The Toronto Raptors and the New Canadian Identity

In 37 different cities across Canada, thousands of fans of diverse cultural backgrounds gather in their local Jurassic Park. They cheer together, they curse together, they celebrate together.

While hockey was once the sport central to Canada’s identity, the Raptors have quickly become “Canada’s Team.” As of this month, they have surpassed the Maple Leafs to become the most valuable sports franchise in Canada—this indicates a shift in the Canadian identity and the Raptors’ ability to speak to that new identity in a way that no other team has.

Canada’s population has become rapidly more multicultural over the course of the past decade, with 7.7 million Canadians and 51 per cent of Torontonians identifying as “visible minorities” in the latest census—Statistics Canada predicts that over 30 per cent of all Canadians will belong to this group by 2036. Multiculturalism and stories of immigration have been woven into Canada’s cultural fabric.

These are stories that the Raptors wear with pride. The team itself is multicultural, including players of Congolese, Spanish, Cameroonian, and Taiwanese descent. Masai Ujiri, the president and general manager of the Raptors, grew up in Nigeria. He says that the multiculturalism of the team is an important factor.

“It’s overwhelming because you think, when I look at all the international players we have on our team, […] it’s really brought us together, and I think it says so much because that’s how our city is,” Ujiri said. “That’s how the country is, that we can all relate to the multicultural or the diversity of Toronto and Canada. They talk in different languages on defense. They talk in different languages in the locker room, and it’s like that in our organization. And being international myself and being from Africa, I’m proud of that.”

The Raptors have managed to successfully differentiate themselves through multiculturalism, largely because this multiculturalism reflects the Canadian market that they speak to. The brand is deliberate in cultivating fans from different groups, showing awareness and care for its diverse audience. In the 2016-2017 season, special edition Chinese language jerseys were released for Chinese New Year which directly spoke to and included Toronto’s Chinese Canadian fans.

“We the North” has evolved into much more than a campaign slogan, instead becoming the heart of the Raptors’ brand in the same way that “Just Do It” has come to represent Nike. Serving as a symbol of both uniqueness and inclusion, it celebrates the value of being an outsider with a different perspective. Historically stigmatized and marginalized, the NBA’s only Canadian team used “We the North” to turn its point of difference into a point of pride. The Raptors recognize the impact this message can have on multicultural fans and new Canadians, and deliberately display “We the North” in 24 different languages on the big screen during their games.

Scene from a “We the North” commercial. “We are the North side, a territory all our own. If that makes us outsiders, we’re in.”

Chants of “We the North” bring everyone, regardless of cultural background, into the team. This is the big appeal of the Raptors for Canada’s diverse population, says Andy Xu, who immigrated to Canada eight years ago.

“Everyone is accepted. I feel so comfortable,” he notes.

Raptors “super fan” Nav Bhatia speaks of the Raptors’ success as his own, saying that he knew “one day we would make it.”

This brand connection is in large part driven by how the Raptors have strategically positioned themselves. In them, people across Canada can see themselves. Their success is their fans’ success, and their story is Canada’s story. In their rise to success, the Raptors have been able to capture growth in the evermore diverse Canadian market in a way that fosters inclusion and unity and capitalizes on a new Canadian identity. This has been so effective that they have done what many believed impossible in a divisive time: they have brought people together.

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