The Toronto Raptors will begin the next season playing in Tampa, Fla., after their request to play home games in Toronto was denied by the federal government.
A federal source with direct knowledge confirmed to CBC News’ David Cochrane that the Raptors could return to Toronto later in the season if pandemic conditions improve.
In a statement, team president Masai Ujiri thanked government officials for their efforts and said the team would begin the 2020-21 season using Tampa as their home base. The season is scheduled to begin on Dec. 22.
“The Raptors 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 season on home soil and on our home court at Scotiabank Arena,” Ujiri said in the statement.
WATCH | Raptors to begin season in Tampa:
“These conversations were productive, and we found strong support for the protocols we put forward.
“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, Florida. We want to thank all levels of government and their public health officials for their dedication to this process, and for looking after the health of Canadians.”
Ujiri asks fans to ‘cheer for us from afar’
In the statement, Ujiri said the Raptors organization would continue to plan for a safe return to play in Toronto and remained committed to promoting and demonstrating public health measures to help combat the spread of COVID-19 in Canada.
“They say absence makes the heart grow fonder,” Ujiri said. “I’m not sure that’s possible for us — we love Toronto and Canada, and we know we have the best fans in the NBA. For now, I’ll ask you to cheer for us from afar, and we’ll look forward to the day we are all together again.”
The 2019 NBA champions haven’t played a home game since a 99-96 loss to Charlotte on Feb. 28.
The NBA saw its 2019-20 season pause in March due to the spread of COVID-19. It resumed July 30 at a sealed-off “bubble” complex at Walt Disney World near Orlando, Fla.
Arena home to 2020 Stanley Cup champions
The Raptors will play out of 20,500-seat Amalie Arena, home to the Tampa Bay Lightning, the 2020 Stanley Cup champs.
“I’m sure I speak for everybody in the city of Toronto, we’ll support the Raptors wherever they’re playing because they’re our Raptors,” Toronto Mayor John Tory said Friday.
“And Tampa Bay shouldn’t get any ideas in that regard, they’re our Raptors and they will be our team.”
General manager Bobby Webster said the important factors in choosing a temporary home were the practice facility, medical facilities, and an arena that fit NBA standards — particularly with broadcast requirements — and had available dates.
“And then, lifestyle matters,” Webster said earlier this week. “I think at some point we’re asking people here to uproot their lives and go to a place that they may potentially be away from their families for six to seven months. So, we want to be respectful of that, and we want people to feel like we’re going somewhere where we feel safe and they feel like they can settle in.”
Florida has been a COVID-19 hotspot in the U.S. It had 9,085 new cases on Thursday and is third-highest in total cases among states.
If COVID-19 shows signs of abating, and with a natural break in the season coming during the all-star break in early March, Webster suggested there might be “an opportunity to transition back” to Toronto.
Like the Raptors, the Blue Jays appealed to the provincial and federal governments to play at home but were denied. They relocated temporarily to Buffalo.
The 2019-20 NHL season also paused in March before continuing in the hub cities of Toronto and Edmonton.