second player in NBA post-season history to hit a series-winning buzzer-beater, alongside Michael Jordan.
Bruce Croxon – who says he bought Raptors season seats “as my own personal reward” after he sold Lavalife in 2004 – says he sees a subtle difference in the crowd this year.
“The fan base for the Raptors has always been uber-involved, excited and supportive. The slight difference this year is that … there is an awareness that we are watching a special player,” Croxon, co-founder of venture firm Round 13 Capital, said. “That’s evidenced by the number of times you turn to the person beside you and say: ‘Wow, did you see that?’ There’s a growing feeling of gratitude that we’re able to witness this.”
At the same time, the Raptors’ attraction for business leaders may go beyond just its star player.
Cooper said sitting courtside at a basketball game has its own appeal, drawing celebrities and star athletes like Drake, P.K. Subban and Lindsey Vonn, all of whom can be seen without the separation of glass and boards that would come with a Toronto Maple Leafs game, for example.
“Once you have celebrities there, you want to be part of that scene. That’s the difference – you can have a celebrity at a hockey game but you can’t see them through the glass,” Cooper said.
“If you look at the [Raptors’] crowd it reflects the changing face of this city and this country. There are a lot more female executives, and a lot more executives are comfortable with taking their female spouse because the sport appeals to them a lot more. It’s not that testosterone-filled, white, old boys’ crowd in hockey.”
Treliving, who also plans to fly into Toronto for Game 4 of the Eastern Conference final against the Milwaukee Bucks, adds that he’s noticed the Raptors draw young business leaders more than other sporting events.
“It’s a young millennial crowd that doesn’t go to other sports who are driving this. This is a young team that young business leaders have grown up with,” he said.
“For any leader, not just business leaders, basketball is something that they can relate to. It’s about operating under pressure. In this game, things can change in less than a second.”
Still, Raptors “Superfan” Nav Bhatia – who owns several Hyundai dealerships and has never missed a game in the franchise’s history – says that Canadian CEOs and executives are no different than other fans.
“I believe they’ve joined the Raptors bandwagon now. All of Canada is on the bandwagon… Corporate people are no different,” Bhatia said.
“This is a big game in town right now… and I believe we’ll see more and more of these corporate people coming because they can afford those very expensive tickets and they want to be a part of it. They want to see the game and they want to be seen there.”