WASHINGTON -- Rui Hachimura is a big deal in his home country of Japan and the Washington Wizards are beginning to see the early returns from a business perspective.
Their corporate office took notice within 24 hours of him being drafted in June when Japanese companies started reaching out and when over 40 members of Japanese media showed up for his introductory press conference. Then, they saw the social media engagement, how highlights of his first game set a company record for video views.
That led to the creation of a Japanese wing of their digital media department, a new Twitter account catered towards Japanese fans and a sponshorship with the company NEC. Now, they have two top executives at Monumental Sports, Raul Fernandez and Jim Van Stone, flying to Japan for the second time in six weeks to negotiate more sponsorship deals.
Fernandez and Van Stone have over 20 meetings lined up over the course of a week in Tokyo.
"I think the opportunity for us to go over there and introduce our brand, the Washington Wizards, to Japan is very humbling. Rui has been a phenomenal addition," Van Stone said.
"When you look at worldwide distribution of the NBA, it just continues to grow and blossom. I think Japan is really that next big market and opportunity for us. I think Rui is going to help to really establish that."
Fernandez said the first trip to Japan was an eye-opening experience. They had seen the social media engagement numbers from content involving Hachimura, but it was different to actually go there.
"It was terrific to actually see firsthand in Tokyo the excitement, the energy and the passion and the following for Rui. Clearly, fans in Japan have been following his career in college, but as he's made this transition to the pros, as we look forward to the countdown to the Olympics, there's just an extra level," Fernandez said.
Though the Wizards have international clients, most of them are domestic. Their executives take annual trips to meet with companies in London, UK and the United Arab Emirates.
Japan, though, is a new venture for them and the league and it has the Wizards wondering how far it can go, and whether it can reach the level of other star athletes in their home countries.
"If you think about hockey and Washington, D.C. and how the Capitals came here and began to grow, really the explosion was with a star. It was Ovechkin," Fernandez said. "When people can identify, follow that journey and be part of a journey, that's when I think it becomes viral. That's what we've got with Rui Hachimura here."
Van Stone said he would like the Wizards to become the "team of Japan," not unlike the Houston Rockets and their rise in China due to Yao Ming. Ming was a sensation over a decade ago and as he rose, so did the brand of the Rockets and for individuals on the team. Some of his teammates got shoe and other endorsement deals in China because of the exposure Ming brought.
According to Fernandez and Van Stone, the one member of the Wizards besides Hachimura who has started to catch on in Japan is head coach Scott Brooks. That may be surprising, but it's something the Wizards have noticed.
"Konichiwa," Brooks said when informed. "So, when I go to the 2020 Olympics, I won't have to buy a meal?"
"Basketball in Japan, it's getting bigger right now," Hachimura said. "[Brooks] is always on the TV."
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