Could basketball overtake hockey as Canada's national sport?
Canada seems to be experiencing a kind of cultural shift.
With no Canadian teams to cheer for in the Stanley Cup Final, and the Toronto Raptors making an impressive push for their first-ever NBA championship title, our collective national attention has shifted from the ice to the hardwood.
But experts say this adjustment in sports loyalty isn’t just thanks to the Raptors impressive performance this season. Some of it comes down to our country’s changing demographics.
For example, the most recent census reported visible minority groups represent more than 20 per cent of the population. In Toronto, that statistic is even higher, with 51.5 per cent of residents identifying as visible minorities.
Vinu Selvaratnam, a sports researcher at the University of Waterloo, says that not only is basketball a more global game than hockey—and therefore more familiar to new Canadians—the diversity of the Raptors roster itself is inspiring new Canadians to jump on the bandwagon.
“We are known as a nation that comes together for teams that win—for teams that we can actually resonate with—and the Toronto Raptors are exactly that team,” Selvaratnam told CTV News Channel.
“It’s beautiful. It’s definitely unifying.”
Canada—specifically the Greater Toronto Area—has also become a hotbed for NBA talent. Eighteen Canadians cracked an NBA lineup to start the season this year, the most of any country other than the United States.
Canadians such as Andrew Wiggins with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Jamal Murray with the Denver Nuggets are emerging stars in the league, not to mention R.J. Barrett, who is a projected top-five pick in the upcoming NBA draft.
The rising interest and star power could also be attributed to the affordability of the sport when compared to hockey, which requires expensive equipment and ice time.
“We have to consider the cost of both sports and there is a lot of evidence that shows hockey is highly more expensive than basketball,” Selvaratnam explained. “It’s for this reason why many new Canadians like to play basketball—because it’s more affordable.”
Selvaratnam agrees that hockey will always be a defining part of Canada’s national identity, and the butt of many jokes about Canadians. Yet we tend to forget that basketball too was invented by a Canadian, James Naismith.
Naismith was inducted to Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame posthumously, and became the first member of the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1959.
Plus, there’s no denying that the Raptors’ performance has outweighed that of our Canadian hockey teams. The Raps have reached the NBA playoffs in each of the past six seasons, something not a single Canadian NHL franchise has accomplished.
“Canada, from a sport perspective, can be much more than just hockey,” Ryan Snelgrove, a sports business professor at the University of Waterloo.
“I think (basketball has) brought in a lot of people that either hockey didn’t resonate for or want another avenue in addition to hockey to connect to our country and display our national pride.”
- With files from Ben Cousins