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Wizards deploy multi-pronged strategy to develop Japanese fandom

Washington Wizards rookie sensation Rui Hachimura

  • NBA team has created multi-faceted Japanese-language content platforms to feed into interest
  • Commercial partnership with NEC Corporation likely to be followed by another with Japanese company
  • Two Japanese heritage nights planned while team is eager to play a pre-season game in Tokyo

Prior to the 2019 NBA Draft in June, the Washington Wizards had a limited presence in Japan. This situation changed literally overnight when the National Basketball Association team selected 6ft 8in forward Rui Hachimura, of Gonzaga University, with the ninth pick of the Draft.

Hachimura, who was born to a Beninese father and Japanese mother in Toyama Prefecture, made history by becoming the first Japanese-born player to be selected in the NBA Draft’s first round. Interest in Hachimura’s career progress was already high in his home country, but his top-10 Draft selection made him an instant sporting superstar in Japan.

That evening, the Wizards’ Twitter account posted a message welcoming Hachimura in Japanese. Within hours, it generated the most interaction of any tweet in the team’s social media history. The following day almost 100 Japanese media members attended Hachimura’s introductory press conference at Capital One Arena in Washington DC, many of whom had flown over from Tokyo to the United States to attend the Draft. At present, between 30 to 50 Japanese media members attend Wizards games on a nightly basis.

Meanwhile, according to online sports retailer Fanatics, in the month following the 2019 NBA Draft more Hachimura jerseys were sold on NBA Store Japan than any other player has ever sold on the site. Hachimura remains the top-selling NBA player in Japan, having sold approximately twice more than the next best-selling player.

Executives at Wizards’ parent company Monumental Sports & Entertainment – which also owns the National Hockey League’s Washington Capitals – quickly realized the Wizards had been given a potentially transformational commercial opportunity, and one which they needed to capitalize on.

In October, Monumental announced a reported seven-figure deal with Japanese technology company NEC Corporation, marking the first international partnership for the Wizards since the NBA allowed teams to sell global marketing rights to two international partners beginning with the 2019-20 season.

Notably, it was the first such deal for an NBA franchise in Japan. A second partnership with a Japanese company is now likely after Monumental executives travelled twice to Japan in recent weeks to meet with potential commercial partners, as well as other executives.

Washington Wizards announce their international partnership with NEC Corporation (Credit: Washington Wizards)

In just a short amount of time – and with the Tokyo Olympics approaching next summer, in which Hachimura will likely star for the host nation – the Wizards have put themselves in prime position to become the NBA’s most-popular team in Japan. Surprisingly, the country is still a relatively untapped market for the league despite the league’s aggressive global business strategy that taken it significantly into China, India, and much of Europe and Africa, among other locales.

“From Rui’s welcome press conference, we realized that [his arrival] was going to be transformational for us as an organization,” Jim Van Stone, Monumental’s president of business operations and chief commercial officer, tells SportBusiness.

“It’s going to be important that we invest in it. We need to continue to do that. Making the trips to Japan is really important as we’re hearing directly from media members, consumers and brands about how they look at this opportunity to potentially grow and evolve for us. I think the early successes make me feel very positive about it and hopefully we become the [NBA] team of Japan. Creating that relationship and investing in it is critical and foundational,” Van Stone said.

Authentic and aggressive content strategy

A key part of the Wizards’ plans to engage and expand the team’s ever-growing Japanese fanbase has been an innovative and, according to Van Stone, “very aggressive” content strategy.

In September, the team announced a multitude of new Japanese-language content platforms. This included the hiring of the bilingual Zac Ikuma as the team’s Japanese digital correspondent, the first role of its kind in the NBA, as well as a Japanese-language website, Twitter account, and a weekly podcast.

The results speak for themselves. In just two months, the Japanese-language Twitter account had gained over 30,000 followers, 45 million-plus impressions and seven million-plus video views. According to Monumental figures, the account has gained more interactions in the past two months than the main Twitter accounts of 13 other NBA teams.

“The numbers were are seeing are tremendous, really compelling. I think we are onto a really good thing,” says Van Stone. “In my recent visits of Japan, I’ve met with a lot of brands over there and they are telling us that the content that we are producing is really connecting with people and it’s been really authentic.”

While many NBA teams have actively looked to leverage their international superstars to their home countries for many years, Van Stone believes that the Wizards are producing content that is deeper and richer than any team has produced in the past.

Monumental Sports executive Jim Van Stone (second left) during a recent business trip to Japan (Credit: Washington Wizards)

“We realized very quickly that we wanted to create an opportunity to develop a really organic and authentic connection to the Japanese community, celebrating Rui’s participation and being a member of our team. We wanted to create a connection that had probably never been done before with than NBA team,” he says. “One of the things we want to show with the content we are producing is not only what is happening on the court but also what is happening behind the scenes in Rui’s journey in the NBA.”

Such has been the success of the initiative, Monumental is considering expanding it to other international players in the ownership group’s varied portfolio.

“Many of these places are so far away so the ability to create content is so important. We have almost 50 people in our production team who produce our content. Having the resources to create content that speaks directly to an audience abroad I think is really important,” Van Stone says. “I think it can happen with other players that we have. Our rosters are really heavily influenced by international players and some of them are superstars and that gives us an opportunity.”

Pre-season game planned in Tokyo

Going forward, the Wizards have made plans to put on two Japanese-themed evenings in the coming months: a Japanese Heritage Night in early January, and a Cherry Blossom Festival Night in March, which will be in partnership with the local Japanese Embassy.

The team is also working with different travel and hospitality companies to cater towards the influx of Japanese fans coming to their games. A recent Wizards home game was attended by 100 employees from the nearby World Bank along with 70 Japanese students attending local universities.

“At our home opener, from our estimates, we had almost 3,000 Japanese-Americans who came in for the game or were tourists coming from Japan,” Van Stone says. “We also realized early that a lot of people coming to games are looking for a probably once-in-a-lifetime experience. So we’re doing a lot of activations, where we’re inviting people in early to watch pre-game warm-ups, and have a variety of experiential activities. We’re working with some travel companies in terms of coordinating that stuff.”

Japanese fans show their support for Rui Hachimura at a Washington Wizards game (Credit: Washington Wizards)

Talks are ongoing with the NBA, meanwhile, about potentially staging a pre-season game in Tokyo as early as 2021.

“The international games are basically coordinated by the league. We’re hopeful the league invites us to play in Tokyo as we move forward. I don’t think there will be a game in 2020 because of the Olympics, but we’re hoping the year after. If we were extended an invitation we would certainly jump at the opportunity and do it,” Van Stone says.

The 2020 Summer Games themselves will provide the Wizards another golden opportunity to make the most of Hachimura’s presence from a content standpoint as well as another chance to travel to Tokyo for further business meetings.

“We’re in the early stages of figuring out the strategy from that standpoint but it’s a perfect chance for us to continue this process as we get into the off-season. Looking at those moments of opportunity, the Olympics certainly provide that and we would love to be part of it in any way we can,” Van Stone says.

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