Q&A: MSE's Jim Van Stone on building the Wizards' global fanbase
In the next installment of a series of interviews with members of the Wizards’ business staff, Wizards Digital interviewed the team’s President of Business Operations and Chief Commercial Officer, Jim Van Stone, about his role and the development of the team’s global fanbase.
Q: First off, take us through your career path and your current role with the organization.
Van Stone: I have had the pleasure of working in professional sports in both the NBA and the NHL for the better part of last 25+ years. In that timeframe, I’ve worked for franchises in Philadelphia, Phoenix and Cleveland along with the last 14 years in Washington, D.C. with Monumental Sports & Entertainment.
My responsibility has been primarily in the revenue development and marketing scope of our business and as a leader it’s been built around helping a variety of our different departmental people leaders set strategy and goals for the organization to help grow the business and build our fanbase and corporate support.
Q: Since the addition of Rui Hachimura, you made a few visits to Japan. What’s your impression of the sports business world in Japan?
Van Stone: It has been an honor to meet so many new people on my three visits to Japan. I find the people to be really enthusiastic about sports and its unique ability to bring people together. My first visit was in September 2019 around the time frame of the Rugby World Cup and to see the country take such great honor in hosting the event was a really fantastic experience.
In addition, I am really excited about the growth and development of basketball in Japan from the youth to the professional levels. There is a huge passion about growing the sport at the grassroots level for both boys and girls. That is very exciting and the right way to do it.
The addition of Rui to the Washington Wizards has enabled us to begin to build a relationship and connection to both basketball and all-around sports fans in Japan. This is especially an exciting time for our team and also the NBA which last year hosted a very successful Japan games.
Q: It’s been about eight months since drafting Rui Hachimura. What kind of expectation did you have after that draft and what kind of results have you seen so far?
Van Stone: The response and support that we received from Japanese fans over the last eight months has been absolutely amazing. The support that we are seeing for Rui and the Wizards on a nightly basis at our games from visiting Japanese fans and also Japanese Americans attending has been so much more than we ever expected.
It’s a very humbling experience but it has also created a level of responsibility for us organizationally that we have to create as much Japanese language content as we can to develop a relationship with the market to make fans feel like they’re at home even when Rui and Wizards are playing so far away. We also saw very quickly with the amount of Japanese media covering Rui’s first press conference in Washington after the NBA Draft that his popularity was a very unique opportunity for our organization.
The support of the corporate market has also been amazing. We were very quickly able to develop a great partnership with NEC. As partners we share so much synergies both foundational and culturally in the way we operate our businesses. The beginning of our relationship as partners has been both seamless and exciting as we’ve been able to launch a variety of new programs together.
Q: What kind of possibility do you see in the Japanese market for the Washington Wizards?
Van Stone: We see incredible growth and engagement in Japan. It’s a keen responsibility of ours to develop a very robust relationship with the basketball and youth sports community, the business community and also fans of sports in general in Japan. It is our goal for the Wizards to become the most popular NBA team in Japan and grow the global game of basketball.
Even with the long distance some of the early engagement opportunities that we developed have included pre-and postgame reports about the team in Japanese, unique off the court content that tells a story of our players and team and what they do besides basketball, a weekly Japanese language radio podcast that covers interviews with influential people in the game of basketball, Japanese media personalities that cover and follow the wizards along with players, coaches and other celebrity personalities.
Most importantly, as we move forward, we want to do more local activations in Japan with members of our organization. Helping in the efforts to grow the game of basketball, the Wizards and the NBA is a high priority for us.
Q: The Wizards are currently operating a Japanese twitter, Instagram and an official website, but what are ways you’re hoping to use these outlets to further the Wizards brand internationally?
Van Stone: Our whole priority is to bring global to local. We want fans to have the full experience. These platforms allow us to engage fans in truly real time opportunities and connect with fans in a way that is important to them.
This is something that we believe is critical to developing our relationship with fans in Japan. Not only do we have offerings on these platforms, but we’ve also recruited and hired global and Japanese content professionals to help us engage with the community. This includes members of our own staff but we also a local agency in Sports Branding Japan, that assists us on strategy and activation. Their knowledge and experience in the market has been very valuable. Rui’s interest has set a new standard as the most popular jersey sold In Japan in just his first year in the NBA. His success has also elevated the popularity of other players on our team in Japan including Bradley Beal and Scott Brooks, so developing content around the full team has been a positive addition to our content and connectivity planning.
Q: Are there any unique or interesting business opportunities that have come up because of drafting Rui that wouldn’t have in the past?
Van Stone: Early last year for the first time ever, the NBA allowed teams to do their own international sponsorships with brands in global markets. The opportunity truly allows teams like our Wizards to activate and localize markets outside of the Greater Washington region on a much broader landscape.
This opportunity combined with the support of Rui in Japan has allowed us to look at creating relationships in Japan on a much broader connection than we’ve ever been able to do before.
Q: When you look for a partner with the Washington Wizards, what do you look for the most in a company?
Van Stone: We look for a partner that shares the same philosophies as us is an organization. One that is always forward thinking, entrepreneurial in spirit and trying new things, a company that is committed to high levels of customer satisfaction and creating Hall of Fame memories for their clients and one at the core of who they are is focused on utilizing new technology to grow their business.
Customers should be a factor in every decision we make. Ensuring that they feel valued and that they receive a positive return on their investment, time and engagement is critical.
Q: After signing a deal with a sponsorship company, how do you proceed in making the most out of the deal for activation ideas?
Van Stone: I think we approach the opportunity like we would with any partner whether they’re local or in a different country.
We want to understand what the goals and objectives are for the partner and develop the right programming that allows them to reach those goals and create an ROI on the partnership.