With 2019 coming to a close, it cannot be overstated how much basketball popularity has exploded in Canada.
The Toronto Raptors won their first NBA Championship in franchise history and are continuing to show the DNA of a champion to start the 2019/2020 season. The discourse surrounding Canadian Basketball potentially qualifying to the 2020 Olympic Games has accelerated, with the plethora of talent available on the men and women teams. And with 20 active Canadian players in the NBA, seven of whom are averaging over 10 points per game, it is elevating the interest amongst basketball fans in this country.
On Saturday in downtown Toronto, another event is looking to tap into the Canadian basketball sphere. The Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame is hosting the inaugural Naismith Classic at ScotiaBank Arena, a one-day showcase featuring six Division I NCAA Basketball programs.
Unlike the Duke University tour in Canada last year, the games played on Saturday are a part of these schools’ regular seasons. With three games on tap: Harvard vs. Buffalo (2:30pm EST), Tennessee vs. Washington (5:00pm EST) and Rutgers vs. St. Bonaventure (7:30pm EST), it provides Canadian basketball fans the opportunity to see future NBA hopefuls in their own backyard.
“We have the opportunity to put on a great event and show,” said Greg Procino, Director of Events and Awards at the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, over the phone. “Toronto has become a hotbed for recruiting. Given that we represent the entire game, it was natural to choose Toronto.”
Procino has been working in events with the Basketball Hall of Fame for over 14 years. Carrying the legacy of Dr. Naismith, a Canadian basketball pioneer, is a major motivator for why Procino decided to bring the Naismith Classic to Toronto.
The initial idea of this event was born 16 months ago. Over the course of a year, Procino and his team have worked diligently to collaborate with MLSE and incentivize the schools to come compete on the Canadian stage. Two integral considerations were taken into account when deciding the programs: geography and Canadian talent.
“First, we were looking for schools that had Canadians on their rosters,” said Procino. “Second, we were looking for schools to have a regional connection to bring people to Toronto for a high profile game. Third, we wanted schools with brand power and consistent NCAA tournament participants. We checked those three boxes with the schools participating.”
This season, 150 Canadians are representing the red and white colours on Division I NCAA programs this season. A new record that smashes last year’s historic mark of 133 players.
On Saturday, viewers will be treated to an eclectic group of Canadian players. The Harvard Crimson, a school that has qualified for the NCAA Tournament two of the past three years, has three players from Canada. These include junior forward Danilo Djuricic (Mississauga, Ontario), sophomore guard Noah Kirkwood (Ottawa, Ontario) and freshman guard Luka Sikota (Etobicoke, Ontario). Kirkwood and Djuricic were also teammates on Team Canada’s U-19 squad who upset the United States at the U-19 FIBA World Championships.
Harvard will be taking on a Buffalo squad with junior Windsor, Ontario native Dominic Johnson on the roster. A two sport athlete who got the chance to represent Buffalo last year when they qualified for the NCAA tournament as MAC Conference champions.
Despite Tennessee having no Canadians on this year’s roster, their head coach Rick Barnes has a long history with Canada basketball. As the head coach of the Texas Longhorns from 1998 to 2015, Barnes was the impetus to recruit Canadian players to his program, most notably Tristan Thompson and Myck Kabongo.
“Having the opportunity to showcase Tennessee basketball in Canada is a big deal. Canadian basketball continues to showcase tremendous growth and outstanding coaching, while producing world-class players,” said Barnes.
Any time a new sporting event is created, there are significant hurdles to overcome. While the newness of the Naismith Classic creates intrigue, there is no guarantee that this will translate into putting people into seats.
Attempts to bring NCAA Basketball games to Toronto have been done in the past but have subsequently failed. According to Procino, while the inaugural Naismith Classic presents challenges, having the backing of the Basketball Hall of Fame gives it an opportunity to succeed in Canada.
“This is a new product that hasn’t been tested before,” said Procino. “The positive is that we have a new opportunity to make something great that no one else has done before.”
In order to enhance the marketability of this event, Procino says that he has partnered with basketball entities in Canada to drive awareness. This includes a marketing campaign through billboards and social media platforms as well as collaborating with ScotiaBank Arena to advertise to Raptors and Raptors 905 ticket holders. Additionally, the Basketball Hall of Fame is collaborating with the Ontario Basketball Association and the NBA Canada offices to utilize their resources in the local market.
For the 2019 NCAA Basketball National Championship, 19.5 million viewers tuned in on average according to Nielsen ratings. While the Canadian market for NCAA basketball has a long way to go to achieve that level, having events like the Naismith Classic go a long way in driving the interest in the sport. For Procino, he hopes to harness the rapidly growing interest in Canadian Basketball, at a time where six players were drafted to the NBA in 2019.
“What we have going for us is the growth of Canada Basketball talent,” said Procino. “There are lots of basketball players in Canada striving to play Canadian basketball now. We want to build awareness that this event exists and if we can have roughly 10,000 people over three games attend, that would be considered a success in my eyes.”