Down by the Bay: Could be tough to generate Raptors buzz in temporary Tampa home | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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Down by the Bay: Could be tough to generate Raptors buzz in temporary Tampa home

Charlotte Hornets guard Terry Rozier drives between Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet and guard Norman Powell during the second half of an NBA pre-season basketball game in Charlotte on December 14, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Chris Carlson

The Toronto Blue Jays were able to fill a baseball void and pique additional team interest in Buffalo by playing so-called "home" games at Sahlen Field this year.

The Toronto Raptors may have their work cut out for them to generate a similar buzz in Tampa.

With the border still closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, several Canadian teams have had to temporarily relocate to the United States.

The MLB and MLS seasons are complete and now it's the Raptors' turn. They'll tip off their home schedule Friday night with a pre-season game against Miami at Amalie Arena.

"I wouldn't say there's a huge buzz for it," said John Mamola, program director at Tampa sports radio station WDAE. "I think there's a little bit of interest just because it is new. But I think it's more of a novelty play more than anything for residents of the Tampa Bay community."

Unlike the Blue Jays, the Raptors will at least be able to play home games in front of fans. Physically distanced seating will be in effect with 3,800 seats available for regular-season games.

That may help generate some interest in a sports market that has been spoiled in recent years.

Tampa, simply put, is football country. The NFL's Buccaneers own the sports pages, radio call-in shows and television highlight packs. College football's Florida Gators get plenty of attention too.

The Bucs appear to be playoff-bound this season and star quarterback Tom Brady's arrival has ramped up interest even more. The city is getting primed to host Super Bowl LV at Raymond James Stadium on Feb. 7.

The Tampa Bay Lightning are the reigning NHL champions entering a 2021 season that could begin in a few weeks. The Tampa Bay Rays, fresh off a World Series appearance, will begin spring training in a couple months.

A Raptors spokesperson said via email that there has been "a lot of interest" in the NBA team from local media members. The Orlando Magic are a favourite among NBA fans in the Tampa area as they're only a 90-minute drive away.

"It kind of stinks that the (Raptors in Tampa) news broke right in the middle of a Buccaneers playoff run because this is the Deep South and it is a football town," Mamola said. "We have the best quarterback in the history of the NFL playing in our backyard and he kind of hogs the spotlight.

"It was kind of cool when it got announced but really as far as conversation about the (Raptors) coming to town or anything like that — not really. It's kind of like when the Globetrotters come to town. It's kind of a novelty thing."

When the Blue Jays settled on Buffalo after exploring other American locales, they knew a solid connection was already in place. Normally home to their triple-A affiliate, several young Toronto stars rose to the big leagues after playing for the Bisons.

The NFL's Bills and NHL's Sabres are the big sports teams in that area with the Yankees, Mets and Blue Jays splitting interest from fans of big-league baseball.

"I think people were definitely in tune with what was going on," said longtime baseball writer Mike Harrington, a sports columnist with The Buffalo News. "We had a homestand in early September for a week when the Yankees and Mets were here back to back.

"People were just crazed over that one."

Harrington said his outlet staffed every game and sometimes had more than one reporter on site.

"(Yankees GM) Brian Cashman's big seance with his team was in that right-field tent in Buffalo," he said. "So there was plenty of things to cover and keep in mind the history of it too.

"There's been no major-league baseball here since the Federal League in 1915, and really since the National League in 1885."

While it was big news in the Queen City when the Blue Jays confirmed their seven-week Buffalo run, Harrington said interest remained strong throughout the campaign.

"It didn't fade, it actually grew," he said. "It grew partly because the Blue Jays were in a playoff race, but it actually grew because of the schedule."

With MLB using an expanded playoff model for the truncated 60-game season, Toronto snagged the eighth and final post-season spot in the American League.

"Even though the Bills were going on, there was a tremendous amount of anticipation for those Yankees and Mets games (in September)," Harrington said. "I mean the Bills only play on Sunday. So when the Mets played here on a Sunday when there was a Bills game, I don't think it got a lot of attention because there was a Bills game.

"But other than that, there was a ton of attention."

The three Canadian teams in Major League Soccer all played "home" games south of the border too.

The Vancouver Whitecaps played part of their schedule at Providence Park, home of the Portland Timbers. The Montreal Impact also shared an MLS facility by playing some games at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J., the usual home of the New York Red Bulls.

Toronto FC, meanwhile, turned to Pratt & Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Conn.

Sports anchor Elliott Polakoff at Hartford's WFSB-TV said the absence of spectators for most games resulted in minimal interest. Match recaps garnered brief local newspaper mentions, he added, noting that premium TV cable packages were needed to watch games.

"They barely got any coverage on news stations just because it felt like they were more of a transplant than really embedded within the community," he said.

The University of Connecticut dominates the local sports market. Hartford was a contender to land the Blue Jays in 2020 and Ben Darnell, program director at 97.9 ESPN, said a local push was made to get the Raptors too.

"Hartford got really schooled on Toronto professional sports this summer," he said. "We really wanted to be your second city."

The Raptors, meanwhile, are coming off a second-round playoff exit last summer in the NBA bubble near Orlando.

Mamola said his station is not planning to do "full-on Raptors talk" the day after a game, since the NFL and football dominate the airwaves.

"I don't see us breaking down key timeouts in the fourth quarter," he said. "But if there's something that's worthy, my guys know to play the hits."

The Raptors are tabbed to play at least 17 regular-season games in Tampa. The second half of the schedule is to be released in early 2021.

"Yeah it's half of a season of NBA basketball," Mamola said. "But at the same time it's kind of cool to say that an NBA team is playing in our backyard."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 17, 2020.

Follow @GregoryStrongCP on Twitter.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2020
The Canadian Press

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