Was it five years ago, or six? Raptors announcer Matt Devlin doesn’t remember—that’s how naturally his signature three-point call developed. It started with a Kyle Lowry three, he thinks, from Mississauga!, or something like that. “It’s nothing that original,” Devlin says. Broadcasters have been yelling from downtown since the 1960s, at least, adding local markers for effect.
The Raptors, though, are different, positioned as a country’s team rather than a city’s, and so the call became its own thing too. Suddenly Devlin was shouting out Yellowknife, 5,000 kilometers away in Canada’s Northwest Territories, and Edmonton, and Halifax.
Devlin grew up across America, stopping in New York, California, and Tennessee. He added more addresses while taking the long road through sports broadcasting. A $5-per-hour reporting job in Abilene, Tex., in 1990. A $3,000 summer gig with the Springfield (Mo.) Cardinals, where he helped maintain the field when he wasn’t calling games. Rising steadily, he joined NBA TV during its inaugural season in 1999, with stints calling the Grizzlies and Bobcats thereafter. Since becoming the Raptors’ play-by-play person in ‘08, he’s traded all that in for a new set of geography.
As Toronto has enjoyed its first NBA Finals appearance, taking a 2-1 lead over Golden State Wednesday, its schtick—Jurassic Park, Drake, We The North—has teetered between trite and saccharin. Devlin’s routine, however, shows the true heart underneath.
Hey buddy, any chance you can give a shoutout to Brantford, ON, fans tweet him.
What about Windsor?
Let’s hear “From Fredericton” tonight!
Devlin typically scrawls down the suggestions but doesn’t enter broadcasts with a specific shoutout strategy. Except, that is, for Game 1 last week. On top of his normal broadcast prep, he listed the capitals of Canada’s 10 provinces and three territories, so everyone would be represented as the team reached uncharted ground. He wasn’t sure where he’d go if the team made more than that, or who he’d leave out if they came up short. It didn’t matter. The Raptors hit 13 triples in a 118-109 victory, because of course they did.
The minutiae of U.S.-Canada broadcasting policies has caused something of a headache for NBA execs. Finals ratings are down, partly because the industry standard measurement doesn’t include Canadian households. But for Devlin, the international intricacies have provided the highlight of his career.
Every other local broadcast team has to hand the microphone over the national crews as the playoffs advance. But in Canada, TSN and Sportsnet have the right to continue airing Raptors games nationwide throughout the postseason. Executives explained that unique perk to Devlin when wooing him, and as Toronto vanquished its Eastern foes, Devlin passed it on to his Philadelphia and Milwaukee peers, who had to be equal parts surprised and jealous. He’s now gotten to call Kawhi Leonard’s Game 7 series winner, every installment of the franchise’s most successful season ever, and the most-watched NBA broadcast in country history.
“I’ve had some really cool moments in broadcasting, but this is—this is number one by far,” Devlin said. “To think that you’re able to do this, and how unique it is based upon the rules, to be a part of this is truly special to me.”
And yet, the Raptors’ run isn’t all Devlin will cherish from this spring. Because while the city’s basketball culture has been properly introduced to the states, its voice has become properly Canadian.
Last year, the Devlins began applying for Canadian citizenship. They already felt at home in the country, staying during the offseason. During his first year on the job, Devlin would spend flights to and from games quizzing then-producer Paul Graham about his new audience and his new home. A decade on, Devlin’s son Ian was drafted into the Ontario Hockey League (how about a shoutout for Barrie then, eh). What’s more Canadian than that?
So, having accrued the necessary time in country, they submitted their paperwork. Before Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, Devlin completed the citizenship test, flying through the geography section. And just 12 hours after Game 1 of the Finals, the family of five attended their citizenship ceremony at a local immigration office, waving Canadian flags outside on the pavement afterwards in celebration.
In between, Devlin got to provide the call of a lifetime: 24 seasons in the making, the Toronto Raptors are headed to their first NBA Finals! He didn’t leave the arena until near 1 a.m. that night, but the whole city was still celebrating as he drove home, talking to his dad on the phone as he does after every telecast.
His neighbors were still buzzing when he got back. He stopped at their place. Someone put a re-air of the game on. One of the few at the impromptu party not wearing We the North red, Devlin stuck out, still in his suit. But there he was, undeniably, one of them.
ESPN’S LATEST EXPERIMENT BRINGS ADVANCED TECHNOLOGY—AND PIZZA
For Game 2 Sunday, ESPN tried something new. Host Katie Nolan, analyst Jay Williams, SportsCenter on Snapchat anchor Gary Striewski, and YouTube creator Mike Korzemba called the game from a studio under the ESPN app’s Full Court Press brand. The intent was to “give viewers between 12 and 17 a feed of game action that best suits them.” The network has offered complementary experiences before, but innovation lead Ed Placey told Variety this was the first created specifically for young viewers. That meant superimposed animations of barely dressed cartoons, real-time automated diagrams of plays—and pizza.
On popular esports streams, the action often takes a back seat to conversation, and that’s what ESPN went for with a living room vibe and the nosh to match. Williams seemed most ready to chow down, while the discussion ranged from bed bugs in Brighton, Mass. to two different fourth-quarter stories revolving around men’s crotches.
“It’s a five-point game in the NBA Finals,” Nolan said with just over a minute remaining, interrupting a debate about the 2006 dunk contest. “Should we talk about that?” Seconds later, she was pivoting back to the age-old question of whether you’d take years off your life for one slam.
It’s the type of commentary that might be fun on a Tuesday night in January, but does a disservice to the NBA Finals. Viewers didn’t get a sense of the atmosphere in the building, nor a breakdown of the moment-to-moment drama unfolding. Streamers build up rabid fanbases by spending hours online every day, interacting while participating in some low-key competition. When the League of Legends World Championship rolls around, though, fans flock to a more traditional cast.
Which is why Sunday’s show will go down as another experiment, rather than a revelation. ESPN has significantly improved the technical features of its next-gen broadcasts (except for a second-quarter camera feed glitch), but every influencer knows it takes time to build an audience. One-offs rarely draw a crowd. ESPN committing to the daily grind of wooing regulars to newfangled streams—that will be the real test.
Oh, and when it happens, they can lose the pizza. Haven’t you heard? Gen Z is full of foodies.