How a GTA trade school landed the Raptors’ Scottie Barnes as its pitchman

As a rising NBA star, Toronto Raptors forward Scottie Barnes has already worked with several prominent brands including Google, ESPN/Jurassic World , Subway and Axe.

But earlier this year, the reigning NBA Rookie of the Year popped up in an unusual place: A charming low-budget ad for Skilled Trades College of Canada, a 15-year-old trade school specializing in construction that currently has four (soon to be six) campuses around the GTA.

Running solely (for now) on the Bell Media-owned news channel CP24, the 30-second spot “It’s Time to Shoot Your Shot” featured Barnes, wearing a construction helmet and vest, massive hands firmly clamped around a drill, promoting the Scottie Barnes Scholarship—a full-ride for four BIPOC youth that includes tuition, books, safety certifications and job placement valued at $20,000 apiece.

Barnes himself personally selected the four scholarship recipients, who also earned a signed jersey and a meet-and-greet with the young star. The school is prominently displaying Barnes and the scholarship on its home page, with the message “Start your rookie year at STC.”

College director Mike Di Donato admitted that Skilled Trades College of Canada is “small potatoes” compared to the brands Barnes typically works with, but said it wanted someone youthful with the potential to woo prospective students. “I’m 45 and Ralph my business parter is 50—young people don’t want to listen to two middle-aged men,” he said.

But he also had no idea about how to navigate the complex world of athlete endorsements. Skilled Trades College of Canada is a regular advertiser on CP24, so Di Donato reached out to his sales rep and asked for advice. “I said ‘You’re in this world. Can you help me out here?'”

The discussion eventually led them to Sunny Pathak, founder of the 11-year-old Mississauga, Ont.-based sports marketing agency SOS Media, who put them in touch with Barnes. The 4th overall pick in the 2021 NBA draft quickly agreed to star in ads promoting the school.

It was among his first endorsement deals after signing with the Raptors last summer (this is not a team sponsorship, and there are no uses of the Raptors name, logo, etc.), but Di Donato knew they’d hit the jackpot when the young star embarked on a sensational rookie campaign that put him firmly on the radar of Toronto’s young sports fans.

“Although we believed in his abilities, we didn’t know he’d win Rookie of the Year,” said Di Donato. “We basically caught lightning in a bottle.”

A second flight of ads debuted last week, with the first showing Barnes having completed his training at the college. “Scottie was one of our many bright students: technically proficient, always made smart decisions, had tremendous size and length to carry more lumber,” Barnes says in a voiceover, as the camera pans past still images of him holding a tape measure, using a wood planer and, in one particularly funny shot, doing electrical work.

A final photo shows him holding aloft a plaque reading “Student of the Year,” before cutting to a live shot with a super identifying him as a “Certified Bucket Getter.” “I guess you could say…he was the rookie of the year,” he says before the camera pans to a group of Scottie’s celebrating his achievement.

One of three shot during a single production day, the latest spot was directed by Tristan Forbes, a digital content producer with the Raptors who is also the owner of a Toronto company called the Forbes Collective Media Group, which specializes in documenting sporting events, weddings, portraits, and corporate events and occasions.

Forbes also previously spent three-and-a-half years as a content producer with former Raptor Serge Ibaka. “We engaged them because we like their creativity and the work they’re doing with the Raptors,” said Di Donato. “They’re young, they’re hip.”

Another spot, which Di Donato describes as being like a basketball hype video, will debut later this year, while a third focusing on the school’s key attributes—such as small class sizes, three months to a new career, etc.—will air in the new year.

There’ll be no Lions or Pencils forthcoming, but as a business driver, the campaign has been a slam dunk. According to Di Donato, the school has seen a 35% increase in qualified leads and a 17% in enrolment.  “I didn’t really believe in the power of athletes until now,” said Di Donato.

Chris Powell