An Ode to the Fans

One of the hot topics after the Raptors’ upset victory over the Celtics on Friday night was how impressive the Toronto crowd was. Earlier this season, the ACC faithful got some love on opening night against the Pacers, when Dwane Casey talked about how even the opposing coaches praised the crowd’s excitement.

On Friday night, Casey had this to say: The crowd “is one thing that has impressed me about Toronto.” He went on to talk about how he can imagine how good the fans will be once the Raptors actually build a successful team, saying “Once we get this thing going, once we get it to be built the way we want it to be built, we’re going to have the best fans in the NBA.

To the average NBA fan, Casey’s comments might seem both far-fetched and comical. But to anyone who’s ever experienced the Air Canada Centre rocking at full throttle during a Raptors game, you know the truth is actually that Casey can’t even begin to understand how great these fans can be and have been.

Even taking this season into account is a good example of how strong the Raptors’ often under-appreciated fan-base is. Consider that the Raptors came into a lockout-shortened season with arguably the lowest expectations since the expansion years, have won only one-third of their games thus far and other than the home opener (which always draws well) and Friday’s game against the storied Celtics, haven’t really had any great drawing teams on the home schedule yet.

And yet, through all of that, the Raptors are still managing to pack 16,300 fans a night, or about 82 per cent capacity, into the ACC. While some may look at that number and see what could be the worst attendance average in franchise history, I look at it this way – They’re one of the worst teams in the league, haven’t had many good drawing teams come to town, are averaging their worst attendance in team history, and yet that attendance is still better than 13 other cities in the NBA right now, including big American cities housing legitimate playoff teams like Philadelphia and Atlanta.

With upcoming home games against the Lakers, Jeremy Lin-led Knicks and Spurs this week, that attendance average will begin climbing. The Raptors then get a couple of home dates with the Magic in March (Dwight Howard, assuming he’s still a member of the Magic, always draws well) to go with visits from the Heat, Bulls, Knicks and Nuggets in that month as well. By the end of the season, whether the attendance number rises or not, it’s going to look fine.

And this shouldn’t surprise anyone.

Look at the last 10 years in team history (from 2002/03 to this season). The Raptors have lost about 60 per cent of their games over that span. They have one measly winning season and just three total playoff wins during that time. Though you wouldn’t know it by looking at the attendance figures, because over the last 10 seasons, the Raptors have finished in the top-10 in attendance four times, in the top half of the league in attendance six times, and have never finished in the bottom 10. In fact, the team has averaged 17,850 per game.

How many franchises in the NBA, or in North American sports in general, can fill a stadium to 90 per cent of capacity over a 10-year span while the team wins just 40 per cent of its games?

Some will say it’s yet another sign of how pathetic and masochistic the Toronto sports fan has become, and I can’t blame disheartened fans if that’s how they’ve grown to feel. As long as they recognize, like everyone else around the NBA should, that while the team has often been a punch-line in NBA jokes, the rabid and passionate fan-base has been anything but a joke.

In yet another rebuilding period in Raptors history (though you could argue the first proper rebuild since the 90′s), fans are forced to cheer for a young team stockpiled with unpredictable talent. As fine a job as Dwane Casey has done here, you still don’t know what you’re going to get from this team from one game to the next.

The only thing you do know, is that if the game’s being played in Toronto, the fans will be there. Just as they’ve been there from day one, and as they will continue to be going forward.

One day, hopefully sooner rather than later, they’ll be rewarded for that loyalty.