With the regular season set to tip off next week, the team has implemented an aggressive game plan with the goal of making a splash in Japan. The Wizards have launched a Japanese-language team site and a Japanese Twitter feed, and they hired a bilingual correspondent who will host a targeted podcast while reporting on all things Hachimura and all things Wizards for an audience nearly 7,000 miles away.
While multiple U.S. professional sports teams have embraced foreign-born superstars — China’s Yao Ming, Japan’s Ichiro Suzuki and Russia’s Alex Ovechkin among them — teams typically don’t deploy the resources needed to amplify their presence in the player’s home country and cultivate a fan base there.
“There’s definitely a lot of momentum and excitement,” said Jim Van Stone, president of business operations for Monumental Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Wizards. “I think the Japanese market is potentially a booming market for basketball. It’s traditionally been a baseball marketplace, but we think with the globalness that basketball provides, Japan is really a great opportunity.”
The NBA’s relationships with foreign entities has been in the spotlight this month after Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey voiced support for Hong Kong protesters, sparking a backlash by China and a week-long stream of commentary on all sides.
The NBA has made it a priority to make inroads around the globe, and it identified Japan as a market ripe for growth. This month, the league staged its first preseason game there in 16 years, and Wizards officials said they will push to play an exhibition game there, too, either next year or in 2021.
“Today, our business in Japan is in great shape,” said Scott Levy, the NBA’s Asia managing director, “and I believe the game of basketball and the NBA are well-positioned for growth in Japan.”
Levy said Japan is one of the top nations for NBA League Pass subscribers, and more than 1.3 million fans from Japan follow the NBA on social media. This season, fans will be able to access every NBA game, including as many as 15 per week with local commentary. The league believes the sport is poised for a big boost with the rise of Japan’s professional B.League, next year’s Summer Olympics in Tokyo and, of course, all the interest tied to Hachimura’s rookie season.
Hachimura was born and raised in Japan, moving to the United States to attend college at Gonzaga. Next week, the 21-year-old will become just the third Japanese player to appear in a regular season NBA game and the first to enter the league with any sort of expectations or acclaim. (Yuta Tabuse broke through with the Phoenix Suns in 2004 and played four games; Yuta Watanabe, who also went undrafted, logged 15 games for the Memphis Grizzlies last season and is on a two-way contract.) Even if Hachimura is not an instant star, he will surely be a boon for the Wizards in merchandising and corporate sponsorships.
In April, the NBA launched an international marketing program that allows each team to sell global rights to two sponsors from outside the United States. The Wizards on Tuesday announced a partnership with NEC, a 120-year-old technology company based in Tokyo that will give the team a bigger footprint in Japan and NEC more visibility around Washington.
“We think it’s a really unique opportunity for us to really grow our brand in Japan,” Van Stone said. “We’ve really taken an aggressive thought process to it and making sure we’re authentic in the process.”
The team is pleased with the early returns. The new initiatives launched at the start of training camp last month. Within two days, the Japanese Twitter account — @washwizardsjp — had amassed 10,000 followers and is now over 14,000. It regularly includes practice updates, game previews and recaps, news conference snippets and short videos. A 10-second clip of Hachimura putting up shots in the paint last week garnered 80,000 views and 2,000 likes. A 15-second video of him shooting three-pointers had nearly 65,000 views and more than 2,500 likes. And a video from media day that featured Hachimura holding the camera and greeting fans in Japanese had more than 129,000 views.
“Seeing that huge immediate response, it was like, ‘Okay, there’s a big demand for this,’ ” said Zac Ikuma, the team’s new Japanese-speaking correspondent.
The team has been working with 24 journalists from Japanese media outlets and expects a large contingent to attend all Wizards games. Fans in Japan can also live-stream every Wizards game — all NBA games, actually — using streaming service Rakuten. But the team feels Ikuma is perfectly situated to tell the Wizards’ story to the Japanese market.
No other professional sports team in the United States has a position quite like his, and even Ikuma didn’t quite believe it when he heard about the opening over the summer.
“For me, I was blown away this kind of opportunity was actually out there,” said Ikuma, who has been in sports media for 14 years, including the past several covering Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league. “Usually for bilingual people, the only positions around are interpreters. As important as that job is, I’m really more interested in the storytelling side of things.”
Win or lose, his coverage will often revolve around Hachimura. The organization will keep the player’s focus on the court, but he will often be the featured attraction in its content focused on the Japanese market. The hope is that the Japanese audience will tune in to watch its homegrown star and fall in love with the sport and the Wizards in the process.
“We can’t assume that Japanese fans are all going to be Wizards fans,” Ikuma said, “but having the biggest Japanese star on the Wizards is definitely going to help.”
Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Rui Hachimura is the first NBA draft pick out of Japan. He is the first Japanese player selected in the draft’s first round. Another Japanese player, Yasutaka Okayama, was selected in the NBA draft’s eighth round in 1981 but never played in the NBA.