Yuta Watanabe’s impact in Toronto is not over

Yuta Watanabe isn't a Raptor anymore. But his significant will live on.

The following is a guest post by Raptors Info Japan.

What is the date when the free agent leaves? Aside from the paperwork, in terms of fan psychology, it will be when it is reported that he has signed with another team and when he says goodbye.

On August 28, the Brooklyn Nets announced the signing of Yuta Watanabe. Then on September 18, Yuta wrote on Instagram, “Thank you Toronto I’ll miss you.”

It would be a good time to recap two great years.

In November 2020, Yuta Watanabe, who had finished the second year of his two-way contract with the Memphis Grizzlies, joined the Toronto Raptors for training camp.

As a Japanese Raptors fan, the news brought me joy, excitement, and anxiety.

It was an Exhibit-10 contract that was bound to be a tough battle, and I knew that not a few Japanese fans blamed the team for Watanabe’s quiet two years in Memphis. What if I woke up in the morning to find a headline with “waived” and my favorite team under fire?

It was an unnecessary fear.

I had a “reverse bias” in my mind, like, “I don’t give you special treatment just because you’re Japanese,” but to be honest, his performance went beyond what I had expected. Jumping to block without fear, bravely grabbing rebounds, diving for loose balls… in no time, my favorite became fan favorite.

Especially as a Japanese fan, I was grateful to have Yuta in the toughest season in the last ten years. Of course, it would have been best if he had been part of the rotation playing for the championship, but he motivated me to watch even the games I wanted to turn away from. Last season, there were several “if only he could make that three…” moments. However, a year before that, he needed a lot of “if” even to make the opening day roster.

What Yuta has done in Toronto (and Tampa) is truly, truly amazing.

YUTA EFFECT and Me

I should introduce myself. I run a Twitter account named “Raptors Info Japan” that provides information about the Raptors in Japanese. I have also been in charge of translating several articles into Japanese at Raptors Republic since Yuta joined the team, and a year ago, I also wrote an article for the site (And I told that story at a job interview and grabbed a salary for next year and beyond…BET ON YOURSELF!!!)

I am just one fan, but I am one who has experienced the “YUTA EFFECT” firsthand. Let me show you one chart.

This is a chart of my follower numbers since I started my Twitter account in January 2020. What else could more clearly describe the YUTA EFFECT?

Originally a small information account dedicated to Japanese Raptors fans, now it is not surprising to pass by followers on the street without knowing it.

Two years ago, the news that Rondae Hollis-Jefferson had lost his wallet was ignored by most of my fewer-than-300 followers. By the time it was revealed that it had been found, the number of followers had grown by ten times. (Although the number of likes was almost the same.)

And look at the drop in  recent months on the chart. This is another YUTA EFFECT. Yuta fans who assumed the future started to leave my account after the end of last season, and once it was reported that he’s headed to Brooklyn, the boom was over.

Of course, the YUTA EFFECT is not limited to the increase or decrease in followers of one Twitter account.

The first thing to note would be the sales of merchandise. In the 2020-21 season, Yuta and the Raptors were the top sellers of individual player jerseys and team merchandise in Japan. While that trend slowed last season (needless to say, no one buys the same jersey two years in a row), Yuta’s jersey ranked third among all players in sales in Japan in the first half of the season, while Raptors’ merchandise ranked fifth.

Another is the influence of the media. The number of features and interviews on TV news programs featuring Yuta peaked around the Tokyo Olympics and continued after that. This past May, he made the headlines by announcing his engagement to a famous announcer. Perhaps the newspaper articles were bigger than when he signed a standard contract a year ago. Shortly after, he was featured in one of Japan’s most famous documentary shows. It was somewhat strange to see Gary Trent jr. on Japanese TV. His flashy dreads and tattoos might have surprised my grandma.

So is this YUTA EFFECT over? The answer is No… At least, I hope it is No, and it should be No.

Why YUTA EFFECT Never Ends

In the article one year ago, I proposed the establishment of an official Twitter account in Japanese, with the example of the Wizards. It is a shame that this did not happen, but I understand that decision. Above all, it is difficult to stop such content once it starts. I have repeatedly taken a break or temporarily stopped my account, but it is not the case with an official account for an NBA team. Considering Yuta’s future with this team and the long-term running costs, it would have been a difficult decision.

Fortunately, there were many Japanese Raptors fans, including myself, who were active in sharing information. There are YouTube channels that mainly feature the Raptors, and there are also a great many fans who share English news. It would have been far less influential than the official accounts with the verification badge, but the unofficial system we created worked well in bringing information to the fans. To be honest, I cannot deny the probability that the lack of official Japanese content was a positive factor in the popularity of the unofficial providers like myself. 

As a result, many Yuta fans may not turn out to be Raptors fans but may have headed to Brooklyn. This would not be due to a lack of the Raptors’ efforts, but rather to the implacability of the human psyche.  I know how difficult converting a fan of a player into a fan of a team is, as I watch Los Angeles Angels games every day for Shohei Ohtani. I’ve learned many names of Angels players, but I remain a casual Blue Jays fan. (As for Yusei Kikuchi… all I can say is I wish him good luck.)

However, the situation will not return to what it was in the pre-Yuta era.

Fortunately, the Raptors have had little roster change this summer, and their core members are the same. On days when there are no games for Japanese players, the Raptors games will probably be prime candidates to watch to kill some time. In Toronto’s games against the Wizards and Nets, there are sure to be many Japanese fans who will recall good memories, saying, “Oh, it’s Boucher, the guy who interrupted Yuta’s press conference.” Or it could be, “Oh, it’s Flynn, who rarely passed to Yuta,” but well, it’s better than not to know him.

I also received such a reply to my farewell tweet to Yuta.

“Thanks to Yuta, I’ve now become a Scottie Barnes fan. I think I will continue to root for the Raptors for Barnes!”

This is all I have to say!!! Yuta triggered it, and Scottie grabbed the heart of a Japanese fan with his big hand. One new Raptors fan was born! Perhaps there must have been many similar cases over the past two years.

The YUTA EFFECT will never end. For the casual Japanese NBA fan, the Raptors have become familiar, from “the team that had Vince Carter” to “the team that won the championship thanks to Kawhi,” and now to “the team that had Yuta Watanabe.” It may not have the same momentum as the last two years, but they have certainly become more well-known as a team. From now on, we just have to steadily promote the appeal of the team with the oddly long wingspan.

Long, Long Acknowledgments

Finally, I have to express my gratitude to a lot of people.

A big thank you to the entire Raptors organization! Not only for giving Yuta a chance but also for often appealing to the Japanese market.

I must also give a big shout-out to Nick Nurse. He always made time for questions about Yuta at the post-game press conference. Even when his playing time was limited, he always responded sincerely to the Japanese journalists without saying, “By the way, Scottie is…”.

(And thanks, Ja Morant, for answering an out-of-place question about Yuta after losing to the Raptors. And… sorry.)

And thank you, Brooklyn, for giving Yuta another chance! As a Raptors fan, I don’t want to praise them too much, but there is no doubt that they are a team that can compete for the championship. Yuta would be a better fit with such a team than a development-oriented team…I’m not sure which of the two teams has “Higher Ambitions,” though.

And, of course, Yuta! Once a Raptor, always a Raptor! Two years ago, I was disappointed that Oshae Brissett was waived, but the Japanese fans who optimistically said, “Yuta can do it!” were much more right than me. He has overcome every challenge, from the Exhibit-10 contract to the two-way contract and finally to the standard contract. Surely Yuta can do it in Brooklyn too. 

And I have to say a huge thank you to the Raptors Republic Team. I never thought my writing would end up on a website I used to visit secretly in my high school computer class! The generosity of giving me such an opportunity is quite symbolic of the Raptors community. And every article about Yuta was fun to translate.

And to all Raptors fans reading this: Thank you for your warm welcome to Yuta and us Japanese fans. Please do not worry, I will never become Nets Info Japan. I and many other Japanese Raptors fans have been and will always remain part of your community.

WE THE NORTH, FROM THE EAST.

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