When you think of the big sports cities, New York City, Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles all come to mind, but now it might be time to start thinking beyond the border of the United States and looking to the Great White North for the next great North American sports city.
Over the past few years Toronto, Canada’s most populous city, has become one of the primary sports hubs on the continent. The city has not won a major sports title since Joe Carter ended the 1993 World Series in dramatic fashion for the Blue Jays with a three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth against the Phillies, and the dreams of getting an NFL franchise seem to flicker in and out every few years, but essentially every team in town receives the support of a championship-level franchise.
Sports enthusiasts might look at the Toronto landscape and focus on its shortcomings, like how the Blue Jays were eliminated before reaching the World Series in back-to-back years. The Raptors were decisively bested by the Cleveland Cavaliers in last season’s NBA Conference Finals, the Maple Leafs have made the playoffs just once in the past decade and Toronto FC fell short in the MLS Cup final despite their opponent failing to register a single shot on goal during the game. Others might look at Toronto and recall its more unceremonious moments, such as when one foolish fan captured international headlines by throwing a beer can on the field during play at an October MLB wild-card game between the Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles. From the outside, Toronto might not look like a major league sports town, but look closer and you see something else.
What the city has is its rabid fan base across the sporting spectrum. The support is not restricted to a single competition, and even outsiders can recognize it’s not the average sports town. Have you seen Drake running up and down the sidelines, staring down big name players like Kevin Durant on “Drake Night,” or walked the streets of the city and gone more than a few minutes without seeing a Maple Leafs logo?
“Unbelievable respect and much respect to these fans, to this country,” NBA superstar LeBron James told TNT as Toronto fans showered the Raptors players with cheers after being eliminated from the NBA playoffs by the Cavaliers last June. “This is unbelievable. I’ve never been a part of something like this in my 13-year career. This is special and they really appreciate what their team did.”
The appreciation of fans isn’t solely confined to one sport. The Toronto FC football club made a somewhat surprising charge into the MLS Finals over the winter, hosting the league championship game in December. More than 36,000 fans packed BMO Field in sub-freezing temperatures, only to see the team suffer heartbreak and fall short of the title on penalty kicks. The club’s supporters chanted as loud as they could from beginning all the way until the last player left the field, and then some.
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A pressure exists to deliver when a team has such grandiose expectations every time it steps on the field, court, ice or any other playing surface. That pressure can cause some athletes to falter, but Toronto FC defenseman Drew Moor says playing in a market so thirsty for triumph should be the ultimate dream scenario for an athlete.
“I’ve played in a couple organizations where it’s just not as big,” Moor says. “Toronto has several great sports teams but it seems the fans and media are out at all of them. It’s important to these fans to have teams that win and have teams that compete for championships. I embrace the challenge, I embrace the pressure. We want to show Toronto that they deserve to have teams that compete for championships year in and year out.”
It isn’t exactly Cleveland being mired in a city-wide title drought for over fifty years that the Cavs finally ended last year, but the expectations are there. Canada, once a sure bet to at least have a team in the Stanley Cup Finals any given year, hasn’t even had one of their teams win hockey’s most treasured trophy since a few months before Carter hit his homer in the World Series. The entire country has been suffering a major sports title drought, and Toronto looks like the best bet to break that dubious streak.
The city doesn’t merely support championship-level events, though. Tickets are in-demand – and usually not cheap – regardless of whether a franchise is slumping or flourishing. The diverse culture of Toronto residents brings out spectators for nearly every competition of note. Some of Toronto’s highlights from 2016 included hosting the first NBA All-Star game to be held out the United States, the World Cup of Hockey, the Rogers Cup, three consecutive days of WWE events highlighted by Survivor Series and UFC 206, which sold out the Air Canada Centre on the same night as fans crammed BMO Field for MLS Cup final just a few bus stops down the road.
Although Toronto has been starved of a major sporting championship for nearly 25 years, the fans continue to show up through the good times and the bad. It wasn’t long ago when the Raptors and Blue Jays were bottom-feeder teams, but over the past several years they’ve evolved into playoff mainstays. The Maple Leafs are still floating in the mid-tier, but with rookie sensation Auston Matthews at the helm, better days for hockey-crazed Canadians should soon be on the horizon. Matthews, American-born, Arizona-raised son of a Mexican immigrant scored four goals in his first NHL game, and he hasn’t looked back since.
Matthews is the next great hope for Leafs fans, but athletes who spend any considerable portion of time in Toronto admit the culture of the city has a gripping effect which breeds an undying drive for success. Three-time NBA All-Star and Raptors shooting guard DeMar DeRozan had the opportunity to leave Toronto over the summer when he became a free agent. Many teams, including his hometown Los Angeles Lakers, were in position to acquire his services, but instead he opted to sign a new five-year deal which will likely keep him in Toronto for the remainder of his prime playing years.
DeRozan could have moved on to a new team for any number of reasons, but instead he stayed put. That won’t always be the case with superstar athletes. However, he says in this circumstance, the time he’d already commitment to the Raptors – and the entire country of Canada – weighed heavily in his decision.
“I put my blood, sweat, and tears into this organization and I wasn’t done yet,” DeRozan says. “Since I’ve been here, my whole goal, since I first got here, was to make this whole city and this whole country be known. It’s like we always got the short end of the stick. I always took pride and passion in wanting to change that.”
The mentality of Toronto sports fans has evolved from defeatist to excited and perhaps somewhat entitled over the past few years. The athletes have given them every reason to feel that way, but there is still an untapped level of fandom which could be unleashed with a major championship win.
In 2015, Toronto was named the second most miserable sports city in North America behind Cleveland. A year later, in 2016, it didn’t even rank on the list, and that’s because fans have been given plenty to cheer for.
Sports results are unpredictable and sporadic, so it’s inevitable another down period will arise in the future. However, Maple Leafs rookie Mitch Marner, who was born in Ontario and grew up a fan of the team he now plays for, believes that as long as the athletes continue to deliver their best efforts, fanfare won’t fall off regardless of the highs or the lows.
“To be playing in front of these fans for real, it’s pretty crazy,” Marner says. “We’ve got to always play like it’s the most important game to us and it’ll become the most important game to them. That’s up to us. The excitement from the city will be there and then it’s up to us.”