Toronto Raptors “superfan” Nav Bhatia is, by all accounts, a very nice guy. Anyone even remotely adjacent to the Toronto sports hemisphere has heard of him or seen him around. He’s unmissable in his turban; a regular in the background of TV broadcasts or making news himself as the first fan in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
Bhatia, an Indian immigrant who has not missed a Raptors home game—in Toronto, at least—since the team’s founding, has become an ambassador for one of the most diverse fanbases in the NBA. Bhatia is also a charity juggernaut, a thorn in the side of visiting players, and a minor sports celebrity in his own right. He’s also part of a larger world of NBA superfans that includes Los Angeles’ James Goldstein, Miami’s James Przystup, and Brooklyn’s Mr. Whammy.
Within this niche world, superfans are representatives of their teams in macro, often the most visible illustrations of fan bases in totality. Many are known as philanthropists, and all are beloved by other fans and players. In many arenas these superfans are considered institutional, a true part of a team’s mythos and culture.
Superfan culture and the access it provides also betrays startling discrepancies within the sporting world, highlighting inequities within gender, race, wealth, and almost everything in between.
From high school sports to the big leagues, ticket prices for sports have been increasing year after year, a cause for concern across the world of sports fandom for decades. The simple truth of superfans is that they can afford to be superfans, both with their time and money. The exorbitant cost of courtside seats has ripple effects throughout basketball arenas for fans who are not rich, particularly here in Toronto—one of the most expensive cities in the world.
One Toronto fan, Stephanie Hoy, said, “I attend one game a year and that’s all I can justify attending. It isn’t just the outrageous ticket prices, it’s the cost of the entire evening,” a sentiment echoed by many others. Several fans interviewed mentioned that they could only afford to go to one to three games a year—usually in the upper bowl, or nosebleed, sections—paying between $100 to $170 for the “privilege”.
It is common for superfans to be established, wealthy businessmen. Bhatia owns several car dealerships, Goldstein, the son of a department store owner, is an incredibly successful investor, with a net worth estimated in the hundreds of millions. Both have leveraged the access afforded to them by the visibility of courtside season tickets into the promotion of themselves and their brand, as well as to open doors into the deeper, often exclusive, world of NBA business.
Media coverage of both men speaks effusively on the value of the hard work that afforded them such opportunities. But the idea of hard work as the key to unlocking success has conclusively been proven as a myth, even the most pro-entrepreneurial publications will attest to that. It’s no wonder that the world of sports media—one that promotes “poverty porn” narratives constantly—still upholds this line.
In the case of Bhatia, this narrative can be extraordinarily harmful to the perception of immigrants. Bhatia’s goal of proving “sheer hard work can overcome prejudice” ignores simple barriers many immigrants face in their daily lives, presenting a paradigm that suggests individual failure rather than the reality of systemic inequity.
One Raptors fan, @hobo_sas, answering questions by Twitter DM, said, “We must realize that there are barriers to our success… Anyone can do it seems like tacit acceptance of [the] ‘you should be thankful for being here’ line the white establishment often uses. Many people are fighting for their livelihoods.”
These aspects of race and class, whether implicit or overt, have affected the way fans view themselves. Matthew, another Toronto fan, said, “I’ve always solely associated the term ‘superfan’ with Nav. I do consider myself to be a diehard fan and I think that if I could be a superfan, just like Nav, I absolutely would… The only difference in my mind between a diehard fan and a superfan is the ability to attend every single game.”
On the other hand, @hobo_sas replied, “I don’t really know what the term [superfan] means to be honest. Is it someone with a man cave dedicated to a particular team, or someone who does community outreach?”
This might all seem moot—sports is a capitalist enterprise, after all, one that manages a balancing act of profits and expenses often numbering in the billions. The price of good seats and visibility is a simple justification for the access afforded by season tickets or sitting courtside. But sports has always been about more than profit margins.
Historically, sports leagues emerged as a vital working-class enterprise; entertainment accessible to the masses that has proven somewhat necessary for forming core cultural identities unrelated to work and disenfranchisement. From football to cricket, sport has been a space for the working and racialized underclasses to assert themselves in a world that’s often actively working to further marginalize them.
Basketball holds a particular place in this history. The sport’s enduring popularity was due in part to basketball courts being cheaper to maintain than baseball diamonds and football fields in derelict inner cities. Basketball, more than any other sport, has historically been tied to the emergence of Black athletes overcoming barriers, yet its players and fans are still often painted through a racist lens.
Across the Atlantic Ocean, soccer’s superfans—commonly referred to as ultras—are primarily a working-class group of people, and are often stigmatized, sometimes with cause, and often without. Unlike in North America, ultras are rarely profiled individually and are instead treated as a group. Almost every single US sports team has an overwhelmingly blue-collar and fanatical fanbase, but those aren’t the fans that get media attention.
Ultras largely reflect broader regional politics, and soccer leagues beginning to follow the United State’s lead in inhospitably expensive tickets can be seen as methodically divesting communities, and community identity, away from the sport. If it’s understood that sport is inherently a political enterprise, high barriers to access don’t take that away—they simply narrow the political scope to upholding the wealthy and privileged, not the communities that built teams and leagues in the first place.
In an increasingly atomized world, middle and lower-income communities that gather together and watch sports face constant antagonism. One notable struggle was the formation of the European Super League—seen by many as an attack on the working-class roots of the sport in favor of creating a space for the most elite, expensive, and profitable clubs. The rapid collapse of the league was proof that even the most run-down fans have their limits.
With the NBA, whose superfans are specific individuals almost synonymous with teams themselves, solutions are far murkier.
The promotion of wealthy (often white and male) fans as being aspirational also affects the dynamics of sport holistically, particularly in the ways sports fans are divided by gender. On this topic, Hoy mentioned, “Of course female fans aren’t profiled. You’re right Nav always has his moments, [and] Drake owns the stage.” She went on to point out that the lack of visible female voices extends from the fandom, to the press, and even to the personnel that surrounds teams themselves, pointing to a recent Sportsnet Radio announcement in which 16 of the 17 hosts were men.
Despite Nav’s success story as an immigrant ambassador and superfan for the Raptors, the majority of such venerated figures remain overwhelmingly male, reinforcing dynamics that often make communities of sports fandom inhospitable for women.
Of course, the next steps are less clear. Post-pandemic, many teams will seek to recoup their losses following a year of empty stadiums, making it considerably difficult to ideate ways to make games more accessible and highlight a broader swath of fans. The institutional power of superfans will make it difficult for others to rise to the same level of prominence, and despite league-wide overtures towards issues of racial, economic, and gender inequity, there is still much work to be done in creating a more equitable NBA ecosystem—particularly if that equity affects the bottom line.
While fans in cities like Toronto and Milwaukee can experience community in outdoor viewing spaces such as Jurassic Park and the Deer District, there’s still an overwhelming sense of classism attached to it. For many though, that’s enough, because it has to be. Hoy said, “Jurassic park… I’ve always felt was different. It has its own meaning. I just know I won’t attend Raptor games so you have to get that community feel from outside the arena. So I think I’m still meaningful and a part of the Raptors fan[dom] but I’m not one of those privileged enough to go to a game… I’m a teacher, I go to one game a year with my family of five and I feel that’s an opportunity most don’t get.”
On the gated aspect of games, Matthew said, “I think MLSE/the Raps need to do a better job including fans who cannot afford high-end ticket prices. Those fans who cannot afford tickets are oftentimes the heartbeat of the entire team because basketball offers excitement and an escape from some of the struggles that come with trying to make ends meet in a major city… I hope that in the future MLSE will find more ways to increase accessibility and provide more affordable ticket prices for fans everywhere.”
It’s certain that without superfans, many NBA teams would not hold the massive economic and cultural power they have now. But for every one superfan sitting courtside, there’s hundreds more at home, and even more who don’t even know they’re superfans yet. In an era of ballooning costs, without removing barriers to access, only the privileged will be allowed inside arenas—and the game will be worse off for it.