TAMPA — Tampa is an NBA town, at least for the next few months. The Toronto Raptors will open their season next month, calling the city their temporary home.
Unable to gain an exemption to travel in and out of Canada due to coronavirus-related travel restrictions, the Raptors will play their home games at Amalie Arena and train in the Tampa Bay area. The NBA season begins Dec. 22, and training camp opens Dec. 1.
“The Raptors have worked diligently with public health officials at the local, provincial and federal level to secure a plan that would permit us to play our 2020-21 games on home soil and on our home court at Scotiabank Arena (in Toronto),” Raptors team president Masai Ujiri said in a statement. “… Ultimately, the current public health situation facing Canadians, combined with the urgent need to determine where we will play means that we will begin our 2020-21 season in Tampa.”
As in the United States, coronavirus cases are surging in Canada, prompting provinces and local governments to enact stricter restrictions throughout the country.
“We are excited to host the Toronto Raptors at AMALIE Arena for the start of the 2020-21 NBA season,” Lightning and Amalie Arena CEO Steve Griggs said. “While we would have liked to see them play their home games in front of their hometown fans, we are pleased that they reached out to see if Tampa Bay would be interested in serving as a temporary home. It is a privilege and a great opportunity to bring NBA basketball to our community — we welcome the Raptors, their players, coaches, and staff.”
Tampa emerged as a leading candidate to host the Raptors earlier this month, but Amalie Arena also was considered a possible NHL hub city.
Amalie Arena presumably could host both the Raptors and Lightning if the NHL decides to allow teams to play games in their home arenas. But a hub city setup, which would require six to eight teams playing games in the arena, now appears unlikely. The NHL still aims for a Jan. 1 start, but owners and players haven’t agreed on a return.
The Raptors — the league’s only team that plays its home games outside the United States — reached out to the city roughly three weeks ago about potentially hosting them. With fewer than two weeks remaining until the opening of NBA training camps, the team entered this week scrambling to find a new home, and once an 11th-hour attempt to gain an exception from the Canadian government to travel in and out of the U.S. — those entering Canada on nonessential business must quarantine for 14 days — failed, the relocation became a reality.
“While we remained hopeful that our friends at the Raptors would be able to play their games at home in Toronto, we’re excited by the opportunity to help them start their season at Amalie Arena,” said Rob Higgins, executive director of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission, in a statement. “Kudos to our community partners for working quickly to make this happen. Our partnership with the Raptors organization is already off to a strong start, and our community is focused on serving as a great interim host to them for the duration of their stay in our hometown.”
Possible relocation spots for the Raptors also included Buffalo; Fort Lauderdale; Kansas City, Mo.; Louisville, Ky.; Nashville; and Newark, N.J.
“The Toronto Raptors and their fans will not be disappointed here in Tampa Bay,” Tampa mayor Jane Castor said in a statement. “Not only do we have the Stanley Cup champion Lightning, the World Series runnerup Rays and the powerhouse Buccaneers, we’re going to have a chance to watch the magic of the Toronto Raptors play right here in our backyard. And although things may look a bit different this season, we look forward to cheering you on.”
Earlier this year, the Toronto Blue Jays, Canada’s only Major League Baseball team, were forced to relocate their home games to Buffalo after failing to get a travel exemption.
More specifics on the NBA season — including where the Raptors will train and whether they intend to permit fans in the stands at Amalie Arena — are expected to be announced next week. The NBA sent a memo to teams earlier this month with guidelines for admitting fans provided they meet state and local regulations.
The length of the Raptors’ stay in Tampa is unclear and certainly will depend on the pandemic. The Ontario government moved Toronto and the neighboring Peel region into a lockdown phase Friday, closing many nonessential businesses, limiting restaurants to carryout only and malls to curbside pickup. Toronto mayor John Tory said Friday that the he is hoping the pandemic gets under control so that Raptors can return to Toronto in the spring or late winter.
“We want them back, they will be back and they’re going to win,” he said. “As mayor and I’m sure I speak for every resident of the city of Toronto, we will support the Raptors no matter where they’re playing because they’re our Raptors and Tampa Bay shouldn’t get any ideas in that regard. They’re our Raptors and they will be our team.”
The NBA will announce the first-half schedule for this year’s 72-game regular season near the beginning of training camp. The regular season will run through May 16, followed by a four-day play-in tournament, then the playoffs from May 22 to July 22.
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.