TORONTO — On one crazy night during last year's NBA playoffs, the Toronto Raptors' creative team pulled off a quick-change magic trick that would have made David Blaine proud.
The Toronto Rock were playing at the Air Canada Centre on Friday evening. The Raptors were tipping off against Indiana at 12:30 p.m. Saturday.
In the hours between, staff furiously decorated the ACC bowl in playoff T-shirts, carefully laying a shirt over every one of the 19,800 seats. Fans arrived for the matinee basketball game to an arena virtually painted — as if by a giant paint brush — in a camouflage pattern of black, grey and white.
"We had to put a full company callout to see who would come out that late at night (to lay out shirts)," said Shannon Hosford, the senior vice-president of marketing and fan experience (check!) for Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Ltd. "We had one employee come out with her two kids, just for fun, to be part of the experience.
"It was all a blur," she added with a laugh. "This time of year is a blur of activity."
While the Raptors lost Game 1 of this year's opening-round series against Milwaukee on Saturday night, the MLSE staff, at least, came to play. The theme around these playoffs is buffalo plaid, and the ACC was dressed in swaths of red and black to create a jumbo-sized buffalo plaid pattern.
Hosford was sitting in her office of MLSE's fifth-floor headquarters adjacent to the Air Canada Centre on a recent afternoon. The offices were buzzing with pre-playoff energy. T-shirts, in a variety of colours and designs, spilled off desktops.
MLSE takes pride in pushing the creative envelope, and staying ahead of the league, while providing fans with that "We The North" feeling that is uniquely Canadian.
Other teams have tried to mimic it. The Pacers had their "We the Gold" campaign against the Raptors last season. Some Miami fans wore "We the South" T-shirts to the Heat's second-round series against Toronto.
"We're fine with that," Hosford said. "We take great pride when someone tries to do that. We own that."
Last season's arena designs also included a giant Maple Leaf, a red and white starburst, and the letters "6IX" (a nod to Toronto's Drake-inspired nickname) and "YYZ" spelled out in black and white.
This season's opening-round games will stick to the plaid theme. The designs are first drawn up on a computer, then blocks of the design are tested on the arena seats.
There are enough T-shirts and designs for a full seven-game series.
"There are contingency plans for everything," said Dustin Rideout, MLSE's head of brand and fan experience.
"You don't want to jinx yourself but we're the department that's talking about playoff initiatives before anyone wants to talk about it," Hosford added. "We have to be ready."
The Raptors have arguably led the league in branding since launching their iconic "We The North" campaign ahead of the 2014 playoffs. The brainchild of artistic agency Sid Lee, the campaign's launch was originally planned to coincide with the Raptors' rebrand in 2015. But MLSE's front office, including Raptors president Masai Ujiri, loved the concept so much, they fast-tracked it.
"We The North" is like a wink between Canadians, "like we know what this means," Hosford said.
"'We The North' has been the thing for us for many seasons now, everybody has embraced it so much, so we'd never walk away from anything like that," Rideout added.
"None of it is manufactured, which I think is why people gravitate towards it outside of our borders, because we're not trying to create some new ritual or say something about our fans that isn't true," he added. "The press on the other side of the border writes about it all the time, how our fans are amazing, and crazed and have such pride."
They don't look outside Toronto at what other arenas are doing, and they credit Ujiri as the engine that drives them.
"We like to do our own. We like to set the standard and we want to be different every year," Hosford said. "And frankly, that's from Masai He's like 'We're Toronto, we're outsiders.' It all goes back to 'We The North' and that statement.
"Obviously with buffalo plaid being very on-trend, it's great. But also, what else is 'We The North?' It really speaks to our statement. Masai loved that."
And if you walk round the hallways of Air Canada Centre, you won't find many photos of individual Raptors players.
"When we showcase our players, they're together, they're embracing, it's about the team," Hosford said. "The whole philosophy for the front office is: this is a team, and we want to focus on the team and not just one individual."
Game 2 is on Tuesday in Toronto, then the series shifts to Milwaukee for Games 3 and 4.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press