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With Rui Hachimura, first NBA draft pick from Japan, Wizards make big play for new audience

UPDATED: Tue., Oct. 15, 2019

Washington Wizards forward Rui Hachimura  dunks against New York Knicks center Mitchell Robinson  during the second half of an NBA preseason basketball game, Monday, Oct. 7, 2019, in Washington. (Nick Wass / AP)
Washington Wizards forward Rui Hachimura dunks against New York Knicks center Mitchell Robinson during the second half of an NBA preseason basketball game, Monday, Oct. 7, 2019, in Washington. (Nick Wass / AP)
By Rick Maese Washington Post

WASHINGTON, D.C. – When the Washington Wizards drafted Gonzaga’s Rui Hachimura ninth overall four months ago, coaches liked what they were getting: a two-way player with a massive wingspan and a ton of potential. The team’s front office and business side were excited about the possibilities, too, seeing nothing but opportunity in the first Japanese-born player to be selected in the NBA draft, a player who could help the Wizards make an impact off the court – and overseas.

With the regular season set to tip off next week, the team has already implemented an aggressive game plan with the goal of making a big splash in the Japanese market. They’ve 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 don’t typically deploy the resources needed to amplify their presence in the player’s home country to cultivate a foreign fan base.

“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 loud backlash from China and a weeklong 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’ll 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 in the NBA.

Hachimura was born and raised in Japan, moving to the United States for 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, playing four games in the NBA; 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’ll surely be a boon for the Wizards in merchandising and corporate sponsorships.

In April, the NBA launched a new international marketing program allowing each team to sell global rights to two sponsors from outside the United States. The Wizards will announce a new 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 now has more than 13,000. 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 3-pointers had nearly 65,000 views and more than 2,500 likes. A selfie 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, ‘OK, there’s a big demand for this,’ ” said Zac Ikuma, the team’s newly hired 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 Rakuten’s over-the-top service. 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 Hachimura will often be the featured attraction in its content focused on a Japanese market. The hope is that the Japanese audience will tune in for its homegrown star and fall in love with both the sport and the Washington team 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.”

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