As Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet and the rest of the history-making 2019 NBA champs The Toronto Raptors parade their way up Lakeshore Blvd to Nathan Phillips Square this morning to be feted by the city, it’s prudent to remember that without the vision of two individuals 25 years ago, this event may have remained a pipe dream.
There would be no NBA basketball franchise – or Air Canada Centre ( the Scotiabank Arena, as it’s corporately known today) - without John Bitove Jr. or Allan Slaight.
The year was 1993 – and on Nov. 4, approximately 35 days after they received NBA approval, Bitove – a Canadian entrepreneur who would later be granted the Canadian rights for U.S. satellite service XM Radio – and Slaight, owner of Slaight Communications and Standard Broadcasting – a national network of 58 radio and TV stations that formed the largest private multimedia company owned in Canada – founded the Toronto Raptors after paying a record US$125M expansion fee.
Both Bitove and Slaight held 44% of the team’s ownership, with the remaining percentages allotted to minority stakeholders the Bank of Nova Scotia (10%), former Ontario premier David Peterson (1%) and Atlantic Packaging Products co-founder Phil Granovsky (1%.)
It wasn’t an easy path during the quarter-century it took to get to the eventual championship; the first obstacle that the duo overcame was to negotiate with the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation to stop wagering on NBA games, in accordance with the NBA’s strict rules prohibiting gambling. The OLG agreed in exchange for a $5M donation in the Raptors’ first three years of its existence, and an annual $1M donation to its charitable foundation.
The Raptors then introduced their first general manager, basketball legend Isiah Thomas, on May 24, 1994. As part of the deal, he received the option to purchase 9% of the team ownership – which he exercised in May ’95 and Dec. ’95 from both Bitove and Slaight, reducing their shares in the team to 39.5% each.
On Nov. 3, 1995, The Toronto Raptors played their first game at the SkyDome (today, the Rogers Centre) in front of over 33,000 fans against the New Jersey Nets, winning 94-79.
In the meantime, plans were underway to develop what was to become the Air Canada Centre, since a new state-of-the-art arena was part of Bitove and Slaight’s original pitch to secure the NBA franchise. The site’s previous tenant, the Canada Post Toronto Postal Delivery Building, had been purchased for C$60M.
But by the time construction had finally begun – with a groundbreaking ceremony held on Mar. 12, 1997, team ownership had changed hands a few times, triggered in part by a shotgun clause activated by Slaight.
Slaight and Bitove clashed on their arena viewpoints. Slaight wanted an arena that would be shared with the NHL's Toronto Maple Leafs, but the Leafs had declared their own intentions to build a separate arena to replace the aging Maple Leaf Gardens.
Just a year later, “a shotgun clause” in their partnership agreement was activated which resulted in Slaight acquiring Bitove's shares for $65m, giving him 79% majority ownership in the team. Slaight also bought out the shares of Peterson and Granovsky shortly thereafter, increasing his ownership stake to 81%.
In 1997-98, after Isiah Thomas tried to unsuccessfully buy the team, he resigned as GM and sold his share, thereby increasing the Slaight ownership stake to 90%.
During the Bitove/Slaight/Thomas era, some of the more prominent Raptors that passed through the ranks were Damon Stoudamire, Marcus Canby, Alvin Williams, and Tracy McGrady.
With the Air Canada Centre still under construction, Slaight sold his controlling ownership to the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan and Maple Leaf Gardens Ltd., for a reported $467M in 1998, with the new owners now rebranded and known as Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE). When it opened on Feb. 19, 1999, the ACC became home to both the Leafs and the Raptors. The first NHL game - the Leaf vs. The Montreal Canadiens - took place Feb. 20, with the Raptors tacklng the Vancouver Grizzlies on Feb. 21. The inaugural ACC concert also occurred that week with The Tragically Hip selling out the venue on Feb. 22.
Today, the Raptors are worth an estimated US$1.7B according to Forbes, with millions more in value to be added in light of their recent NBA championship victory.
On an interesting sidenote, both Bitove and Slaight Communications would team up again in the future when Sirius XM Canada formed a partnership. But their success in securing and building the foundation of the current Toronto Raptors enterprise proves that when it came to building empires and performing business magic, John Bitove Jr. and J. Allan Slaight provided the Midas Touch.
As for some claims that Toronto has only recently become a basketball city emerging from under the shadow of the NHL's Leafs, music industry veteran Cameron Carpenter remembers it differently.
Carpenter was indirectly involved with the team via Bitove's brother, Nick, who owned all the Canadian Hard Rock Cafe franchises. Carpenter served as their director of marketing, knew the family well and staged monthly promotions that involved The Raptors.
"We did a promotion every month at Gretzky's where we had a Raptor Player-of-the-Month, so we'd give them dinner and a jacket - and then, when there were rock stars I knew in town, I'd take them to sit courtside Season 1 and Season 2 at the SkyDome," Carpenter recalls.
He asserts that Torontonians have never been cash-shy when it comes to supporting their Toronto Raptors.
"Its been like that since Day One," he recalls. "They were averaging 40,000 seats at the SkyDome for the first games and they've never had hardcore ticket problems. I think people stuck by them forever. We never went the way of the Vancouver Grizzlies, where they couldn't sustain the team (and forced them to move the franchise to Memphis)."