How Canadians Are Coming Together to Watch the N.B.A. Finals
The championship series and the Toronto Raptors have inspired “Jurassic Parks” and viewing parties across the country.
TORONTO—The city of Toronto has been waiting for more than two decades for its beloved Raptors basketball team to make it to the N.B.A. Finals. The Canadian franchise was started in 1995, and is the only N.B.A. team outside the U.S. This year’s Finals, which began on May 30 in Toronto, mark the first time the annual championship series is being held outside the U.S. (The Raptors currently lead the series 3-1; Game 5 takes place tonight at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto.)
As excitement has grown for the series against the reigning champs, the Golden State Warriors, so has Raptors fandom, with public viewing parties multiplying in number.
The biggest example being an area outside the team’s home court called "Jurassic Park" (the team was named in the wake of the blockbuster movie) that has become a makeshift gathering place for fans without tickets; the space is officially known as Maple Leaf Square, located in the South Core neighborhood of the city on the former Railway Lands.
By the time the Raptors began playing against the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals, "Jurassic Park" had become so popular that fans were arriving hours before the game to hopefully snag a spot inside the park. With the Finals, the crowds there have only grown and organizers have boosted the pre-game entertainment with special guests like former Raptors star Chris Bosh, live DJs, and musical acts.
And now that Raptors fever has spread across the whole of Canada, other cities are responding by setting up their own mini “Jurassic Parks.” Cineplex has also gotten in on the action, broadcasting games live to fans in 34 theaters across the country.
In the city of Mississauga, which is adjacent to Toronto with a population of just over 800,000, “Jurassic Park West” has seen 40,000 fans cheer on the Raptors in its Celebration Square. Other parks have popped up in the surrounding cities of Brampton, Burlington, Vaughan, Pickering, Whitby, and more.
Melissa Agius, manager of Mississauga’s Celebration Square, said the city created Jurassic Park West in response to an overflow of requests from locals. Like all cities and external presenters, Mississauga had to apply for broadcast permission from Canada's Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) organization, which is also the parent company for several other Toronto sports teams including the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team, the Toronto FC soccer team, and the Canadian Football League’s Toronto Argonauts.
Agius said the vibe in the square has been positive, exciting, and a good boost for the city. “The city of Mississauga is receiving international attention through the viewing of the N.B.A. Finals. It’s a wonderful opportunity to showcase our city and venue to the world," she said, adding that local businesses are also reaping the benefits, with people shopping and dining before the game.
In addition to outdoor venues, Cineplex, the Toronto-based entertainment company, is broadcasting in its theaters across Canada, as far east as Newfoundland and as far west as Vancouver. Tickets are free but limited to two per person per game, and sold out within hours. Sarah Van Lange, executive director of communications for Cineplex, attended the first game in one of the theaters and reported that the atmosphere was electric. "People were sharing Twizzlers and popcorn. It was a very communal, team-focused event."
For Cineplex, the viewing parties are a continuation of a longstanding partnership with MLSE, one that has included the broadcast of important hockey games, N.F.L. Sunday Night Football games, and e-sports tournaments on its screens. Van Lange says theater managers across Canada were particularly keen for this series. "Our local teams were rallying behind the screenings. They were excited to feel part of the buzz."
Asked why the tickets were offered for free, Van Lange said it was more about building goodwill than profit. "We're a proud Canadian company and this is a moment that we all want to celebrate together.”