Raptors broadcaster Matt Devlin raised the bar in the arms race for NBA All-Star votes by taking the unusual, and very aggressive, step of campaigning for Kyle Lowry throughout his play-by-play call of Toronto's 103-95 loss to Charlotte on Thursday.
With balloting underway and the voting deadline on Jan. 19, it's common practice for local broadcast crews to pump up the hometown heroes. For years, team marketing departments have even sent out gifts to media members in an attempt to influence the discussion and, more recently, they have created viral videos to garner attention and votes.
Devlin, however, resorted to brute force subliminal messaging by repeating the phrase "Kyle Lowry Hashtag NBA Ballot" over and over throughout the game broadcast. Why did he choose these words? Because the NBA's All-Star voting is conducted online, and fans are able to vote for their favorite players by writing their names and appending "#NBABallot" on Twitter and other social media networks. All told, Devlin repeated that phrase at least 11 times during his play-by-play call, which aired on Sportsnet and NBA League Pass. A (nearly) full list of the in-game references to the voting is below.
Sportsnet's broadcast opened with a rundown of the third round of voting returns, which were released earlier Thursday. Lowry received 406,974 votes, placing him third among Eastern Conference guards behind Washington's John Wall (564,977) and Miami's Dwyane Wade (507,326). Lowry, who was one of last year's biggest snubs, did move past Cleveland's Kyrie Irving, who had been third in last week's returns. Lowry must pass either Wall or Wade to land a starting spot.
Devlin, intent on moving Lowry further up the charts, apparently decided -- or was he encouraged? -- to go out on a limb and take one for the team. He opened the broadcast with a discussion of Lowry's progress and repeated on multiple occasions during the course of the game, usually at the beginning of quarters. A ticker tape at the bottom of the screen also updated fans on the latest news, and a full-screen graphic encouraging fans to vote (it can be seen below) was flashed at least twice. Devlin stressed at least three times that Lowry "was deserving" and he even appealed to voters throughout Canada -- "this great country of ours" -- to support Lowry.
All of that stuff is pretty standard fare this time of year. But beginning midway through the second quarter and continuing through a good chunk of the fourth quarter, Devlin kept repeating the words "Kyle Lowry Hashtag NBA Ballot" over and over. Here's a full, word-for-word rundown.
Action: Lowry checks into the game and misses a jumper.
Devlin's Call: "Hashtag NBA Ballot. Here's James Johnson backing down, back up top to Ross. Lowry with it. Lowry, that's his side of the floor. The jumper doesn't go."
Action: Lowry gets an and-one basket.
Devlin's Call: "Here's Lowry with it, on the move, Lowry... Hashtag NBA ballot! Plus the foul."
Action: Lowry makes a three-pointer.
Devlin's Call: "Scooped up by Patterson, Lou Williams now, here's Lou, cut off, to the trailing ... Kyle Lowry, Hashtag NBA Ballot! For three."
Action: Lowry taps out an offensive rebound.
Devlin's Call: "Lou Wiliams with the three, short, tapped out. Great hustle by Lowry Hashtag NBA ballot. On the drive, shot doesn't go, right into the hands of Roberts."
Action: Lowry shoots free throws.
Devlin's Call: "8:08 to go, Kyle Lowry to the free-throw line. Hashtag NBA ballot. 82-75. Lowry tonight: 15 points, six rebounds, six assists. And the free throw attempt by Kyle Lowry Hashtag NBA ballot is good."
Color commentator Leo Rautins interjects: "Is that his name now? 'Kyle Lowry Hashtag NBA ballot'?"
Devlin: "Yes, Kyle Lowry Hashtag NBA ballot. ... We've said it since Day One, if you just put Kyle Lowry Hashtag NBA ballot. He's so deserving."
Action: Lowry gets a rebound.
Devlin's Call: "Lowry right there, Kyle Lowry Hashtag NBA ballot comes up the floor, swings it. James Johnson, Patterson now..."
Action: Lowry brings the ball up the court.
Rautins: "We'll see what kind of movement Kyle Lowry can get..."
Devlin (under his breath): "Hashtag NBA ballot."
Action: Lowry makes a basket.
Devlin: "Lowry with the left hand. Hashtag NBA ballot."
Here's the video and audio of the extended "Hashtag NBA ballot" exchange between Devlin and Rautins during the fourth quarter, when Lowry is at the free-throw line. Devlin claims that at least 10,000 votes have been cast for Lowry during the game.
It's worth noting that all of this was going on during what turned out to be the Raptors' fourth straight loss, their longest losing streak of the season. Lowry did finish with a team-high 24 points and added seven rebounds and seven assists, but he shot just 7-for-22 on the evening and was out-dueled down the stretch by Kemba Walker, who scored 29 points (on 12-for-25 shooting) and added eight assists and seven rebounds.
Devlin's persistence and machine gun-like repetition drew attention from media members and at least one other NBA player on Twitter.
"[Toronto] announcers," Bucks guard Kendall Marshall wrote. "I understand you wanna push your players for All-Star but geez, can we enjoy the game?"
NBA TV's J.E. Skeets, a Raptors fan, quipped: "Surprised that the @Raptors didn't put #NBABallot on the back of Kyle Lowry's jersey tonight."
CBSSports.com's Matt Moore had a more direct reaction: "Stop saying Hashtag NBA ballot."
So, what to make of this? Without question, Devlin's approach was distracting and it often invaded the technical details of the action. Such a tactic would obviously be unthinkable on a national broadcast. Even on a local broadcast, though, Devlin surely put off some percentage of his viewers. He is experienced and talented enough, and his delivery seemed self-aware enough, that he almost certainly understood that risk going in.
On the flip side, there are definitely a large number of Raptors fans who ate this up due to Lowry's snubbing last year, his strong play this year and the franchise's fairly low profile in the national media. The Raptors organization has pushed the "outsider" angle hard with its "We The North" marketing slogan, so Devlin's comments are par for the course to a certain degree. Remember, coach Dwane Casey jokingly claimed earlier this week that he would "fight" his fellow Eastern Conference coaches if Lowry isn't selected to his first All-Star team as a reserve.
It wouldn't be fair, though, to say that all of Toronto is perfectly unified in an over-the-top push for Lowry. Columnist Cathal Kelly of The Globe and Mail wrote Thursday that the Raptors seemed to be taking their collective eye off the ball.
The Raptors have gotten used to beating on inferior Eastern Conference talent. This was the first time this season they found themselves seriously wanting in that regard. As such, it may be time to begin a serious reappraisal of priorities. As in, why has getting Lowry into the All-Star Game as a starter suddenly become a national statement of purpose? ... A crumbling giant like Dwyane Wade could retire tomorrow, and he’s still going to grab a shocking number of votes. That’s why we agreed a long time ago that popularity contests are the pits. If the fans want Lowry in, he’ll be there. The idea that this matters on the grand scale is a holdover from this team’s bad old days when party favours mattered more than presents.
Basketball writer Eric Koreen of the National Post added: "Spiritually ... the Raptors/Lowry #NBABallot stuff is tiring and needy and silly. But, this is what happens in the NBA. It's what teams do for players to show them they love them."
Indeed, everyone seems to be aware of exactly what's going on. The whole thing is depressingly cynical. Those pitching Lowry are purposefully taking a shameless approach. Those absorbing it have been beaten down by similar advertising tactics for years and understand both the motives and the style of the execution. Those in favor of the campaign are overjoyed to have something to latch onto. Those opposed wish it would go away as quickly and quietly as possible. Complete outsiders surely think it's all pretty silly. It wouldn't be surprising at all if Lowry himself was a touch embarrassed by the white noise at this point.
Whether an individual viewer found Devlin's approach to be grating propaganda, ingenious buzz creation, or both, there's no doubt that he succeeded at his original goal: to get people talking about Lowry rather than the other candidates. That could prove to be problematic. The NBA is filled with teams that love poaching each other's gimmicks, and hopefully Devlin didn't just open Pandora's box. It's hard not to gasp in horror when contemplating where this might end up if Devlin's broadcasting colleagues decide to follow his lead.
At least viewers will always have another way to vote: with their remote controls. Hashtag Mute Button.