Toronto entrepreneur who founded Raptors beams with pride about success of basketball in Canada
John Bitove looks down from 23rd floor of his office at the Scotiabank Arena reflecting on the history behind the Toronto Raptors, the basketball team he founded after winning a bid to bring an NBA team in 1993.
“I’m a proud parent of the Raptors and a proud parent of that arena as well.”
After successfully beating out two other groups vying for the licence to bring a professional basketball team to Toronto, with the promise of building an arena specifically for the team, Bitove recalls the challenges he was faced with.
“This was not a slam dunk in the early days. A lot of people didn’t think we would be here today,“ Bitove says. The licensing fee for an NBA franchise at the time was USD $125 million, and buying the land to the old Canada Post building next to Union Station was going to cost $40 million more. Many at the time were skeptical.
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Phil Evershed, now Bitove’s business partner at PointNorth Capital, used to work as a lender at CIBC and remembers when Bitove came to the bank asking for money to help finance the Raptors.
“People forget how risky it was to put an NBA team into Canada. There was a big franchise fee to pay and for banks and lenders, this was a big deal and a lot of risk,“ says Evershed. “Everyone thought John Bitove was crazy to put it down there. People thought no outdoor parking, it’s going to cause significant congestion.
“And look what happened. It turned out to be the best place the city could ever imagine.”
After winning the bid, Bitove says, he had a lot on his plate. “We had to build an arena, we had to build a team, we had to hire management. Luckily I brought in Isiah (Thomas) who really set a really unique tone with the players, that this was going to be a scrappy, hard-working club.”
Then just 33 years old, Bitove remembers the challenge of trying to find a name for the team that would appeal to his target audience: women, kids and new Canadians. “We were like, let the old white guys follow hockey, but we’re going to get the next generation and I think that’s what you’re seeing now,” Bitove recalled.
Bitove says he liked the name ‘T-Rex’. But his young son, Brett had a better idea: he liked the name ‘Raptors’.
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The team decided to hold a naming contest by asking Canadians to go into a Sears department store and vote for one of 10 names the owners had come up with. “Raptors blew the rest of them away,” Bitove said. “We put a bunch of them (names) into focus groups and the kids were like, ‘if you call it Raptors, we will buy everything.'”
Three years after winning the licence to start the Raptors, Bitove left the team’s ownership group.
“It was crushing at the time,” he said. “It was a life’s dream, but I knew that the Leafs and the Raptors needed to be in one building and the Leafs wanted to control the destiny of that building. The smart thing to do was to take a step back and let it move on.
“I don’t think you would have the success of the Raptors to the same degree, as they do sharing the building with the Maple Leafs.”
With the team now just one series away from winning the NBA championship, Bitove says he couldn’t be prouder. “By being the only team [in Canada], it doesn’t matter if you’re in Victoria or Newfoundland, you’re watching the Raptors and the ratings are proof of it. It’s kind of funny, it’s nearly June, and we’re talking basketball and we’re not talking our national pastime hockey, which is pretty exciting.”
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