TAMPA — “We The North” is more than a quippy three-word slogan for a basketball team. It’s not only a rallying cry for the Raptors and their fans, it represents Toronto’s proud identity as the NBA’s only city outside the U.S.
It’s how Torontonians embrace perceptions of them as outsiders as they’ve built a basketball-mad fan base — and the Raptors have become one of the league’s most successful organizations — in the heart of hockey country.
When the Raptors announced plans to start the upcoming season in Tampa, a spin on the team’s slogan was born.
We The South.
Like their temporary new home, the Raptors have embraced it.
“We love it,” Raptors general manager Bobby Webster said this week. “We saw some of that as soon as we announced. We’re ready to dive into this community. We’re excited to be here, and we look forward to developing a relationship with Tampa.”
Even Lightning captain Steven Stamkos, who is from suburban Toronto, tweeted, “We the South,” the day the Raptors’ temporary move became official.
But not everyone was a fan, as local T-shirt designer Matt Shapiro found out first-hand.
Shapiro, owner of St. Pete-based 1771 Designs, began selling a “We the South” shirt shortly after the Raptors-to-Tampa arrangement became official. Immediately, he felt the wrath of fans up north on social media and in emails.
“My hope was for it to be fun,” Shapiro said. “I’ve been talking to some people up in Canada, and I asked, ‘Why is everyone taking it so personal?’ I guess ‘We the North’ is just built into your DNA. And for me to change what your team is and who your team is, I guess it ticked off a lot of people.
“I had people tell me to delete it, tell me that (the design) looks like puke, that they’ll never be our team, they will always be Toronto’s team. I was shocked.”
Shapiro tried to make amends with his next shirt, a spin on the Raptors’ international logo that says, “Tampa Bay Raptors,” but highlights the “TOR” in Raptors to pay homage to the team’s home city. He just released two more Raptors shirts that don’t have either city named but has the Tampa and St. Petersburg cityscapes connected by the Sunshine Skyway Bridge silhouetted.
“I took it in stride,” Shapiro said of the criticism. “My intention is not to try to convince the NBA to move the Raptors to Tampa Bay. To me, it’s going to be a unique season, so let’s have some unique apparel to match it.”
Shapiro, who opened his business during the early part of the pandemic, said the shirts are currently his best-selling, and there’s been interest beyond Tampa Bay.
“Through various social media, it’s been getting a lot of traction,” he said. “Overall, the response has been really positive. It’s been cool to see that there’s a lot of fans in the area, but also just around the country, fans who are intrigued to see how the season goes.”
E-commerce site Etsy also has several vendors selling “We The South” apparel. None of the shirts are licensed or have any connection to the Raptors or the NBA.
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.