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Kelly: MLSE takes first step in promised rebrand of Raptors with ‘We The North’ campaign

Toronto Raptors guard Terrence Ross slams home a dunk against the Phoenix Suns in fourth quarter NBA action in Toronto on Sunday March 16, 2014.

The Canadian Press

This is Toronto through a basketball-glass darkly. It points toward the future of how the Raptors will project themselves onto the NBA landscape.

Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment took the first real step in its promised rebrand of the team on Wednesday with the release of a campaign entitled 'We The North.'

The first video spot has an old-school Nike-feel - plus fire, snow and wolves. It's Game of Thrones minus the nudity.

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"We took all the negatives and built them into our campaign," MLSE CEO Tim Leiweke said. "I know what people say about us. I know they look past us. Great. Do that. We'll show them."

This is a showcase for the new, Drake-abetted Raptors. The pop star had a large hand in the look and feel of the campaign, stopping in regularly for brainstorming sessions at home and on the road.

"He inspired our thinking here," Leiweke said.

Whatever you make of it, you will admit the last word it summons to mind is "corporate." This feels like work produced by an especially athletic art school. One that does a lot of daytime things in the middle of the night.

It's a message to fans, hinting at the Canadian exceptionalism that is the philosophic cornerstone to every beer ad of the last decade. More importantly, it's a come hither to would-be employees.

The old guard of the NBA – the Lakers, the Celtics, the Knicks – have fallen from their hegemonic perch. All Empires rise and fall. They fall a lot harder when James Dolan is in charge. While the metropolises of the U.S. are still destinations of choice, they're no longer the only ones.

If there is a larger theme in today's NBA, it's the dawning age of second cities and outsiders – the Thunder, the Clippers, the Spurs.

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After the best year in franchise history, the Raptors are part of that cohort, but they aren't anywhere near the top of it.

The short-term plan for advancement is making a playoff splash, and who the hell knows how that will turn out.

Whatever happens, the Raptors will be good for a while to come; the Eastern Conference will continue to be bad. That's a first step.

The long-term position is to make this team attractive to the top-tier of free agents, most notably soon-to-be-crowned MVP Kevin Durant. He'll hit the market in two years time.

Unlike a previous generation, players like Durant have seemed to warm to playing in smaller markets. Toronto has never been one of those.

Even Kyle Lowry, the top-of-mind star who will decide in a couple of months whether he will re-sign with the team, said recently: "Man, you can't get a bigger market than (Toronto)."

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(Spoiler Alert: The video strongly suggests that Lowry and coach Dwane Casey will be resigned.) But that big market message has never taken hold amongst those who don't know the city, and never will. No kid who grows up in Philly or Compton or Gainesville is ever going to think of Toronto in the same terms as New York or L.A.

So the team is embracing its outsider status. This is an effort to turn the Toronto Raptors into the Oakland Raiders of the NBA (without the wing-nut in charge).

Will it work? No clue. I'm 41 years old. Life has beaten all the wonder out of me.

But if you're 25 and living in the cloistered Valhalla that is a professional athlete's existence, this may be the sort of challenge that speaks to you.

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