Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment

The same goes for its sister teams playing in other leagues. The Toronto Raptors are part of a larger family owned by Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment (MLSE), which also owns the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs, Major League Soccer’s Toronto FC and the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies. It also owns the arenas, stadiums and practice facilities where the teams play their home games and train – Air Canada Centre, Ricoh Coliseum, BMO Field and MasterCard Centre. Whether their teams are playing at home or away, in season or off season, MLSE’s focus is on strengthening the relationship between the fans and their teams. 

What’s In Store?

That was the motivation behind MLSE’s newest venture: Real Sports Apparel at Air Canada Centre. On Sept. 5, MLSE opened a 4,500-square-foot specialty retail store connected to Gate 1 at Air Canada Centre. Real Sports Apparel offers the largest and most exclusive selection of Maple Leafs, Raptors, Toronto FC and Marlies gear and apparel, but because Air Canada Centre is the home arena of the Maple Leafs and the Raptors, the store is particularly skewed toward those two teams and even more so on game days. 

“We wanted this to be a high-end retail store with all the elements that a customer would expect at a high-end retail store,” explains Jeff Budway, director of merchandise and retail operations. “But the key point was in making the store incredibly transitional. We developed a concept where on nights when the Raptors play, the entire store would be Raptors and if the Leafs played in the building the following night, the entire store would be Maple Leafs.”

Rather than emblazoning the store in a parade of team colors, the space had to provide a neutral but also flattering backdrop for the four teams. The neutral brown and beiges of the store’s wood, tile and brick elements make up its structure and the canvas on which to display team merchandise. The units in the center feature Raptors and Maple Leafs merchandise as well as Marlies and Toronto FC-branded items. The store’s secret weapon, however, is a specially designed transitional wall that can transform the store from Raptors haven to Leafs nation and back again, night after night. 

“We reached out to a design company and talked about making the perimeter walls so that they can rotate 360 degrees,” Budway says. “It allows us to put product on the back half of the wall and rotate it 180 degrees so that a new interior wall will show and the other wall can be hidden. We can, with one quick swing, move from Raptors to Leafs and back again.” 

MLSE partnered with Cisco for another transitional element that allows the store to switch back and forth easily via digital displays. “We have 48-inch high-def TVs located inside and outside the store that are programmed with graphic content that we can switch from Raptors to Leafs,” Budway says. “We can do that with one click of a button.” 

The store is open to the public during normal business hours but closes 30 minutes prior to each home game and can only be accessed by ticketholders inside the arena during games. Budway says the fans’ response has exceeded MLSE’s expectations. 

“Financially, the response is way better than we hoped or expected,” Budway explains. “Customers who have come through the store say it’s amazing and it feels like an athletic boutique. The finishes, the materials, the lighting and the products we’ve displayed gives the appearance of a high-end specialty store.”

Team Effort

Real Sports Apparel itself is a reflection of a larger strategy within MLSE to create exclusive and memorable experiences for Maple Leafs, Raptors, Toronto FC and Marlies fans. The corporation often looks outside of itself and teams with like-minded partners to accomplish this goal. 

For instance, its Raptors’ We The North campaign developed by advertisement firm Sid Lee is more of a movement than a tag line. The brand identity is reinforced through a clothing line of stark black hats, sweatshirts and tees with the simple gold or silver lettering of “We The North” printed on the front. MLSE teamed with licensing partner Mitchell & Ness to create the clothing. Mitchell & Ness is an official licensee of the NBA and other leagues, including the NHL, MLB and NFL. With roots dating back to 1904, Mitchell & Ness is one of the oldest producers of professional athletic clothing and even helped to spur the international movement of fans wearing sports team’s hats, jerseys and other apparel as a fashion statement and a symbol of loyalty. 

MLSE has turned to Mitchell & Ness for many of its specialty lines and is partnering with them again, this time for a line inspired by the Toronto-born-and-raised rap artist Drake. Drake is one of the founders of record label OVO Sound and all of its affiliated businesses, including OVO clothing. 

“Drake has been the Raptors’ brand ambassador for the last year,” Budway says. “He’s always promoting the Toronto Raptors. He grew up in Toronto, he’s a Raptors fan and he wants the public to know it. So now we’re furthering that relationship and creating a specialized and very exclusive line of merchandise that the OVO brand will help to design, and we are partnering again with Mitchell & Ness to create it.”

The line, which should be delivered in 2015, will essentially be Raptors-branded gear funneled through Drake’s vision leading the design and feel of the clothing. “The merchandise will be inspired by OVO’s colors, their font, their style,” Budway says. 

In addition to working with Mitchell & Ness, MLSE works with other trusted partners such as Old Time Hockey and Under Armour (UA). MLSE is working with the athletic wear brand UA for the largest UA and Toronto Maple Leafs cobranded line yet. The line will include men’s, women’s and kid’s clothing and will hit the market before the end of this year. Reebok is also creating a specialty line for the 97-year-old hockey team. Reebok’s Center Ice Collection will feature the same athletic gear worn by the players, coaches and training staff during practices, warmups and other non-game events, giving it a level of authenticity that resonates with true fans. 

Go Big Data

At every touchpoint, MLSE strives to learn more about those true fans – such as what appeals to them, what they expect and what they want to see more of when they attend games or team events or shop for apparel. From ticketing, to food and beverage, to merchandise, MLSE encounters fans in many different ways – both in person and online. The data connected with those encounters offers invaluable information that MLSE can use to tailor its operations in a way that gives fans exactly what they seek. The issue is getting that data into an easily readable form that MLSE can use. 

“We’re no different from a lot of other stadiums and arenas all throughout North America in that we have these disparate systems for everything we do,” Budway explains. “We have a system for merchandise that’s different from food and beverage that’s different from ticketing. We have a customer relationship management system for our season seatholders, but not for our other departments. So what you quickly learn from all of that is there is a lot of information being captured from all over the place within these different systems, but there is no shared repository that we can access it from.” 

MLSE has partnered with technology company TIBCO Software to rectify the matter. TIBCO is building a solution that, despite lacking integration, will allow MLSE to pull information from its various touchpoints, compress the data and slice it into analytical charts that reveal the makeup of its fan base. Having a clearer view of what its customers look like will give MLSE a clearer view of what move it should make next. 

“The idea is we want to make things seamless and easy for our fans so they have a great experience – and we want it to be an engaging experience,” Budway says. “We want to ‘loyalize’ our fans and engage them from the point that we will have a long-lasting relationship with them.” 

As MLSE and TIBCO work to get MLSE’s big data operations off the ground, the company is investing in other technology must-haves for its fans. It now offers free Wi-Fi throughout Air Canada Centre and is working on geofencing apps that provide digital wayfinding and line-busting technology that allows customers to order food, beverage and merchandise from their seats and have it delivered or available for pickup. Those touchpoints will give MLSE even more data that it can use in future decision-making and continue to strengthen the relationship between team and fan.  

“We’ve heard from the leagues we are in that we are taking a much more progressive stance on how we sell, market and showcase merchandise, and our store, arenas and stadiums are vehicles to do that,” Budway explains. “The old concessionaire mentality was like the fair coming into town during the summer and shucking trinkets your way. That’s the old mentality and for some it’s the present mentality.

“What we’re trying to do is take the basic expectations that a customer would have if they walked into Lululemon or J.Crew and use all those elements – the reloadable gift card, emailed receipts, loyalty programs, CRM systems, real strong marketing and visual presentation, knowledgeable staff and good customer service,” Budway continues. “Those are the things we want our fans to be expecting when they come to see a game or attend an event.”