The Sunday before the August civic holiday, a select group of runners from a Nike-affiliated training group worked out with some high-profile guests — basketball megastar LeBron James and Toronto-born teammate Tristan Thompson, who joined the crew for a trot through a lakefront park.
Thompson wasn’t just there as James’ friend and Nike-sponsored running buddy, but as a fellow brand ambassador. It’s an increasingly important role for the 12 Canadians currently on NBA rosters.
The NBA has never had more Canadians than it has this season, and 12 players makes Canada the league’s top source of non-American talent.
But pro basketball in Canada also faces a void created by the recent retirement of Steve Nash, the country’s most successful — and marketable — homegrown player. The veteran Nash announced last month that he will be out for the entire season due to back issues, and there has been much speculation that his playing career may now be over.
So which of the NBA’s record number of Canadians is best positioned to take over as the sport’s top north-of-the-border pitchman? The answer depends on personality, market size, proximity to established stars and, of course, production on the court.
“Nash has the biggest shoes to fill out of any athlete in this country besides Gordie Howe and Wayne Gretzky,” says Keith McIntyre, president of the KMac Group, a marketing firm. “For somebody to do that in a career, we’ve got to see continuity and we’ve got to see success . . . If Andrew Wiggins can pull off a Rookie of the Year, that’s going to be a huge credible factor for him. It’s about performance. If we’re going to buy the rights, show us the goods.”
Officials at NBA Canada say the sport’s popularity here has grown in ways that transcend individual Canadian stars. While the league doesn’t plan to add a second Canadian team, vice president and managing director Dan McKenzie says the Raptors’ We the North campaign coupled with their on-court success has fuelled business opportunities.
Air Miles recently announced a partnership with the NBA, and the league’s tire sponsor, Kumho Tire, announced Monday that it’s extending its sponsorship to Canada.
“The momentum has been growing and corporate Canada is starting to take notice,” Mackenzie says. “Canadian companies want to attach themselves to this.”
Experts say basketball’s growth in Canada provides marketing opportunities for players that didn’t exist for previous generations, no matter how well-placed a Canadian player was.
Like Thompson, Montreal’s Bill Wennington played with the most famous player of his era, Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan. And like Pickering’s Corey Joseph, Wennington was an NBA champ. Still, he never built much of an endorsement portfolio beyond a McDonald’s deal that saw Chicago-area restaurants briefly add the Beef Wennington to their menus.
In contrast, Brampton’s Tyler Ennis had signed with Brand Jordan before he played his first NBA game. And between draft day in June and opening day last week, Wiggins signed deals with Adidas, Monster headphones and Canadian supplement maker BioSteel.
Though neither Ennis (Phoenix) nor Wiggins (Minneapolis) plays in a huge media market, experts say it won’t limit their marketability in Canada because online viewing allows fans to follow players wherever they play.
York University sports marketing instructor Vijay Setlur points out that if contemporary athletes handle social media correctly they no longer have to depend on teams or agents to make them famous. He says the Canadian NBA star to carry Nash’s marketing torch could be the one who takes the initiative to sell himself.
“If an athlete is heavily engaged with his fans he’ll create that connection,” says Setlur, who teaches at York’s Schulich School of Business. “The extent which these players create interface value will go a long way in determining their marketability.”
Sports marketing professor Bradish posed a similar question to her students at Ryerson and says students focused on Wiggins because of his talent and the following he brought with him to the NBA, and Thompson because of his on- and off-court association with James.
But the Canadian most likely to vault from basketball player to coast-to-coast marketing star?
The one lucky enough to spend the peak years of his career in Toronto.
“MLSE is very engaged in local partnerships, and that is the sweet spot,” says Bradish, chair of Ryerson’s sports marketing program. “When is Toronto going to gamble and get one of our own? They wear the maple leaf on the uniform.”