Toronto Raptors Rebrand: Drake

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“Started from the bottom, now we here” – Drake

Similar to the Sacramento Kings rebranding efforts that we covered last week for WWS #40, the Raptors underwent their own rebranding effort over the summer that culminated into Drake being named a global ambassador of the team, and being awarded the 2016 NBA All-Star Game.

The Kings and the Raptors have similar recent histories of losing and front office personnel moves that didn’t work out. The symbolic start of this was the #1 pick Andrea Bargnani. He encapsulated the broken promises of the franchise – full of tools, skill, and potential that was never quite put together. But this summer brought change to the franchise. Here are 5 steps the Toronto Raptors took to #rebrand themselves:

1. Traded Andrea Bargnani

Andrea Bargnani’s #1 selection in the 2006 draft symbolized an era when NBA front offices were infatuated with European bigs. They had the size of traditional bigs but with the skills of guards. Bargnani fit the mold to a tee – he was a seven footer who could shoot 3’s, the obvious comparison being Dirk Nowitzski. And Bargnani wasn’t a bad player – he averaged 21 points in 2010 – it’s that his presence was synonymous with a losing team, and fair or not, that blame gets placed on the player with the highest expectations.

The Raptors’ record in the last five seasons were:

2008-09: 33-49

2009-10: 40-42

2010-11: 22-60

2011-12: 23-43

2012-13: 34-48

The Raptors traded Bargnani to the Knicks on July 10th. The move was a chance to start anew for both parties. And Bargnani slots into a simplified role, no longer expected to carry a franchise (that honor falls on Carmelo Anthony). And the Knicks may have gotten a steal, a classic case of buying low.

2. Fired GM Bryan Colangelo

In a way, Bargnani’s failure was Colangelo’s. Colangelo built a groundbreaking team in the Phoenix Suns “7 Seconds or Less” era in the early 2000s. He was hired by the Raptors in 2006, and his first draft pick was Bargnani. For better or worse, he would tie his fate to the player. He started off well, receiving the 2007 Executive of the Year award. But misjudging Bargnani’s potential and losing Chris Bosh ultimately lead to the Raptor’ current situation, and was compounded by signing Bargnani to a 5 year, $50 million deal. In an era of symbols, one of the first moves the new front office made was trading Bargnani. Speaking of the new front office…

3. Hired Masai Ujiri

Ujiri, along with coach George Karl, had built an exciting brand of basketball in Denver with perhaps the savviest trade of the decade (moving Carmelo Anthony to the Knicks). That trade earned him his current reputation as one of the best GMs in the league. Ujiri and Karl were inexplicably not retained by the Nuggets, and the Raptors wisely jumped. Ujiri, the first African general manager in NBA history, worked for the Raptors early in his career, and returns to one of the most multi-cultural cities in the NBA.

He has yet to make any major moves thus far outside of the Bargnani deal. But patience has been his style of decision making.

4. Named Drake as Brand Ambassador

Similar to Shaq being named a brand ambassador to the Kings, the Raptors named Drake as their brand ambassador. Drake, who released his third album “Nothing Was the Same” the week before, is second biggest brand ambassador in the league after Jay-Z and the Brooklyn Nets. He immediately provides the Raptors with pop culture credibility and enthusiasm. In an era driven by cool, the Raptors hit this out of the park. Combine Drake with…

5. Received the 2016 All-Star Game

The NBA All-Star game is seen as cultural cache in itself. Sure, it’s about the dunk contest, three point shootout, and the game, but the off court shenanigans become the stuff of legend. From Vegas to Houston, the NBA All-Star Game adds cultural capital with an intersection of athletes, musicians, actors, and celebrities congregating to a host city. For one February weekend in 2016, Toronto will be the center of the world.

What’s Next: The Franchise Player

This was a strong summer in the Raptors’ rebranding efforts off the court. But all the innovation and cool won’t matters unless it translates into wins, playoffs, and ultimately, a championship. The next step is acquiring a franchise piece (the Kings did so by signing Demarcus Cousins to a max deal). There’s an opportunity staring at them in next season’s NBA draft with Toronto native/uber prospect Andrew Wiggins. Even if they don’t draft Wiggins, the Raptors may be bad enough to get a top 5 pick in one of the strongest drafts in recent history.

Rebranding is all about changing symbols. Like the Kings, we’ll see if these moves translate onto the court.


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