TORONTO (June 1) — Predictably, it took no time at all for the most–sophomoric angle to emerge from the Toronto Raptors brilliant playoff run: Has basketball become more popular in Toronto than hockey?
Such a challenging question on the day of the first National Basketball Association Finals game in franchise (and our country’s) history. It was discussed on radio and television for most of the afternoon. Then, the Raptors and Golden State Warriors established a Canadian viewership record — Sportsnet claiming an average audience of 3.3 million tuned in for Game 1 of the championship series. Again… big surprise.
Another question, posed by the Toronto Star: “Is basketball more popular in Canada than hockey?”
Let’s see… the Raptors and Warriors, according to the NBA, peaked at 4.1 million viewers Thursday night, in the dying moments of Toronto’s historic and entertaining 118–109 victory. On June 15, 2011, the Boston Bruins and Vancouver Canucks, in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final, drew what remains (on CBC) the largest average–viewership for a National Hockey League telecast in Canada: 8.64 million. On May 13, 2013, as the Toronto Maple Leafs were imploding in Game 7 of the opening round at Boston, an average of 5.1 million viewers watched on CBC; the audience peaking at 7.2 million when Patrice Bergeron clinched the series in overtime. On Jan. 5, 2015, the ending of a Canada–Russia final at the World Junior Hockey Championships peaked at 9.7 million viewers (on TSN). When Sidney Crosby scored his “golden goal” (Chris Cuthbert’s iconic description) in overtime against the United States to win the men’s hockey final at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, 22 million Canadians were watching. Or, 64.8 percent of the 34 million–person population that year. The most that have ever seen a television program, of any kind, north of the border. Are we to suggest that even Game 7 of a Toronto–Golden State basketball series would approach that figure?
STEPH CURRY OF GOLDEN STATE IS WATCHED BY TORONTO’S FRED VANVLEET IN GAME 1 OF THE NBA FINALS, THURSDAY NIGHT, AT SCOTIABANK ARENA. GREGORY SHAMUS GETTY IMAGES
Or, consider this hypothesis: The Maple Leafs are in the Stanley Cup final at the same time the Raptors are playing in the NBA Finals. The games are aired concurrently on television — obviously, one team playing at home; the other on the road (it would never happen, as the NHL and NBA make certain that title matches occur on alternating nights). Does anyone truly believe that basketball, in such a scenario, would outdraw hockey on Canadian TV? The answer: When pigs fly. Now, I know what some of you are thinking: “There goes Berger, the hockey grunt, trying to rain on the basketball parade by invoking the perennial, second–rate team he covered on radio for 17 years, and writes about today.” Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Fact is, in my view, the Raptors playing dynastic Golden State for the NBA championship ranks among the Top 5 events in Canadian sport over the past 50 years — alongside Game 8 of the 1972 Canada–Russia summit series, when Paul Henderson scored the most–famous goal in hockey history; the 100–meter final at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, when Jamaican–Canadian Donovan Bailey set a world record of 9.84 seconds to win the gold medal; Game 6 of the 1992 World Series, when the Toronto Blue Jays defeated the Atlanta Braves at old Fulton–County Stadium to become the first non–American team to win the Major League Baseball championship… and when Crosby scored the second–most–famous goal in Canadian hockey annals on Feb. 28, 2010 in Vancouver. That’s fairly elite company. And, honestly, I wouldn’t have even bothered with this column had not the foolish basketball/hockey comparison been raised by others.
SIDNEY CROSBY’S “GOLDEN GOAL” IN VANCOUVER: FEB. 28, 2010. THE MOST–WATCHED TELEVISION MOMENT, OF ANY SORT, IN CANADIAN HISTORY. AND, UNLIKELY TO BE SURPASSED.
So, I stress — clearly and unequivocally — this is not intended to minimize, in any way, what the Raptors are accomplishing; how they have become, in a few short weeks, a national sports institution, or the burgeoning effect they will have on the acclaim of professional basketball in our country. All three are immeasurable… so long as they are not calculated, absurdly, against the long–established, interminable foothold of hockey (professional and amateur) in this land. Without question, the 2019 NBA Finals will close the gap between the two sports, locally and nationally. And, at this moment, for reasons that need–not be explained, basketball is way–more popular than hockey north of the 49th. But, let’s try to maintain a modicum of perspective. Even if our media representatives cannot.