After ignoring the Toronto Raptors for most of their 25-year existence, cities across the United States are suddenly falling all over themselves offering refuge to the 2019 champions.
Putting aside the absurdity of regarding the States — with nearly 10 million total cases — as a COVID-19 haven, there is a unique challenge facing the Raptors. There are travel restrictions at the Canadian border, and short of the exceptions being expanded or a medical miracle ending the pandemic, there will be significant logistical hurdles to hosting NBA games in Canada.
The Raptors are fighting to stay in market, but it’s an uphill battle. The Blue Jays broke their playoff drought in Buffalo while Toronto F.C. currently call Connecticut home. If the Raptors were to temporarily relocate, they would have options. The mayor of Kansas City is actively recruiting, while the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville has also been linked to the Raptors. The possibilities of playing in Tampa Bay, Nashville, or sharing an arena with an existing NBA franchise has also been discussed.
The most sensible option would be moving to Newark and the Raptors have already made inquiries, according to The New York Daily News' Stefan Bondy. The Prudential Center was built in 2007, hosted the Nets before their relocation to Brooklyn, and currently houses the NHL’s New Jersey Devils. It’s an NBA-ready arena and it creates the least logistical hurdles.
New Jersey has it all
Newark’s biggest advantage is location. The NBA is designing the 2020-21 schedule to minimize cross-country travel, and placing a third team within the New York area would essentially create a miniature bubble on the East coast, where visiting teams could stay for two weeks without having to board a plane. It also helps that New York is a major destination for most NBA players, who probably won’t complain about spending more time in the Big Apple.
As for the Raptors, it’s the closest they will come to preserving the feel of playing in Toronto. The Atlantic division will remain intact, and opponents will be closer than ever. The Knicks and Nets are just across the Holland tunnel, Philadelphia is an hour-and-a-half to the south by bus, while Boston is an hour’s flight to the north.
Players will still be living in a major international city, as opposed to the culture shock that comes with suddenly relocating to middle America. And if fans were to become permitted to attend games, there is a sizeable Canadian expat population in the area who could be interested.
Obstacles aplenty elsewhere
There are significant drawbacks with the other proposed locations. While Florida offers warm weather and tax benefits, there would be more travel, major changes in schedule based on playing in a different division, and there are twice the number of active COVID-19 cases as compared to New York. Cities likes Nashville, Louisville, and Kansas City are distant from other NBA markets, and they are all located in Republican states, which is hardly an insignificant factor given where the Raptors stand as an organization.
Louisville is where Breonna Taylor was fatally shot by police, and that incident coupled with the decision to not indict any of the officers involved made it a hard no for the Raptors. Meanwhile in Kansas City, civil rights groups have already cautioned the Raptors against a move, citing issues of police brutality and hostility.
Could the Raptors stay?
Contingencies are being made, but they remain precautionary. There is still the possibility of the Raptors staying in Toronto, and maintaining home court advantage is by far the most preferred option. The border is a major hurdle, and Canada’s COVID-19 measures are stricter than their southern neighbours, but there are possible solutions that can still be reached while maintaining public safety.
Advancements have been made in rapid COVID-19 testing, including those like the 8.5 million rapid tests purchased by the Canadian federal government in early October, that are capable of producing accurate results in under two hours without the use of laboratory. The possibility of testing every incoming traveller crossing the Canadian border could eventually replace the mandatory 14-day quarantine period.
Masai working with Trudeau
Exceptions can also be made by the Canadian government. Raptors president Masai Ujiri travelled with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to Ethiopia for the African Union in February, and the two have worked closely on a number of charitable efforts. That’s hardly enough sway to dictate a country’s border restrictions, but having a direct line to the prime minister must be useful in some capacity. In addition to the Raptors, there are also six NHL franchises facing border issues, so this is an issue that the federal government will need to decide upon.
It wouldn’t be without prescient. The Champions League and Europa League is being played across Europe, with teams representing two dozen countries. That includes places like the UK, where a month-long national lockdown has been implemented, but with exceptions given to top professional football leagues. What other countries deem as acceptable risks doesn’t necessarily inform how Canada sets their own policies, but it’s worth monitoring to see how professional sports are being carried out elsewhere.
The bottom line is this should be a matter of public health. If travelling parties can produce negative tests in a timely fashion, and they are to be properly isolated upon entry and during their stay which was already the case for most NBA teams, then the Raptors should continue playing in Toronto. If that cannot be ensured, then concessions will need to be made, and New Jersey figures to be the best option available.
Either way, the Raptors will likely play the 2020-21 campaign in an empty gym, so does it really matter where that is?
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