Toronto Raptors: Wackiest team promotions of all-time

Robocop. Pizza slices. French fries. Silk stockings. The Toronto Raptors have had some odd promotions and giveaways in their history. Which ones are the most memorable?

Promotions and giveaways are one of the most exciting parts of the sports-going experience. It gives teams a chance to connect with their fans, encouraging them to attend games and actively participate. It’s a proven marketing tactic when it’s done right. The Toronto Raptors have had their share of promotions and giveaways, dating back to their prehistoric roots as the Huskies in 1946-47.

There’s been plenty of good.

The “We the North” campaign was an overwhelming success. The ongoing “Two Five” initiative for the Raptors’ 25th anniversary is fresh and engaging— an excellent way to commemorate how far the team, its fans, and Canada have come in professional basketball.

But there have also been a few curious but highly memorable missteps. Let’s look back at some of the wackiest promotions and giveaways in Toronto basketball history.

Huskies entice the ladies with silk stockings

Before the success that is the Toronto Raptors, we had the Toronto Huskies. Canada’s first professional basketball team and a founding member of the Basketball Association of America— the precursor to what would become the National Basketball Association (NBA)— is an example of the right idea at the wrong time.

In 1946, the Toronto Maple Leafs held a monopoly over the sports market. Despite being invented by a Canadian, professional basketball was still an unknown commodity here.

This was by no means an exaggeration. When the New York Knicks, the Huskies opponent arrived at the border via train at Niagara Falls, the story goes that Canadian customs officials eyed the collection of abnormally tall men and gave them the following greeting: “I don’t imagine you’ll find many people up this way who’ll understand your game or have an interest in it.”

Local papers made a mockery of the players’ heights in previews, such as Star sportswriter Joe Perlove making comparisons to fairy tales: “I know just what Little Red Riding Hood will say to her grandma at the league inaugural on the specially erected Gardens floor tomorrow night. She’ll say— and this’ll kill you—‘Oh grandma, what big guys they have.’”

So how do you generate interest and excitement in such a void?

The Huskies had some bold and unorthodox tactics up their sleeves. Outside of giving away free tickets, management used circus-like descriptions in local advertisements, distributed rule books, ran quiz competitions and even had pre-game matches featuring local high schools.

But the most audacious attempt was the giveaway of silky garments. As Centennial College sports journalism professor Malcolm Kelly explains, the team had a silk stocking night were all women who came in got a pair of silk stockings, a big deal because silk was very difficult and rare to find during the Second World War. What happened was that the ladies came out once and that was it.

In the end, only 7,090 came out to Maple Leaf Gardens on opening night and attendance continued to sag precipitously after that (a match against Providence drew only 500 customers). The team folded after its inaugural season.

Cross-promotion with Robocop

Back in 1994, the Toronto Raptors were in the midst of their original name and uniform unveiling. As last year’s title celebration video revealed, Robocop was at the ceremony at the Ontario Place Cinesphere as a celebrity cameo, in a cross-promotion between the Raptors and Orion Pictures.

So what’s the link? At the time Robocop: The Series was shot and filmed in Toronto and Mississauga and coincidentally being aired on the CTV network in Canada. The Robocop 3 film was released in theatres in November 1993, six months prior to the Toronto Raptors team reveal on CTV.

As Ian Hunter of Offside Toronto notes, more than likely the popularity of the movie and television franchise was being used to hype up Canada’s first-ever NBA team. Not something you’re as likely to see today— a professional basketball team with a dinosaur-based logo promoted by a half-man, half-android police officer.

Suffice to say, the Toronto Raptors have come a long way.

McDonald’s multi-million dollar french fry extravaganza

Some Toronto promotions misfire due to unexpected costs for companies.

Partnering with the Toronto Raptors at the start of the 2018-19 season, McDonald’s promised to giveaway medium-sized orders of French fries at its locations in Ontario each time the Raptors made at least 12 3-pointers in a game. Reportedly, the company expected to distribute around 700,000 free orders during the season.

Those projections turned out to be a little off. With the Raptors going on an amazing run towards their first-ever NBA Championship this past June, those orders ballooned to over two million, costing the American chain at least $5.8 million.

Granted, the company feels that they’ll recoup the costs of the promotion since Toronto fans needed to download the app to get their fries.

Free slice of Pizza Pizza

For the longest time, the Raptors ran a pizza promotion, where when the team scored at least 100 points, ticket holders could cash in their tickets at a participating Pizza Pizza for a free slice of pepperoni or cheese pizza. Win or lose.

On its own, a great promotional idea. In reality, not so much.

If you’re old enough or have been a Raptors fan for longer than a year, you’ll remember the unflattering comedy it created amongst fans during the lean years. Back in 2012, with the Toronto Raptors losing badly against the Orlando Magic, Raptors fans began cheering in the dying seconds of the game as their club hit the 100-point mark, leaving the opposing coach in bewilderment.

There is an unwritten code about running up the score when the game has long since been decided, even for a free slice of pizza (see the recent Knick-Grizzlies brawl).

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To the ire of fans, the promotion was recently changed. Now, you get a coupon for one free slice when you buy one if the Raptors score 100 points.

Considering the embarrassing behaviour this promotion used to inspire, it’s probably a good thing that it’s a relic of the past. The focus now, as it should be, is on supporting a winning ballclub. Hungry or not.