The Next Big Sporting Powerhouse: Toronto
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
The city's fans stayed supportive through bad times. Now their teams are giving them a chance to celebrate.
By Stephen Starr
When the NBA Finals began last May, the Toronto Raptors were the clear underdogs. These were their first-ever finals. They were up against the Golden State Warriors, who had played in the previous four finals, winning the last two.
But the Raptors won, just as their city is winning, emerging as a global sports powerhouse that’s challenging the supremacy of cities like London, Sydney and New York. Only five years ago, the Canadian data-analysis site The 10 and 3 had ranked Toronto as the second-most miserable city in North America for sports fans, based on the lack of success across major sports. Today, Toronto’s teams are racking up league titles and reaching playoffs, drawing global stars and sports and attracting some of the largest audiences in North America.
The Blue Jays baseball team has played in the American League Championship Series twice in recent years, while Toronto FC won the Major League Soccer Cup in 2017 and was a finalist again in November. Toronto’s Canadian football team, the Argonauts, won the CFL championship in 2017 and boasts the oldest name in North American pro sports, while the city’s Maple Leafs ice hockey team enjoys the fourth-highest attendance in the 31-team National Hockey League. In 2015, Toronto hosted more than 6,000 athletes competing in 36 events for the Pan-American Games. And because the Raptors were competing in them, some of the games of the NBA Finals were held in Toronto — the first time a city outside the U.S. was hosting them.
There’s a determination and drive to succeed.
Brad Singleton, Irish rugby player who is relocating to Toronto.
Toronto is also attracting sports and franchises outside the traditional North American sports universe. Formed in 2016, the Toronto Wolfpack rugby league franchise is the world’s first sports team that regularly competes on both sides of the Atlantic. In October, following a 28-1 season, it won promotion to the UK-based Super League, the northern hemisphere’s top club competition in the sport. It didn’t stop there. Weeks later, it announced the signing of New Zealand ex-All Black legend Sonny Bill Williams on a two-year, reported $6.4 million deal making him the highest-paid player in rugby history. As word spread, the Wolfpack website crashed, the sport shaken. Also in October, Irish international and two-time Super League champion Brad Singleton signed a three-year deal to move to Toronto. This spring, he will transplant himself and his young family from Leeds to Toronto.
“There’s a determination and drive to succeed,” he says. “It’s very attractive for a player. There’s no better side on the up.”
Singleton’s speaking of one team, but that drive is also visible in the fan support that the city’s teams can boast — and which withstood years of little success without turning their backs on sports. That rock-solid fan base in turn makes Toronto’s franchises lucrative investments, especially as the city turns a corner on failure. The Wolfpack is backed by billionaire mining magnate David Argyle. Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment runs Toronto’s leading basketball, soccer, football and hockey teams — experts say that has helped the city become home to a savvy cohort of sports business professionals.
“It’s become a sophisticated sports business city … We’ve cultivated a culture where we know sport is a good investment,” says Cheri Bradish, a sports marketing expert at Ryerson University. “The city has a growing Millennial/Generation Y consumer base, which translates to a fan base. If you look at their consumer behavior trends, they’re not investing in real estate, they’re more experience-based.”
North America’s fourth-largest city, Toronto is home to more than 250 ethnicities and 170 languages, making it one of the most multicultural urban landscapes on the planet: Half of its residents were born overseas, more than Sydney (43 percent) or New York (37 percent).
That means that while New York may boast more professional sports teams, Toronto’s pool of talent with diverse interests is allowing it to begin catching up. This year saw the Toronto Arrows rugby union team enter the Major League Rugby competition as Canada’s only representative. Then there’s a hugely competitive women’s hockey scene, curling, lacrosse (a joint national sport) and international sports such as cricket, Gaelic games and Australian Rules football. One of Portugal’s most successful soccer clubs, Sporting Lisbon, runs an academy from Toronto’s Little Portugal district.
The city administration says it doesn’t provide financial incentives for sports organizations interested in setting up in Toronto. Its “primary investments are in facilities (that) are essential for sports leagues of all kinds throughout the city,” says Shane Gerard, senior communications manager for the City of Toronto. But Toronto does boast a strong community spirit. Organizers of the World Masters Athletics Championships which Toronto hosts next summer have had the foresight to engage local communities to stage 12 welcoming parties during the competition. The idea is to help international participants connect with their fellow foreign nationals living in the city.
Still, Toronto has holes in its sporting resume. Unlike Sydney or London, Toronto has never held the Olympic Games — it has twice failed to win hosting bids. The fact that Sonny Bill Williams’ public unveiling took place in London instead of Toronto speaks to where the rugby league’s fan base remains firmly rooted. The Wolfpack doesn’t have its own stadium — though many Super League clubs don’t — and is without a single Canadian player on its roster, both significant impediments to growing the sport in North America, though the latter is something it’s working on changing.
All that said, the club’s multicultural, international character very much gels with Toronto’s own identity and demographics. And that’s clearly a winning formula for the city.
- Stephen Starr, Stephen Starr is a journalist and author who lived in Syria from 2007 until 2012. He is the author of Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising.Contact Stephen Starr