The following is a guest post by Raptors Info Japan.
Japanese basketball is at a significant turning point. After being selected by the Washington Wizards in the 2019 NBA Draft, Rui Hachimura has solidified himself as a starter, while Yuta Watanabe, who began his career with the Memphis Grizzlies, has an NBA contract with the Toronto Raptors.
The Olympics in Tokyo came at a significant time for basketball in Japan. The postponement of the Olympics for a year due to the pandemic led to tremendous growth for Watanabe and the national team, and they put up good performances against the world’s top teams. Although the team didn’t win any games in the end, there were some exciting moments for long-time Japanese basketball fans, such as defeating France before the Olympics.
Before the games, Watanabe appeared in many interviews on Japanese TV news programs and popular TV shows. Now that his fame and the popularity of basketball have increased, his success and the basketball community’s moves in the next few years will be essential for developing Japanese basketball culture.
A rising tide lifts all boats. And the success of basketball in Japan could also be an essential moment for Watanabe’s team, the Raptors.
How influential is Watanabe?
I should introduce myself a little bit. I’ve done some work translating articles here at Raptors Republic. I also run a Twitter account named “Raptors Info Japan” that provides information about the Raptors in Japanese. I started this account in January 2020, and initially, it had only about 400 followers. At the time, it was a small account that was only followed by Japanese Raptors fans.
That all changed with the arrival of Watanabe. As his role with the Raptors grew, my followers grew as well, and it’s about to reach 5K. I won the lottery out of 30 NBA teams, like the Raptors in this year’s draft. His contract will fully guaranteed on opening day if he makes the roster again. That is practically my guarantee date as well. My experience is anecdotal evidence to show the influence of Watanabe in Japan.
His Twitter account has about 180K followers, more than Fred VanVleet or Pascal Siakam. Goran Dragic, another star player from his own country, is followed by about 370K people. In a few weeks, Watanabe may well be the Raptors’ most followed player.
The reason for his popularity is not only the rarity of being one of only two Japanese players in the NBA but also because of the Japanese temperament. The “otaku” culture, where there are many people who love various subcultures in Japan, indicates the Japanese tendency to immerse oneself in one thing and follow it with passion. The number of fans familiar with the NBA is not as large as other sports, but I would guess that their passion is uncommon.
In the standings of player jersey and team goods sales in Japan that the NBA announced this March, Watanabe and the Raptors were ranked first. Of course, it’s hard to walk down the streets of Japan and find someone wearing such items. However, many people would have been wearing his Raptors jersey to cheer for the Japanese national team at the Olympics. In fact, Yuta’s mother, who was visiting the arena, was one of those who wore the City Edition jersey.
His influence is already apparent in these economic aspects.
In the future, in addition to the profits from the sale of these pre-existing goods, it could be very effective if they were developed specifically for the Japanese market. Goods using kanji characters and Japanese-style designs would be of interest to Japanese and other fans. These wouldn’t just be sources of revenue for the Raptors but also important emotional connections between the franchise and international fans, thus building a foundation for future fandom, players, scouting, tournaments, or any other number of increased forms of collaboration.
The need to globalize the fanbase
The Raptors should not only consider these temporary economic effects but also aim to expand their global fanbase. The key to making this beneficial for the Raptors over the long term is to turn Watanabe fans in Japan into sustainable Raptors fans.
In a survey, I did on Twitter this February, 39 percent of the Raptors fans who participated said they became fans after Watanabe arrived. However, some of them answered that they had never heard of even Siakam or VanVleet.
I wouldn’t say that they are not Raptors fans. But some Japanese fans change the team they are rooting for every year based on the movement of the Japanese players of whom they are larger fans. One day, after Watanabe leaves the Raptors, it is unlikely that many Japanese fans will still call themselves Raptors fans.
As a basis for considering ways to expand the Raptors’ fanbase in Japan, I would like to emphasize that I believe the Raptors are a great organization that attracts Japanese people.
The characteristics and history of the team would be to Japanese preference. The specialness of being the only franchise in Canada and the story of non-lottery-picked players succeeding in an effective development program will captivate anyone. The consistent performance of the team in recent years is also a reason to root for them. (Now, I’m talking about the Toronto Raptors, not the Tampa Raptors.)
The lack of history is also suitable for new fans. We don’t have to go back in history to an era where there were no steal or block stats, and we can easily witness a new franchise record moment like VanVleet’s 54 points, because we don’t have Wilt Chamberlain. Every important moment in Raptors’ history has been captured on film, which isn’t true of every franchise.
Toronto may be an unfavorable location for American free agency signings, but it would have no such connotation for Japanese fans or players. In other words, in order for the franchise to increase its popularity in Japan, it is essential to actively promote the franchise’s appeal beyond individual players and ignite the “otaku” nature of Japanese fans.
Information dissemination in Japanese
The best way to promote these attractions of the Raptors to the Japanese fans would be in Japanese.
For several years now, Lakers fans and Warriors fans have been the dominant NBA fans in Japan. The big difference in popularity between these two and the rest, including the Raptors, probably comes from language differences. There is very limited information about the NBA in Japanese. So it’s effortless to get information about the top stars like LeBron James and Steph Curry, but it’s difficult for fans who understand little English to find information about other teams and stoke any nascent fandom.
Fortunately, today we have tools to spread information overseas quickly, such as Twitter and other SNS.
A notable precedent is the Washington Wizards. They launched a Twitter account in Japanese in September 2019, shortly after acquiring Hachimura as the first Japanese player to be drafted in the first round. It has a lot of content for Japanese people, including podcasts and video, and it is now followed by nearly 70K people.
If the Raptors create a Japanese Twitter account, it’s not enough to just translate pre-existing information into Japanese. It will need to make it more Japan-friendly as the Wizards do. I love the video of Freddie Gillespie discussing the number of holes in the straw with three rookies, but it’s probably not for fans who only know Watanabe. New content made specifically for Japanese fans would be impactful.
However, it may not be necessary to produce exclusively new content. It would be nice to look back at the historical championship run, Vinsanity, etc., or trace the origin of the team’s name back to Steven Spielberg’s childhood. Local fans would know those stories, but they’d be new for many Japanese fans, and they’d go some of the way converting Watanabe fans into Raptors fans.
The Raptors need to strike while the iron is hot. It is hard to imagine that Watanabe will be one of the core members for years to come. His contract is only partially guaranteed at the moment, and there is always the possibility that he could leave the team, even as early as this season.
If the organization wants to increase the popularity of their team as well as Watanabe, they can’t pass up this opportunity. As the only franchise outside the US, and located in an international city, the Raptors are already a leader in the globalization of the NBA. Add on Masai Ujiri’s emphasis on African basketball and the Giants of Africa camp, and the Raptors have footholds in many markets. But they can always do more. And the beauty of expanding their interest in Japan is that it would add revenue and create life-long fans in a country seeing a basketball boom at the moment. With Watanabe on the roster, the Raptors face a win-win opportunity. They need to take advantage.