Welcome to The North
The Toronto Raptors, Maple Leafs, and Blue Jays, represent a cultural world for Canadians, specifically Torontians, in which supporters or more hard core fans, have the ability to ritualize aspects of these sports, making these teams, their religion. This idea encompasses various additional aspects including: commodification of team merchandise and apparel, fandom, and how certain acts of ritualization suggest religiosity of Toronto based teams.
In particular to the Toronto Raptors, the rapper Drake, Toronto local, has perpetuated specific rituals like the annual “Drake night”, whereby the artist hosts an entire night to celebrate the team, creating an implicit religious. Not only is Drake an international rap icon, he was named as the Raptors ‘Global Ambassador’, wherein reporter Robert Macleod asserts, “[he] will play a leading role in the NBA club’s rebranding efforts.” (Macleod).
He goes on to state, “The Raptors will be relying heavily on Drake’s involvement to not only help sell the event, but to also help reinvigorate the fortunes of a stagnant franchise.” (Macleod). Since this announcement of Drake as Global Ambassador, Drake and the Raptors have held an annual “Drake Night”, whereby Drake’s influence as a prevalent figure in popular culture, and the rebranding of a team forgotten about, has given birth to a newfound interest from sports fans of the Toronto Raptors and in turn, has implicitly ritualized the season in a religious manner.
Drake states, “I want to bring the excitement into this building, I want a team that people are dying to come see, I want the tickets to be extremely hard to get,” he said. “I want to bring that aggression, I want to bring that energy. Obviously, I want it to be a top team in the NBA, if not the top team.” (Macleod).
Three years since the NBA’s announcement of Drake as Global Ambassador, the team has been very successful, and additionally, the fan following of the Raptors has amplified more than ever before. Drake has not only been declared Global Ambassador, he has labeled himself the “6 God”. The “6” is in reference to our 416 or 647 telephone area codes, moreover, this ingrains that Drake is the implicit head of both Torontonians, and the Raptors.
The Toronto sports fandom is an implicit religion. Implicit religion as defined by Jennifer Porter in her article “Implicit Religion in Popular Culture”: “…underpins ardent pop culture fandom, just as it underpins ardent explicit religion.”(Porter, 271) Implicit religion is essentially religiosity that is not necessarily an “authentic” religion. Meaning that the religiosity that is portrayed by the Toronto sports fans in their devotion to their teams similar Toronto sports fans are committed to their teams in the various leagues that represent Toronto. The Toronto team represents the whole nation; specifically in cases such as the Toronto Raptors which is the only Canadian basketball team in the National Basketball Association (NBA). The growth of the fan base in Toronto sports has increased exponentially with the success of their sports teams. Successfully making it to the playoffs in the 2013–2014 season both the Maple Leafs and the Toronto Raptors fan base has evolved. However the strong fan base for these teams existed far longer and maintained their strength in their faith in their teams’ victory before this season.
Implicit religion is illustrated by Toronto sports fans in the their pilgrimages to various cities where their teams are playing. For instance, as seen in the image of the fans holding up a banner of “We the North” in the Barclays Centre in Brooklyn during the 2014 playoffs.
In chanting the “we the North” mantra it is a ritual this fandom practiced in their pilgrimage to portray their support for their team and create a sense of unity outside the city.
Similarly, Toronto Blue Jays fans wear their Blue Jays uniform and wearing Canadian t-shirts, illustrating their Canadian and Torontonian identity in which the team and its fans identify with, to the game at Yankee Stadium against the New York Yankees.
The emotional attachment to the teams extends to the sport itself and this is reflective of the vast fandom that extends beyond the sports fans specifically. Eric Koreen discusses the emotional attachment to the team in his article “Toronto Blue Jays, Raptors developing devoted fan base willing to follow when the team hits the road”. The fandom’s emotional attachment is seen in their reactions to the teams’ progress throughout the game. (Koreen)
This is also portrayed in the various photos in the Global and Mail piece “Maple Leafs suffer Game 7 heartbreak” which covered the 2014 playoff game against the Boston Bruins in the Air Canada Centre. In some of these photos we could see the devotion and faith in their Toronto Maple Leaf team.
Selling sports as an expression of religiosity requires a balance of appealing to two seemingly contradictory consumer motivations. The first is the consumer’s wish to experience the collective effervescence associated with community and communal events. For Emile Durkheim, religion is the expression of a human need for social cohesion (Klassen 10). In light of the decline of the popularity of traditional religion, this need is being fulfilled through alternate avenues. For Raptors fans, one of these avenues is the #WeTheNorth hashtag. This hashtag is both a social identifier and a technological tool that allows fans to interact with each other as a community. On top of its social media uses, #WeTheNorth is also prevalent on billboards, clothing, and accessories that are sold as Rapters paraphernalia.
The second motivation that is appealed to in the marketing of sports fandoms is the consumer’s ego-driven desire to have a direct connection with their objects of reverence (i.e. the players), through what Jeremy Carrette and Richard King call spiritual consumption (87). #WeTheNorth items are not the only examples of the commoditization of the lived religiosity of sports fandoms. The exorbitant prices that fans are willing to pay for “Game-Worn” clothing, shown in the above link, is an example of spiritual consumption, evidenced by the fans’ desires to connect to the players on an intimate level.
List of Figures:
Figure 1) http://fansided.com/2014/05/04/nba-playoffs-2014-drake-approves-toronto-raptors-buzzer-beater-gif/
Figure 2) http://thesource.com/2014/12/18/drake-does-hilarious-player-intros-and-flubs-nba-commissioners-name-during-toronto-raptors-drake-night/
Figure 3) http://fansided.com/2014/05/04/nba-playoffs-2014-drake-approves-toronto-raptors-buzzer-beater-gif/
Figure 4) http://www.universalmusic.ca/news/mysterious-drake-views-from-the-6-billboard-appears-in-the-6ix/
Carrette Jeremy and Richard King. Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion. London: Routledge, 2005.
Klassen, Chris. Religion and Popular Culture: A Cultural Studies Appproach. Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Porter, Jennifer. “Implicit Religion in Popular Culture: the Religion Dimensions of Fan Communities,” Implicit Religion 12.3 (2009): 271–290;
Koreen, Eric. “Toronto Blue Jays, Raptors developing devoted fan base willing to follow when the team hits the road,” The National Post. September 25, 2015. Web. November 15, 2015.