As rookie forward Rui Hachimura continues to impress in his first season for the Washington Wizards, the team’s front office is using the player as part of a case study on how to build a nation-specific content strategy.
When the Wizards drafted Hachimura with the No. 9 overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, more than 46 Japanese media members arrived to cover the first Japanese-born first-round draft pick.
That early enthusiasm alerted the team’s front office to a potential project they had already been thinking about, said Jim Van Stone, president of business operations and chief commercial officer for Monumental Sports and Entertainment, the parent company the Washington Wizards.
“We knew this was a unique opportunity, and he’ll be a pioneer as a first-round pick,” Van Stone said. “We realized we wanted to create an authentic and organic relationship with Japanese fans, and we thought the best way to do that was creating unique Japanese-language content.”
The team brought on Zac Ikuma as a Japanese Digital Correspondent, a bilingual broadcaster who spent the previous seven years as a play-by-play announcer for the Nippon Professional Baseball League. With Ikuma on board, Monumental then launched a Japanese language website, Twitter account, and weekly podcast in September.
The weekly podcast hosts players, front office staff, and members of the Japanese business community translated into Japanese, while Ikuma also hosts the Wizards Players’ Diaries video series. He also provides pre- and post-game analysis. The website hosts original content from Ikuma as well as translated written content from WashingtonWizards.com writers.
Van Stone said the team is very encouraged by the significant amount of interaction with fans via the Japanese Twitter channel. In the two months following the channel’s launch, the Wizards Japanese Twitter account has more than 30,000 followers and has generated more than 45 million impressions and 7 million video views from approximately 20 videos. According to the Wizards, the 55.5 interactions per 1,000 Japanese followers are approximately 43 times more than the next closest team account.
The Japanese efforts by the Wizards are just an extension of what Van Stone believes is already a globally-attractive team because of Washington D.C.’s status as an international city as the heart of the U.S. government and 190 embassies. There are also 500 international flights each week from the metro area.
At the Wizards home opener, Van Stone said there were an estimated 3,000 Japanese and Japanese-American fans in the arena, and he said the team also has been a similar draw for fans on the road.
Van Stone also mentioned a slate of foreign-based sponsorships, like Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba and United Arab Emirates-based Etihad Airways. The Wizards announced the first Japanese partnership deal, with technology company NEC, in October. While the Japanese language content hasn’t yet resulted in many new sponsors, Van Stone said it has spurred discussion and interest. He’s gone to Japan twice since September, each time hearing more interest.
“We feel like we’re on to something unique,” he said. “We’re hearing directly from brands and consumers that it’s resonating. It’s a great business development opportunity and has the ability to create a relationship that’s much deeper.”
The Wizards’ efforts built around Hachimura are all building on top of a growing interest in basketball and the NBA in Japan. The 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo will provide basketball another platform to grow in Japan and the Wizards plan on creating content during the period. Domestically, the country’s B. League grew its revenue from $32 million in the 2017-2018 season to $283 million in the 2018-2019 season, according to the Japan Times.
With the Olympics on the horizon, Hachimura’s draft has helped accelerate the growth in Japan, as 1.1 million people tuned into the NBA Japan’s live stream of the draft. Since he was selected, Hachimura’s jersey has been the top-selling jersey on the NBAStore.jp site.
Hachimura’s early success has the potential to inspire generations of Japanese children to play basketball, said NBA Asia Managing Director Scott Levy. Along with Hachimura, the league had more than 100 international players on team rosters to start the season for the sixth consecutive season. To that end, the Wizards’ efforts in Japan are just one way that teams will reach new audiences.
Levy said the NBA is also focused on making NBA games and programming more accessible and localized to international fans.
“Every team will continue to find new, unique ways to engage their international fans through social media, international partnerships, in-arena activations, and international trips, among other initiatives,” Levy said. “It’s something the NBA is also very focused on as we continue to make NBA games and programming more accessible and localized to international fans than ever before.”
With more than 1.3 million NBA social followers in the country, through its Twitter, Facebook, and TikTok accounts, the league is working on its fanbase in Japan. The league hosted its first game in 16 years in Japan in October between the Toronto Raptors and Houston Rockets, which welcomed more than 56,000 spectators over two games. Before this year’s pair of games, there had been 12 games played in Japan dating back to 1990.
There’s also a league-wide partnership with Rakuten, which includes NBA Rakuten offering nine games a week in local commentary, along with on-demand access to NBA games and programming. Along with the Rakuten partnership, more than 20 active and former NBA players have made their way to Japan, including Kemba Walker and Draymond Green since 2010.
However, while the league is finding success in Japan, the backlash the NBA has faced in China following the tweet from Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey shows how quickly decades of outreach focusing on a specific international market can be damaged.
Still, the potential for Hachimura to connect with a burgeoning basketball country has the Wizards pushing ahead in Japan.
“Japan’s league continues to build itself and doing big things,” Van Stone said. “The NBA sees it as a big opportunity. Baseball is traditionally the powerful sport, but more kids are playing basketball, and I see it climbing. Sometimes you need that person to be a charismatic face, and you saw that in China with Yao.”
“Rui can be that in Japan.”