drake-raps-branding-limbo

The Toronto Raptors are in branding limbo

With more attention than ever on the Raptors brand, it's time to decide what this team is supposed to represent.

by on March 1, 2014

There is no question that the Toronto Raptors brand, as we know it, is on its way out. In late 2013, speculation became reality when MLSE confirmed that the team would be a significant rebrand of the nation’s only NBA franchise — and that Drake would be on board as “Global Brand Ambassador.” Raps management has been straightforward that Drake is going to be heavily involved. Though the time table is “within a few years,” MLSE have since signed an ad agency and have hinted that much of the process will come to fruition some time around the 2016 All-Star Game festivities, which are being held in Toronto.

This comes at a time when the Raptors are actually attracting significant positive attention. The acquisition of Masai Ujiri from the Denver Nuggets made the basketball community take notice and management have started to do make all the right investments in player salary, facilities and better medical staff to field a competitive NBA team. For the first time in a long time a decision from the front office has resulted in success on the basketball court. After Ujiri was able to quickly flip Rudy Gay, Demar DeRozen and Kyle Lowry have developed into all-star level talents while young talents such as Jonas Valuncunias and Terrence Ross are developing on a team that benefiting from the lack of Gay’s ballstopping presence. Nothing is more attractive to fans than a winning basketball team and the Raptors are competing for a playoff spot for the first time in a long time. Things are exciting for basketball fans in the nation’s largest city.

The need for this rebrand is desperate. Even though the 90s-inspired designs have taken on new level of popularity amongst those lost in a hipstery goo of a nostalgia and irony, there is a weight on the brand that is visually linked to two decades of attempting to be mediocre. Despite a renovation in 2003 and some tweaks to the court, jerseys and secondary logos in the years to come, the team hasn’t had a full make over at any point in their history. With Drake on board and the spotlight of winning on the team’s brand, it is time to decide whether this team is supposed to represent a city, a country, a rapper, or something as empty as a dinosaur.

This isn’t what the future was supposed to look like

zan-raps-jerseys

Established as an expansion team in 1994, the Toronto Raptors brand was created in a time when sports brands were in a bad, bad place. Designers were using new digital tools to create these brands and the brands looked like a reflection of designers using new tools for the first time. A cartoonish absurdism took the place of anything substantive as sports brands started to resemble a cross between a Disney cartoon and ClipArt. Garish gradients, streamlined vectors, an absurd amount of bevelling, bold ideas and ambitiously kitschy typography replaced things that actually looked appropriate on a grown man’s body.

In 1994, naming a team “the Toronto Raptors” was seen as a really exciting idea. This was a brand catered to the tasteless design sense of suburban Southern Ontario. At a time when Michael Jordan was still chasing rings with the Bulls, NBA basketball was never as popular as it was then and Canada was no exception. As a kid in growing up an hour south of the GTA, I remember seeing the Raptors logo in stores for the first time, and suddenly all my friends had Raptors gear in the coming weeks of school every other house had an NBA brand backboard with the Raptors logo. The stats coincide with my recollections: $20 million worth of Raptors merchandise was purchased in the first month.

Raptors fans have developed an affinity for their current look not because it is good, but because it’s what the Raptors were branded with. Yet, there is truly something to celebrate with the Raptors brand, even if it is out of date. The original legion of consumers have kept the ancient look alive because it resonates with them as the only way to celebrate the Raptors short history, albeit through the lens of nostalgia. It has “character,” but so do shitty apartment buildings. Somehow, the cartoon Raptor is an integral part of basketball history in Toronto, at least something the newer renovation of the jersey currently lacks.

The intangible property of having the superstars of the NBA come to town once a year allowed a new generation of fans to form a relationship with the league which was unavailable to previous generations. Indirectly, grassroots basketball infrastructure in Ontario and in Canada benefits from the Raptors too: between 2010 and 2012 youth participation in basketball jumped 16% (a higher rate than soccer and hockey), there is more basketball broadcast on TV in Canada than there has ever been, and basketball camps and academies have more cache due to the presence of professional players and coaches. More scouts are coming north of the border to scout potential NCAA talent than they ever have before. With as many as four possible lottery picks in the coming 2014 NBA Draft, the results have been spectacular.

Toronto has become a significantly better market for a basketball team since 1995 but the benefits to their home have been mutual. The benefit of the Raptor organization to the growth of basketball in Canada is simply immeasurable and the branding was integral to this success.

The decisions made by NBA Properties, who handled the branding of both the Raptors and the now defunct Grizzlies, were fantastically trendy. The name had been the result of a public competition, and appropriately so this failed to produce anything special. Jurassic Park was popular that year, dinosaurs were in the zeitgeist and we were all so naive. Even though the Velociraptor was a feathery carinvore from Asia no larger than a chicken, the ‘Raptor’ name took hold and was undoubtedly focus-grouped into the family friendly stylization that ultimately represents nothing or no one.

A cartoon dinosaur

Contained in a circle and surrounded by ambiguously primeval typography, a cartoon caricature of a Velociraptor wearing sneakers clenches a basketball. Frankly, it’s hard to find a team identity in professional sports from the nineties that is more representative of all the bad design trends that went on during this decade. The logo has remained unchanged, and except for the inclusion of red into the primary colour scheme the 1995 version is basically what we still have today.

raptors-logos

At least the jerseys have changed. The original Raptors home and away jerseys were a jagged explosion of graphical elements tied together by a combination of pinks and purples. As a whole the competing elements worked together in a way that can be attributed to the fact that graphic design in the nineties was inherently broken. Leading graphic designers, most notably David Carson, were doing innovative work ripping the principles of the industry to shreds, and many imitators of this graphic movement copied the severity of the style but none of the substance. The ‘Raptors’ typography, extreme almost to the point of comedy, is an example of that movement taken to its commercial breaking point. The jersey numbers on the front and back follow suit, providing an unlikely answer to the impossible visual problem of trying to invent a typographic treatment of the English language that would appeal to dinosaurs.

Not stopping there, more elements were jammed into the design: jagged pinstripes ran vertically while a cutout on the side of the shorts made room for an extra inclusion of none one, but-two secondary logos, one on each side. The term “clusterfuck” was more than appropriate.

Cleaning things up

two-up-2ndgen-raps

MLSE acquired the Raptors from the original owner’s group in 1998, and by the start of the 1999-00 season the Raptors had redesigned the jersey. The results were excellent. On the front of the jersey the stylized name and the cartoon Raptor were removed, with the new type drastically toning down its “archeaological” inspiration. The bigger improvement, however, was on the back of the jerseys with clean sans-serif typography replacing the complicated nameplate and jungle-inspired numbers. Horizontal bars down the side of the jerseys add visual texture without distracting.

When adapting the jersey into throwbacks and alternates, the results have been hit or miss: a black version that debuted in 2008 is the team’s best look, but St. Patrick’s Day and Canadian Forces alternate versions feel like hokey gestures.

Piece by piece, constant adaptations have continued the evolution of the brand. Developing the digital properties linked to the Raptors have obviously been a priority because the team’s social media and online identities are some of the strongest and most consistent in the NBA. In 2012, they debuted the 3D optical illusion along the baselines and after the intial controversy has since died down it remains in use, for better or worse. With merchandise sales constantly improving and the popularity of the team growing in Toronto and beyond, the interim efforts to keep the brand dynamic have been a relative success.

Sports design trends in the NBA have reverted back to a more classical style. Sports teams nowadays recognize the importance of tying their brand to the culture of their home and doing so in an authenthic way. This once contemporary Raptors look now feels dated, so a rebrand remains necessary.

All Drake Everything

Drake holds court with Jack and Matty at Drake Night.

Drake being Drake at Drake Night, a Drake-themed night featuring a free Drake shirt as well as other Drake-related events.

Fifteen years later the branding remains largely the same, but Toronto’s reputation as a basketball city has exploded. Though there is an obvious ‘which came first’ argument in play, Toronto is a growing hotbed of top-level basketball talent and has become the very real home of basketball culture in Canada largely in part due to the Raptors. The arrival of the “T-Dot” nickname seemed to coincide with this cultural shift, fueled in a small way by Vince Carter, Charles Oakley, Jalen Rose and Chris Bosh, but more significantly fueled by a city naturally growing into its own ambition through its art and culture. Toronto is an instantly iconic and culturally rich metropolis, a place that has finally caught up to defining itself as a true world class city. The arrival of an NBA team may have helped the city understand its true fabric, but the Raptors brand as it exists today represents nothing about Toronto in 2014.

Toronto has grown into its identity as an urban city as the target demographic for NBA fans in Canada has grown up and gone urban, it is that original generation of young Raps fans who have grown into desirable consumers. They’re leaving their mid-twenties, and they have their own money to spend on jerseys but don’t want to wear a cartoon dinosaur. Just as the fans have grown up, the team needs to do the same. No matter how hard Drake tries, Raptors gear hasn’t been cool since Vince. While much of that can be blamed for a decade of bad teams the other reason is that the team doesn’t visually stand for anything or anyone. It would be smart if the new-look Raptors adopted a visual identity that represented the city they play in.

The idea of the Raptors using a rapper as an official team ambassador in the nineties would been a bad idea. There are crude ways to reduce that argument into some close-minded attitude towards multiculturalism, but creating an audience for a basketball team in the heart of hockey country depended on appealing to the suburbs. Today that suburban audience is still important to the success of the franchise, but as today’s hip-hop culture is the core of mainstream popular culture the notion of a spokesrapper isn’t a toxic one. It may turn out to be quite a fantastic move. To the pessimists, Drake’s status as “Global Brand Ambassador” is a shrewd attempt to placate “urban” audiences. It probably is, but there are also seems to be something deeper here when compared to other corporate/celebrity relationships.

Canadians, I think, default to humility and are stubborn let success solely define someone’s identity — we first fell in love with Wheelchair Jimmy as a character in Degrassi, that is who he remains to be even if he is running around in custom OVO Jordans. Drake is market friendly exactly when he needs to be. His popularity is somewhere rooted in his ability to be, or be perceived as being, a totally genuine guy (who just so happens to be the @champagne_papi with exquisite means and more exquisite taste). Compared to other rappers, Drake positions himself to be the sincere one, the sensitive guy with a heavy heart and no room in his life for anything or anyone that isn’t truly authentic. Brands all over the world crave his attention because, like the most successful rap and hip-hop artists, he drapes himself with the perception of authenticity. No other brand can truly claim to represent the pride Drake has in his hometown like the Raptors can. The best sports brands have achieved an authenticity bred like bacteria in the culture of a particular place. Since that isn’t an option, MLSE have aligned themselves with someone masterfully adept at generating the perception of authenticity. (Whether it comes from somewhere genuine or somewhere not-so-genuine, the Raptors don’t have to care.) This false authenticity is exactly where the brand needs to position itself to gain the full support of the city the suburban audiences will follow the lead of the fans in Toronto. As “the Toronto Raptors,” however, the franchise will never achieve this.

The real risk of involving Drake so heavily in the rebranding process is that it all goes too far. Of the many rumours about where the Raptors brand is headed, the rumour that the team is going to take the same black and gold colour scheme as Drake’s OVO record label is the most pervasive. Drake attends a lot of home games, and when he is not there the presence of his OVO brand remains (and if the “Drake 416 Zone” is any indication, the Raps haven’t been shy in meshing the two). This seems just as shortsighted as using purple and pink, but showing some restraint and using black and gold on an alternate jersey might be the perfect cash-generating idea. The instant sales success of Brooklyn Nets away jerseys has proven that a duotone identity can be popular with consumers. (They would undoubtedly sell a crap ton of them.)

What about The Huskies?

The other pervasive rumour is that the Raptors are going to adopt branding based on the pre-NBA Toronto Huskies team that lasted only for the 1946-47 season. They have worn Huskies jerseys as a throwback in 2009, but even though the colour scheme matches nicely with the Toronto Maple Leafs (the crown jewel of the MLSE brand) a full adoption of the traditional brand seems unlikely. The Raptors brand has been completely original to a fault and it’s logical that MLSE wants to go in a completely new direction.

[left] Hedo Turkoglu in the Huskies jersey in 200WHAT. [right] Demar DeRosen is the new red alternatives which debuted in 200WHAT. (Yes, I could've chosen a different photo of Hedo, but this is the Hedo you remember... the Hedo you once loved.)

[left] Hedo Turkoglu in the Huskies jersey in 200WHAT.
[right] Demar DeRosen is the new red alternatives which debuted in 200WHAT. (Yes, I could’ve chosen a different photo of Hedo, but this is the Hedo you remember… the Hedo you once loved.)

“Huskies” has had a groundswell of support for so long because there is tension concerning whether the branding of the team will represent the city of Toronto or the country of Canada. The slow inclusion of the colour red into the team’s look might seem to indicate that more of a national focus, but compared to 1995, the City of Toronto offers far better ingredients today to create a great sports brand. Becoming “Canada’s Team” might be an impossibility for a nation that has a tendency to be Toronto-phobic, but MLSE may try. Financially, national interest in the team attracts a more lucrative national broadcasting deal, but an identity rooted on the 416 might be the best way to capitalize on the fact that Toronto is a city growing in popularity among NBA players. Since fans from Vancouver and Halifax aren’t coming to home games, crafting a Toronto-specific brand might be the only way to create an atmosphere that rivals home crowds in Oakland or Oklahoma City. After all, the best recipe for a brand revival is a winning team.

Despite what it has lacked in visually representing a sense of Toronto, a sense of Ontario or a sense of Canada, the Raptors franchise has done very well with a hokey caricature and cultural remnants stuck firmly in the nineties. For now, the value of the Raptors brand is a hipster currency based within the original generation of Raptors fans that have developed a true bond with a brand that inexplicably has no interest in being from anywhere. The Raptors brand has been built from scratch into something useful, but its usefulness has run its course. As the franchise approaches their 20th anniversary, there is no better time to snuff their archaic dinosaur into extinction.

This was the first in a series of posts about the branding and visual identity of each NBA team. They will not all be this detailed.

is the founder, editor and designer of Flagrant Fowl.

archive  //  Follow Travis on twitter @flgrntfwl   //   travis@flagrantfowl.ca