TAMPA — Roughly three weeks ago, Tampa sports organizers first heard from the Toronto Raptors about temporarily relocating the team to the bay area for the beginning of the NBA season.
They entered the conversations with open ears and minds, realizing the delicacy of the situation. The Raptors needed a home, and it seemed an intensifying second wave of the coronavirus pandemic might prevent them from starting their season in Toronto next month.
The Raptors hadn’t played a home game at their Scotiabank Arena since Feb. 28, and returning home would help restore a sense of normalcy. But Canadian travel restrictions mandate a 14-day quarantine for those entering the country on nonessential business, and with coronavirus cases surging on both sides of the border, the Raptors knew their attempt to gain an exemption to play in Toronto was a hard sell.
In Tampa, the Lightning already were in discussions to offer Amalie Arena as a potential NHL hub site if the league decided to start its season in a hub setting. Tampa had everything the NHL needed: nearby practice rinks and hotel access for the six to eight teams a hub would draw. The warm Florida winters were an added attraction.
But eventually deadlines would cross. The NHL, aiming for a Jan. 1 start, still had much to do in terms of setting a season format and getting it approved by players and owners. The Raptors, meanwhile, were on a tighter timetable with the regular season beginning Dec. 22 and training camps opening Dec. 1.
Two weeks ago, the Raptors — the NBA’s only Canadian team — sent a delegation to Tampa to tour facilities, not just Amalie Arena but also the Muma Basketball Center at USF and the AdventHealth Center Ice arena in Wesley Chapel as potential practice facility options. Raptors players voted that they preferred Tampa over cities such as Buffalo, N.Y.; Fort Lauderdale; Louisville, Ky.; Nashville; and Newark, N.J.
Still, the Raptors went into this past week holding out hope that they could still call Toronto home. After reviewing the team’s 11th-hour proposal to allow it and traveling NBA teams access into Canada without self-isolating, the Canadian government denied the request early Friday.
The Raptors then put everything quickly into motion, knowing a delay would adversely affect the NBA free agency period, which began Friday evening. (The Raptors re-signed guard Fred VanVleet to a four-year, $85 million deal Saturday.)
The NHL knew how close the Raptors were to choosing Tampa, and the league was okay with the move despite the fact it eliminated Amalie Arena as a potential hub site.
The Raptors will have access to facilities for as long as they need them, but at least through the first half of the NBA season. Despite the cancellation of this season’s NBA All-Star Game, there is a five-day break from March 5-10, and that likely would be the earliest the Raptors would depart for Toronto.
Toronto Mayor John Tory, who fired warning shots Friday by saying, “They’re our Raptors, and Tampa Bay shouldn’t get any ideas in that regard,” also anticipated a potential late-winter/spring return to Canada if the pandemic gets under control. Still, the Raptors will have access to Amalie Arena through late July, when the NBA playoffs are scheduled to conclude.
For the Tampa sports scene, which has suffered huge financial losses from the pandemic, the Raptors move represents a best-case scenario, especially for Amalie Arena, which has remained mostly dark since mid-March. Big-ticket concerts showcasing the likes of Elton John, Justin Bieber, Harry Styles and Rod Stewart were either postponed indefinitely or rescheduled for mid-to-late 2021. Now the arena potentially can host limited-capacity games with fans in two major sports
The arena can host both Raptors and Lightning games if the league decides to play in home arenas, something that owners and players both appear to favor. The arena hosted about 2,000 season-ticket holders for the Stanley Cup final watch parties, and the NBA is moving to allow fans back into buildings at 25-50 percent capacity. The NHL could follow suit.
In April, Tampa was supposed to host WWE’s Wrestlemania, which eventually relocated to a closed set in Orlando. Amalie Arena was slated to host the first and second rounds of the NCAA basketball tournament, but that was canceled. And the area won’t receive the huge windfall from hosting a Super Bowl in February because the pandemic likely has forced the game to be played with limited fan capacity, and sponsors are canceling their game-related events.
And just because the Raptors will be calling Tampa home, it doesn’t necessarily mean local fans will be able to follow them as they would a hometown team. The Orlando Magic own the NBA territorial rights to Tampa Bay, which means a deal will have to be worked out with the Magic to allow Raptors games to be broadcast locally on television and radio.
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.