TORONTO — The familiar sounds of balls swishing through the nets and high tops squeaking on the court filter out of HoopDome on a busy October night. The Downsview Park basketball facility is bustling with players all working on their game.
And it's a game that's booming in Canada.
"Within 10 years, the Raptors are going to be the most popular team," outgoing MLSE CEO Tim Leiweke told a group of Ryerson students last month, referring to Toronto's National Basketball Association team.
"They will be more popular than the Leafs in Toronto. Promise you."
On the surface, it seemed like a statement that can be dismissed as hype — Canada lives and breathes hockey, after all — but if you dig deeper, it's easy to see the logic behind the Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment president's prediction.
As the Raptors begin their 20th season Wednesday night at the Air Canada Centre, four months after their playoff run captured the city's imagination, it's clear Canada's only NBA team is at the centre of a perfect storm.
At all levels, from amateur leagues to the NBA, the sport's popularity is growing in Canada, thanks to factors like a new wave of top-shelf Canadian NBA talent, changing demographics and a shift away from hockey because of rising costs and injury rates.
The 2013 and 2014 NBA overall top draft picks of two Toronto-born players, Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins, ushered in a new era. Canada has a record 12 players on NBA rosters this season, the most of any country outside the United States. A number of the Canadians in the league, mostly from the GTA, have mentioned the impact of watching Vince Carter play for the Raptors while he was in his jaw-dropping prime.
"A lot of (the popularity) is driven by the fact that this is the first generation of kids who've grown up with a team in the country," says Dan MacKenzie, vice-president and general manager of NBA Canada.
Basketball is a "youthful sport," he says, adding 57 per cent of NBA fans are under the age of 35.
Seeing Canadians like two-time MVP Steve Nash in the NBA "gives hope" to aspiring young players in Canada, says Toronto-based trainer Jayson Prince.
Prince, who trains youth aged eight to 19, has seen an increase in demand for training in recent years; a "chain effect" from kids seeing familiar faces making it big. Players used to be predominantly black, he adds — but now there are more youth from different cultures hitting the court.
That rise in player diversity speaks to Canada's changing demographics, which is helping fuel an influx of basketball fans.
At his Ryerson talk, Leiweke noted the demo of the young, passionate crowd in Maple Leaf Square during the playoff run and that half of the people living in Toronto were born outside Canada.
"It takes you one second to figure out where this is all going, and I think that's going to be about basketball and soccer," he said.
MacKenzie said around 250,000 people immigrate to Canada every year from China and the Philippines, two countries where basketball is the No. 1 sport.
"They're helping to fuel the growth of our fan base," he added.
While the NHL is still No. 1 in all youth demographics, the NBA ranks second among new Canadian youth and those living in Toronto and Vancouver, according to the 2014 Canadian Youth Sports Report.
The fan and player base is getting stronger every year, and not just on the men's side, says Michele O'Keefe, executive director of Canada Basketball, which oversees the provincial sport bodies.
"We had two women drafted into the WNBA this year," she says.
O'Keefe played basketball for decades and coached at the club, high school and university levels. Back in her high school days in the early 1980s there were only a handful of Canadian basketball clubs. Now she says there are over 230.
Tony McIntyre has seen similar growth within his Brampton-based developmental organization CIA Bounce, from "a couple teams" at the league's start around nine years ago to 15 teams today.
At the amateur player level, hockey registration is sluggish. Around 235,900 players were registered in the 2012-13 Ontario Hockey Federation season, only a slight increase from the just over 233,400 registered in 2008-09.
Experts are pointing the finger at maxed-out facilities and growing concern over the sport's cost and injury rates.
In September, Leiweke said a majority of the NHL players are coming from rural areas: places with rinks everywhere, where the history and traditions of hockey are ingrained in the community. But players aren't developing in heavily populated urban centres to the same degree.
"You look today in Toronto and name me one place in an urban area where they're building ice rinks right now," Leiweke said.
He mentioned that if Nazem Kadri is the only non-white player on the Leafs this year, that will eventually be a problem because the team doesn't represent what the city is becoming.
Phillip McKee, executive director at the Ontario Hockey Federation, says "hockey is pretty stagnant" right now, and agrees that at-capacity hockey facilities are partly to blame.
With so many headlines about concussions and costs in recent years, it's not surprising that some parents may be wary about enrolling their kids in a league.
Hockey ranked sixth on the 2014 Canadian Youth Sports Report's list of sports perceived as most likely to result in injuries, while basketball didn't even crack the top 10. In the same report, popular team sports such as basketball, volleyball and soccer cost 25 to 50 per cent less than the average. Hockey came in as the second most expensive of all 44 sports studied, with an annual average cost of $1,666.
Mike Jonathan, a Raptors fan who shoots hoops in a men's league at HoopDome three to five nights a week, describes a different scene in his sport.
"All you need is a ball," he says.