Amid the Raptors’ quest to capture their first NBA championship, Michael Reio can already foresee something else — a surge in interest in amateur basketball across the country.
The director and founder of Basketball World Toronto, a local non-profit organization that runs basketball programs for children and adults, says it might be a tad early to evaluate the full impact of this most successful Raptors season on recreational basketball. But he has no doubt the team’s battle against the Golden State Warriors has put them in a bigger spotlight and will lead to increased basketball participation.
“The sport of basketball is growing very fast especially at the amateur level in Canada and the infrastructure is really starting to ramp up everywhere,” said Reio, whose organization counts over 1,500 youth (male and female) in its various programs.
“The more popular the Raptors are and the further in the playoffs they get, there’s more people wanting to participate in the sports. We keep getting more inquiries every year.”
With Raptors fever sweeping the country — the team just one win away from the title — community basketball programs in the city and beyond are bracing for an expected uptick in hoop interest this summer.
Game 5 of this series on Monday attracted nearly 15 million viewers in Canada, becoming the most watched TV program of the year and most watched NBA game ever in the country, according to NBA viewership statistics. According to the same statistics, through five games, 50 per cent of the Canadian population has tuned in to watch all or part of the NBA Finals this year.
City of Toronto staff declined to compare basketball to other sports offered through community recreational programs, but simply said it’s one of the most popular sports on offer.
On an annual basis, there are approximately 275,000 people who attend the city’s basketball programs, and a total of 23,500 basketball course hours, according to the city.
“The city won’t be surprised if there is an elevated interest in its basketball programs and facilities due to the success of the Raptors,” said Shane Gerard, a spokesperson for the city’s Parks, Forestry and Recreation division.
Reio said he has seen the increase of basketball passion among young people across the city, and it is especially palpable now that their favourite team is performing well at the highest stage.
“Everyone wants to be the next Kawhi Leonard or the next Kyle Lowry,” he said. “I think every kid has a dream, and for those who like basketball it is good that they are seeing people they can idolize and say, ‘hey, these things are possible, I can do this.’”
With the increased popularity of the game, Reio said there’s added pressure to everyone involved in community basketball to raise the bar about how they offer programs — from developing apps that help share information to creating promotional materials and becoming better organized.
“Parents are expecting better quality coaching and more skilled staff. There’s more demand for better programming all around,” he said.
The Ontario Basketball Association (OBA), the governing body for basketball in the province, says it has seen a consistent membership increase in its programs over the last five years that the Raptors have made the playoffs, and the jump in numbers could be even higher following this year’s historic run.
“We’re anticipating a boom year starting in the fall registration with young fans who have been inspired to get on the court and get in the game,” said the group’s executive director Jason Jansson in a statement.
Jansson said over 16,000 athletes, under the guidance of about 2,800 coaches, competed in the OBA Championships this past season, the group’s annual signature event that ends in spring. He said many members of their clubs across the province have been gathering at Raptors viewing parties, replicating what many cities all over Canada and some parts of the world are calling their own versions of Jurassic Park.
“Ontario Basketball is very proud of what our partners from the Toronto Raptors have accomplished this season and we’re thrilled about all the interest in basketball it has generated across the province,” he said.
Gilbert Ngabo is a breaking news reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @dugilbo