WMG promo page_Kyoto

Imagine over 40,000 people coming together in front of stunning Heian Jingu in Kyoto, people of all ages from all over the world, smiling and happy to be in Japan.

It’s hard to imagine that scene today, a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has left the biggest tourist destinations of the world, including the popular former capital of Japan, bereft of visitors. But that’s what Jens V. Holm sees in his head, in May of 2021. That’s when the World Masters Games 2021 Kansai takes place, the global sporting event that brings together two to three times the number of athletes than the Summer Olympics.

Holm is the CEO of IMGA, or the International Masters Games Association, and he expects to be in Japan from May 14 to 30 of next year, during the 17 days of the first ever World Masters Games (WMG) in Asia.

The WMG invites anyone 30 years of age or older to compete in 35 sporting disciplines ranging from track and field and swimming events to team events like baseball and rugby, to lesser known competitive sports like tug of war or orienteering. Held every four years, the year after an Olympic year, WMG is becoming one of the most popular Big Tent sporting events in the world.

A significant difference between WMG and the Olympics is that while the Olympics invite national teams, the WMG invites individuals, which means there is no mass directives from committees to dictate whether an athlete will attend or not attend. And while Holm, like the rest of us, does not know if there will be a vaccine by the end of the year, he does know we will be better prepared in 2021. “We will take precautions, do proper risk management,” he said. “We have spread the venues out over the entire region of Kansai so that we won’t have all the people in one area during the Games.”

The World Masters Games Kansai 2021 is Japan’s “canary in the coal mine” – the event that will determine the confidence the world has in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and whether the world will also come together for the opening ceremony on July 23. As we approach the Fall of 2020, we can look to the “health” of the canary, hoping to hear the chirpy notes indicating WMG is ready for flight in 2021.

And WMG can fly.

In the shadow of the Olympics, FIFA World Cup and other massive international sports events, the World Masters Games has quietly built up a tremendous fan base of participants. Additionally, Holm said that cities are eager to bring the Games to their areas, with four cities currently bidding for WMG 2025: Perth, Taipei, Paris and Singapore.

WMG map and sports

While the Olympics generally get a lot of bad press about budget overruns and white elephant “legacies,” the World Masters Games creates significant return on investment to the host city, without the development of any new infrastructure. In fact they insist that the host city employs only existing infrastructure. The World Masters Games focuses on attracting participants from around the world, like a major marathon or triathlon event, to generate revenue, not on television rights, spectator ticket sales or sponsorships like the IOC does. Holm explained that the IMGA is a non-profit, and that the purpose of the Masters Games is to serve as a tourism event.

Our focus is on the host cities making money, not the IMGA. We charge the host city rights fees, but always less than the city receives from the athletes in registration fees, so the organizers start in the black.  And we don’t allow the city to build anything. This way all their investment into operating the games will serve as an investment in tourism. The big revenue generation for the host city or region is athletes paying for their own travel and accommodation.   

In fact, if you watch the promotional video for WMG 2021 Kansai, it is essentially a tourism video enticing athletes to experience the beauty and cuisine of the nine prefectures hosting sporting events during the games.

Holm said that prior to the pandemic outbreak, expectations were that WMG Kansai was going to be their most popular event ever. While the last WMG saw over 28,000 athletes gather in Auckland, New Zealand in 2017, Holm was expecting a record-breaking 50,000 athletes, half from Japan, and half from overseas. And these athletes are above average spenders.

“The average age for both men and women is 51,” said Holm. “The athletes who come from overseas end up taking two weeks off to participate, indicating they tend to be from higher income groups. And 77% of them have a university degree. With high income and high education, you have more time and resources to focus on your health. That fits in very well with the Japan market, which is focused on building their tourism industry, as well as working to ensure their aging population has an active lifestyle.”

So without the financial burden of building costly infrastructure like sports venues or athlete accommodations, among other things, and the focus primarily on attracting motivated athletes (not spectators), the World Masters Games model has proven to have a positive impact on the host economy. An independently researched report on WMG2017 in Auckland, New Zealand stated that the “return on Auckland’s investment in WMG2017 was 151%, calculated as $34.2 million (WMG’s contribution to regional GDP) divided by $22.6 million (Auckland’s investment in WMG2017).”

Jens Holm_1
Jens V. Holm, CEO of the International Masters Games Association (IMGA)

A good part of that return on investment came from the over 27,000 visitors to Auckland who spent a total of 241,480 nights in hotels and Airbnb venues, staying on average 8.9 nights. The 17,000 overseas visitor spent over USD56 million in New Zealand, a fifth of that from visitors who flew in via the national carrier, Air New Zealand.

This is what the leaders of the nine prefectures in the Kansai region are hoping for, a jolt to re-energize their tourism ecosystem.

“That’s why we had it on the drawing board to spread venues across the region,” said Holm. “There is so much to see in Kansai from a tourism point of view. And the infrastructure is very good. This will be an excellent way for the country to promote itself.”

Jimmie Johnson in eNASCAR iRacing Pro
NASCAR racecar driving great, Jimmie Johnson, competing in the first eNASCAE iRacing Pro Invitational on Fox.

What’s a diehard sports fan to do? This weekend, the only games being played were by football teams in the Belarus Vysshaya Liga and Burundi Primus League, by baseball teams in Nicaragua, and by ice hockey teams in Russia’s Liga Pro, according to flashscore.com.

 

Fans have more time to watch sports than ever before as coronavirus has forced a daily domestic life upon hundreds of millions of people around the world. Unfortunately, and ironically, there are almost no sports events to watch.

 

Every weekday morning in Japan, I should be at the office, peeking at my smartphone to see if my New York Rangers sneak into the NHL playoffs, or my New York Knicks can compete again for a Lottery Pick in the 2020 NBA draft, or my New York Mets pick up where they left off last year and make a determined march to the MLB playoffs. Now, I self isolate by working at home, with no sports to distract, trying to keep coffee and toast crumbs out of my keyboard.

 

Yes, the great pandemic of 2020 is enabling CIOs globally to accelerate the corporate digital revolution as they race to enable massive numbers of people to work from home, creating significant changes in the way we work.

 

The great pandemic of 2020 is also accelerating the growth of an already booming business – eSports – which is projected to surpass $1 billion in revenue for the first time this year, with expectations to hit $1.8 billion by 2022. The timing is strangely coincidental, but the Japanese government announced on March 29 a plan to expand Japan’s nascent eSports industry in collaboration with the private sector with the hopes of driving revenues of over $2.5 billion by 2025.

 

To the surprise of most people over 40, there is a growing audience for watching other people play video games, particularly on the biggest viewing platform – Twitch. And thanks to the need for greater social distancing, viewership has boomed. According to thegamingeconomy.com on April 2:

 

Market-leader Twitch has surpassed its records for hours streamed, average concurrent viewership (CCV), and hours watched, with the latter passing 3.1 billion hours for the first time. Comparing the figures to last year, Facebook Gaming has seen dramatic increases in its streaming portfolio, with hours watched up 236% to 563.7 million, hours streamed up 131.5% to over 4.9 million, and average CCV up to 256,000 at any one time.

 

In search of sports content, Fox Sports in the US broadcast on Sunday, March 22 the first of several broadcasts of eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series, a live event featuring some of America’s best racecar drivers doing 100 laps for a contest of 150 miles…on a game counsel…in their homes.

 

Denny Hamlin, a 30-time NASCAR champion, and a three time Daytona 500 champion, pulled out a stunning last-second victory over legendary racer Dale Earnhardt Jr. Thanks to the simulation platform called iRacing, and its realistic rendering of the raceway and cars in motion, as well as the entertaining and real-time commentary by the Fox sports announcers, the eRace felt like a real car race. Over 900,000 fans tuned into this inaugural event, and a week later in the series’ second installment, over 1.3 million watched the simulated race.

 

 

The NBA has promoted its NBA 2K20 tournament, which features 16 NBA stars competing against each other on the league’s flagship video game, NBA 2K20. In the tournament’s first match on the morning of Saturday, April 4 (Japan time), Brooklyn Net superstar, Kevin Durant, took on Miami Heat small forward, Derrick Jones Jr. The tournament player can pick any NBA team to represent them. In this case, Durant played the Los Angeles Clippers while Jones used the Milwaukee Bucks.

 

NBA2k20_3
A screenshot from the inaugural game of the NBA 2K20 Tournament between Jones and Durant.

As media experiments in trying to figure out which eSports and what formats will best attract the audiences, there will be flops. eNASCAR is very watchable, thanks to the realistic visuals and the use of real announcers providing the call and the color. The NBA 2K20 in its current form relies on the game’s own play-by-play announcers, as well as the personality and communication skill of the players. Here’s how CBS Sports described the match between NBA players Patrick Beverley and Hassan Whiteside.

 

Let’s be honest: the first night of this tournament was boring. Beverley spiced up the ending, but that’s an unfair standard because he could spice up a baby shower. The normal human beings that participated in this tournament weren’t exactly trading barbs. All things considered, it was a dull start to a tournament that had real potential. Whether players are unwilling to open up in front of cameras or if this tournament needs a broadcaster to host the games and stimulate conversation is unclear, but what we saw on Friday wasn’t exactly thrilling content. 

 

But that’s sports. You win some. You lose some.

TBS Sunday Japan_15March2020
Open discussion on the possibility of postponing the Tokyo2020 Olympics during a popular Japanese news program, Sunday Japon, this morning on TBS_March 15,2020

Standing in the middle of the office, I let out an audible “woah.”

It was around noon on Thursday, March 12 (Japan time) and I saw on my phone that the NBA had just suspended the season after learning that a player for the Utah Jazz (later revealed as center Rudy Gobert) had tested positive for coronavirus. Seemingly minutes later, I saw that Tom Hanks and his wife Rita announced that they too have tested positive while on a movie shoot in Australia.

The NBA is an organization that generates over $8 billion a year and the average franchise is valued at over $2 billion, and it suspended all games in the midst of a playoff drive, probably ending the opportunity for their greatest revenue generating opportunity – the NBA playoffs in May and June.

Tom Hanks is a two-time Oscar award winner for best actor and one of the most beloved actors in the world, and he put a human face on the virus for billions of us.

In the next 36 hours, those major quakes were followed by a quick succession of aftershocks in the sports world: cancellation or postponement of the Major League Soccer season, the NHL during their run to the playoffs, the popular NCAA men’s and women’s basketball championship tournaments, the MLB pre-season and opening day, The Masters golf championship, the Boston Marathon…and that was just the United States.

People like myself, who have not been personally impacted by the growing pandemic in any serious way, were given a reality check. We watched the news with growing alarm, followed the news in hot spots like China, Korea and Italy with concern, obeyed the instructions of health experts, but pretty much went about our lives because we are fortunate enough to do so.

But then came the rash of major cancellations and postponements, the news of global travel restrictions, plummeting stock markets and invocation of national emergencies….many of us are now experiencing, on a much smaller scale, what people who are directly impacted by the virus have already gone through: Shock.

Shock is the first phase of The Change Curve, the emotional reaction people have to sudden change, or very bad news. Based on a model that explains how people deal with terminal illness developed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the Change Curve shows how people go through stages that include denial, anger, depression and acceptance.  In my world of leadership development, we use a framework that provides shorthand for that curve: SARA, which stands for Shock, Anger, Resistance, and Acceptance.

The early images of Wuhan, China, where the outbreak originated, were of shock and anger, particularly regarding lack of transparency about how bad the situation was, the silencing and martyrdom of the doctor who first tried to spread the news of the virus in Wuhan, and the fact that the Chinese government waited till mid January to inform residents that the virus could spread via contact with other people. By the end of January, over 50 million people in China saw their cities and towns placed in lockdown, anger boiling over with attacks on doctors or spitting on elevator buttons.

There is no doubt still a great deal of anxiety in China, but recent reports out of major cities in China report an acceptance of sorts, a new normal of everyday life, where almost all moments of the day are spent inside one’s home, where streets are empty except for delivery bikes. Oscar Fuchs, a Brit living in Shanghai, wrote in the middle of February, that he has gotten used to living behind locked gates in a country where swift and strong action was taken to clamp down on social interaction.

I don’t feel under siege. And as inconvenient as these restrictions are, I don’t find them stressful. I find them comforting. There’s a stoicism in my community of Chinese neighbors that is very calming. And everyday changes to regulations are being superbly well-organised and communicated. It makes me feel that China and the Chinese people are on top of this. And it makes me feel that mindset is everything.

In fact, the levels of safety and security compared to the rising concern in the rest of the world has created the perception that China is safer than other countries just starting to deal with the growing shock, anger and resistance to coronavirus. At least that is how Tony Perman, an associate professor at Grinnell College, views China after recently returning to the US from Shanghai.

When my family returned to the United States after six weeks of quarantine in Shanghai, our friends and relatives responded with congratulations and relief that we were finally safe. Less than a week since arriving back home, however, we don’t quite share our loved ones’ sentiments. We felt safer in Shanghai as conditions improved than we do in the U.S.

I’ve now lived through a coronavirus quarantine in the two countries, and the differences are stark well beyond their airports. In China, the obligation to isolate felt shared and the public changed their habits almost immediately. Sterilization, cleanliness and social distancing were prioritized by everyone at all times. Rightly or wrongly, the Chinese state’s heavy-handed approach seemed to work.

We do not know how long the COVID-19 pandemic will last. Many of us are still in the early stages of the change curve. For me personally, it’s been a succession of shock-anger-resistance cycles. During the Diamond Princess scare in February, I shared the armchair frustration and anger, but continued to attend networking events where large groups of people attended.

Then there were the series of corporate or chamber of commerce events that I was personally involved with that had to be postponed, with the hope that they would be re-scheduled for early Spring or Summer.

And while various officials would speak out on the possible cancellation or postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, I joined Tokyo2020 officials in the belief that the Show would go on as scheduled, wishfully believing that something so big, with so many stakeholders, with so much invested, could not be cancelled or postponed.

But the rapid-fire shocks of recent events have had a desensitizing effect on me. The reality is, the health and welfare of people around the world, whether they be members of our own family, friends, athletes, or world leaders for that matter, is far more important than a sporting event, even a mega, big-tent event like the Summer Olympics.

To be honest, I am still in that resistance stage, hoping that the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics will take place as scheduled. But as expressions of shock, anger and resistance continue to grow well beyond Asia, and uncertainty persists as to when a reliable treatment or cure will emerge, it is hard to imagine a world that is secure and confident enough to congregate in July by the tens of thousands in one city – Tokyo.

I’m not quite at the second “A” in SARA, but I’m getting there.

And once there, I hope to add the letter “H,” which represents healing and hope.

Normalcy will return. But not until the change curve has run its course.

Tokyo Metro Off Peak 1

With a population of over 37 million people, the Greater Tokyo  Area is the most populous city in the world.

So what is it going to be like when the Olympics come to Tokyo next year when the 2020 Tokyo Olympics takes Tokyo by storm from July 24 to August 8. That’s when an expected 650,000 spectators are expected to arrive, so there are legitimate concerns for the average city denizen, who can’t get tickets to the Show and just wants to get to work on time.

I see three major acts by both public and private institutions to decrease congestion in Tokyo during the Olympics next year: shifting of public holidays, restrictions on the Tokyo expressways, and encouragement of changes to commuting behaviors.

Public Holidays: Tokyo is the Land of the Public Holiday. There are so many, I get stressed in June because there isn’t one, let alone two or three like we have in January, May, September, October and November. With hopes of easing congestion in Tokyo around the beginning and end of the Olympics, “Marine Day” is being moved a week later to Thursday, July 23 (day before opening day), while “Sports Day” (traditionally in October) will be moved to Friday, July 24. Additionally, “Mountain Day”, will shift a day early to Monday, August 10, the day after the closing ceremony.

Restrictions on Expressways: Drivers were frustrated to find they could not access the highway where they wanted to on July 24 and 26 as the Tokyo government enacted a large-scale highway test by closing some 30 entry points to the Metropolitan Expressway, including entrance and exit points near event locations, for example those near the new National Stadium and the site of the Olympic Village. They had hope to reduce traffic on the expressways by 30%, but traffic only diminished by about 7%.  That has put more momentum behind plans for congestion pricing, where rates to enter the highway may rise by another 1,000 yen between 6 am and 10 pm.

Flex-Time: If you work for a global multi-national, particularly a technology company, then “work anytime, anywhere” is a cultural norm. Except for technology companies in Japan, the cultural norm may likely be, “if I don’t see you, then you’re not working, are you”. In other words, the idea of measuring performance on output, not on how many hours you are at your desk, has become a talking point among government officials and leaders upon passing of the “hatakaki-kata kaikaku kanren ho,” or the Act to Overhaul Laws to Promote Workplace Reform.

More specifically to the Olympics, the government is encouraging tele-work, and commuting during off-peak hours. The government is running a trial from late July through early September this year in which 2,800 employees at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government office were given laptops so the can work outside the office once a week during the times this year when the Olympics and Paralympics will take place next year. (One day a week only? Well, it’s a start.)

Tokyo Metro Off Peak 4
Tokyo Metro ad explaining the gold, silver and bronze-level points you get depending on when you commute to work on their trains.

If you take the subway in Tokyo, you will see the ubiquitous posters of Tokyo Metro marketing their Pasmo Card and its point system. Take their trains and accumulate points and prizes! And from July 22 to August 2, and August 19 to August 30, you can get bonus points if you take their trains from 7~7:30 am (25 points!), 7:30~8:00 am (15 points), and 9:30~10:30 am (10 points).

“This is a chance to make telework a legacy of the games that will take root” in society, Industry Minister Hiroshige Seko was quoted as saying in The Japan Times.

As Hemingway wrote, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

Meiji 3

It was a normal Saturday morning, out shopping with the wife at the local supermarket when I spotted the display of chocolate with the now omnipresent Tokyo 2020 mascots, Miraitowa and Someity.

The 4th largest chocolate confectionary producer in the world, Meiji, has the Olympic and Paralympic mascots hawking their famous chocolate snacks, kinoko no yama (mushroom mountain) and take no sato (bamboo village), which are essentially morsels of cookie topped with chocolate in the shape of a mushroom and a bamboo shoot respectively.

Meiji 5

And then I saw the price for a bag of these snacks – JPY1,000 (a little less than USD10). Holy moly, I thought.

That’s when my finely honed investigative journalistic instincts sent tingles though my body like a Bob Woodward version of spidey sense. As they always say, follow the money!

I went down aisle five to see if the regular kinoko no yama/take no sato snacks were available. And there I saw it, the truth as plain as day – a pack of 12 for 275 yen. The Tokyo2020 bag was a pack of 8 for 1,000 yen! I took a few nervous minutes to crunch the numbers checking them several times over because I simply could not believe my eyes.

Meiji 4

Miraitowa’s version was selling for 125 yen a pack while the traditional version was about 23 yen a pack. Miraitowa has a heck of a brand that he can hawk his version of the same product for over 5 times the normal rate!

It’s like finding out that Supreme T-Shirt you bought for $1,150 was actually made for about $10. (Please don’t fact check me on that last point. I have no idea.)

Meiji 20
And they taste exactly the same!

Ok, but then my eagle eyes caught the fine print on the back of the packaging:

A portion of the proceeds from the sale of Tokyo 2020 Official Licensed Products will be used to help stage the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

I did check on the internet, including Meiji’s site. This packaging and price was released on July 23, to commemorate the Tokyo2020 Year to Go campaign. But to be honest, there is no mention about how much of that 1,000 yen is going to Tokyo 2020. I hope it is a large percentage.

I fear though that most people are not going to put a premium on the chocolate-covered-mushroom-cookie. I hope they do, and contribute to the coffers of Tokyo2020…but mom’s probably not going to shell out 5 times the price so that Taro-kun can get the sticker inside.

But who knows?

Olympic fever is rising with the temperature.

Meiji 9
The “free” sticker in side.
Failed Shopping cart
At least they said they were sorry.

I felt terrible. Crestfallen. Could not really focus on work when I got the email from Tokyo2020.

Thank you for your interest in purchasing Tokyo 2020 tickets.

The demand for tickets was incredibly high, and unfortunately, you were not awarded any of the tickets you requested in the lottery.

As a resident of Japan, I was able to register for a lottery that gave me a chance to buy tickets to events of my choice…an opportunity that up to 85 million other people in Japan also took up.

In an interview with the hosts of the podcast Olympic Fever, Ken Hanscom, the chief operating officer of TicketManager in the United States, explained why I was left brooding all day June 20.

This lottery has been extremely successful. At the close of the lottery, seven and a half million registered for what is really a total of 7.8 million tickets in its entirety. So Tokyo 2020 is already super popular.

The way I look at Tokyo is, it will be in my opinion the highest demand Olympics of all time. It could be the highest demand event of all time.

Of course, that is fantastic news for Japan (and the IOC) – Tokyo 2020 will be a hit! But I was still left wondering if the only way I’m going to see the Tokyo Olympics is from my living room a few kilometers away from the Olympic venues.

But later in the podcast, Hanscom provided some additional context on the lottery in Japan that ran from May 9 to 28, which gave me  hope.

We’re talking about requests for 85 million tickets when there is only 3.5 million that are going to be granted as a part of this lottery process. Roughly 90% of people making requests are not going to receive any tickets, assuming everything is similar to London. So they’re only making a sub-set of these tickets available.

In other words, a relatively small percentage of the overall ticket numbers were made available in this lottery in Japan. This is just the beginning of the ticket sales process, which he said will continue in earnest in the opening months of 2020. And more significantly to me, Hanscom said that 75% of all tickets are made available to those in Japan.

For those outside of Japan, Hanscom explained that most other countries will have their own official re-seller and that there were about 8 to 10 authorized sellers of Olympic tickets around the world, including such companies as Kingdom Sports, CoSport, and Cartan.

Hanscom explained that that each country gets an allotment of tickets based on historical allotment numbers and number of participating athletes, for example, and that those tickets can be purchased only through the authorized seller for their country. The exception is in Europe, where a person living in France, for example, can buy tickets in France, or in Germany or in any other country that is under the European directive.

If tickets are not selling in certain countries, Tokyo 2020 has the right to take back those unsold tickets and re-sell them, or sell them on behalf of that country. But as Hanscom pointed out, this is unlikely for Tokyo2020, which is going to be a must-see Games.

Scalping will be illegal, as Japan enacted a ticket scalping law ahead of the 2019 Rugby World Cup and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. So for those in Japan, Tokyo 2020 will make a re-sale site available for those people who are not able to use their tickets, in order to offer their tickets to the public at face value.

Hanscom tells those of us who did not land tickets in the lottery to stay positive, that there will be other opportunities.

Tickets are released in blocs over time, so if you miss out on one or two of these opportunities, you’re going to continue to have opportunities next year if you are very diligent, and you put a lot of hard work in. You are going to be able to get a lot of the tickets you want from the market.

Ok. Time to prepare for trench warfare.

Looking dashing in suit and tie, Rui Hachimura stepped up to the stage with a bright smile, greeting the legendary basketball player, Julius Erving. Erving had just announced that Hachimura had won the 2019 Julius Erving Small Forward of the Year Award, and was asked by the ESPN announcer how it felt to shake Erving’s hand.

Hachimura replied without missing a beat – “His hand is very big.”

The announcer laughed. The audience laughed. And Hachimura beamed as he looked at the award in front of him.

This is the confidence of a young man who is about to become the first Japanese to be selected in the first round of the NBA draft on June 20, 2019.

Only three years earlier, that confidence was not so apparent.

Rui Hachimura high school Rui Hachimura competes during the All-Japan Tournament in late December. | KAZ NAGATSUKA

Born of a mother from Japan and a father from Benin, a nation in West Africa, Hachimura grew up in Toyama, a relatively lightly populated part of Western Japan. In a culture where the phrase, the “nail that sticks out gets hammered down,” is often thought or heard, Hachimura, due to his size, his skin color and his hair, stuck out.

“My family was the only blacks in our prefecture,” Hachimura said in this CBS article. “A lot of people looked at me weird. They’d never seen black people before.”

Although baseball is Hachimura’s first love, he found that basketball and its constant movement and flow allowed him to leverage his boundless energy and athleticism. A star on the Meisei High School team in Sendai, Hachimura took his team to three straight All Japan high school tournament titles. At an appearance at the 2014 FIBA U17 in Dubai, the then 16-year-old Hachimura caught the eye of basketball scouts, including the assistant coach at Gonzaga University, Tommy Lloyd.

“Moved well, really good hands, could dribble the ball, had a normal follow-through, strength and explosion,” Lloyd said in The Spokesman-Review. “A lot of great tools.”

Rui Hachimura and Tommy Lloyd Gonzaga forward Rui Hachimura and assistant coach Tommy Lloyd,(Photo: Young Kwak, AP)

Major college programs wanted Hachimura – Arizona, LSU, Vanderbilt and my hometown team St. John’s. But in the end, Lloyd helped convinced Hachimura to come to Gonzaga, which houses a powerful NCAA Division 1 basketball team made up in good part by players outside of America.

“I like that this program has teammates and coaches who are like family,” Hachimura said in The Gonzaga Bulletin. “I knew there were a lot of international players playing here and they know the process of developing international players.”

The 18-year old moved to Washington State in America in early 2016 and he had significant challenges. Hachimura had never lived overseas. He had been to the US only once. He spoke very little English. His first task was to become eligible to even enter Gonzaga as his acceptance was dependent on passing the SAT test, the most common aptitude test used by universities and colleges in America. After several attempts, Hachimura scored well enough to satisfy Gonzaga in May, 2016, and announced that he would move to the United States to enter Gonzaga’s English Language Center that month, according to the Japan Times.

With hopes of playing as a freshman in the 2016-2017 season, Hachimura had to improve his English so he could at least understand instructions from coaches and talk to teammates. As a result, he had to miss 50% of the team’s practices so he could attend Gonzaga’s English language program.

In the early stages, it didn’t appear the language lessons were working, as explained in late 2017 by Coach Mark Few in The Gonzaga Bullettin.

He’s a professional at nodding and acting like he knows. Then when you pin him down he has no idea. So I’ve been trying to pin him down a lot to make sure, because we have to make sure. But he’s getting better inch by inch.

Rui Hachimura u17 Team Japan Rui Hachimura in 2014 FIBA 2017 World Championship in Dubai – Canada vs Japan, Day 2, Group phase

Hachimura was also adjusting to the faster, more aggressive level of play in America, according to Few.

He’s pretty laid back. At his size, he needs to be a physical entity… that’s tough to match up with and tough to block out… he’s just got to get a little more intense.

Or as Lloyd remarked more succinctly, “Early on, he looked like Tarzan, but sometimes was playing like Jane.”

Today, Hachimura is definitely playing like Tarzan, and will become not only a potential piece in an NBA team’s success in 2019, but a potential marketing bonanza for Hachimura, particularly in his native Japan. Kyodo News reporter Akiko Yamawaki said that Hachimura’s impending draft selection is big news in Japan.

All of Japan finds it so exciting. Everybody thinks, everybody knows he’s going to change the culture of Japanese basketball. It would be really huge news. When Ichiro signed with Seattle, (Shohei) Ohtani signed with the Angels, I think it would be the same kind of news in Japan.

And after an NBA season under his belt, who knows what Hachimura can accomplish as a member of Team Japan at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Musashino Forest Sports Plaza 5

It’s a bright airy arena – the Musashino Forest Sports Plaza in Chofu, Tokyo.  I attended the NHK Cup on Sunday, May 19, a national championships for artistic gymnastics in Japan, and it was exciting to watch the very best male gymnasts in Japan, and in the world.

Now, if only I could understand what Was going on.

I’m not a deep fan of gymnastics. I knew that Kohei Uchimura, the winner of the previous 9 NHK Cups, was unable to qualify this time around. I knew that one of the most promising young gymnasts, Kenzo Shirai, did poorly to qualify for the NHK Cup, so was not in good shape to win. But I had my guide book and was ready to watch a great competition.

The problem is, the arena – this new arena that opened up in November of 2017 – was so poorly outfitted electronically that it was impossible to know what was going on…unless you were really familiar with gymnastics and could recognize faces and names from a far.

As you can see in the photo at the top of this post, there was only a single large screen to my left. That screen basically provided an NHK feed of the tournament, except without any critical information, like the name of the gymnast being displayed.

In fact, spectators at this new 10,000-seat facility, which will house Olympic badminton, pentathlon fencing and Paralympic wheelchair basketball, were bereft of any basic information about what was happening before them, except for small digital signs at each event site on the floor.

It’s true, that artistic gymnastics, where six different  disciplines are happening at the same time, can be hard for the casual fan to follow. But if the idea is to attract as many fans as possible, particularly casual fans, then providing basic information to the spectator is critical. At the most average arena in the United States, one would expect to see a jumbotron hanging from the ceiling over center court, where the most basic information about scores, player information and video replays can be provided.

But the experience at Musashino Forest Sports Plaza was frustrating at best for the casual observer. You give up to the fact that you have no idea which person is doing what, where and when.

From the sponsors’ perspective, one would hope that their company name and logo is highly visible. But the main arena in Musashino Forest Sports Plaza has no such electronic signage. Instead, small placards hung awkwardly off the edge of the first and second level stands.

If you believe that stadium and arenas should be designed for the spectator (as well as sponsors), then you will have issues with many sports venues in Japan.  Most of the stadium and arena in Japan are owned by government authorities, and that they view these venues as cost centers, not profit centers. In other words, if there is a soccer stadium in some town somewhere in Japan, it will be very hard for a person with an idea to do anything other than soccer in that stadium, this despite the fact that concerts, obstacle sports racing, eSports and other such activities could attract many more and different people.

To change the conservative nature of stadium and arena administrators in Japan, the Japanese government through the Sports Agency have been pushing a plan to triple sports business revenue in Japan from JPY5.5 trillion yen in 2015 to JPY15 trillion yen in 2025. The Sports Agency want stadium and arenas to transform so that they can help contribute to those greater revenues.

In recognition of this need, the Sports Agency published in June, 2017 a report in Japanese called Stadium and Arena Revolution Guidebook. In this report, they highlighted 14 recommendations to drive this revolution.

You can find a fuller translation of that part of the report in this pdf.

Fourteen Requirements for sustainable management that attracts spectators and supports community development:

  • Requirement 1. Improvement to Customer Experience
  • Requirement 2. Realization of various usage scenarios
  • Requirement 3. Establishment of profit model and transformation to profit center
  • Requirement 4. Stadium/arena as the core of community development
  • Requirement 5. Identification of stakeholders and improvement in consensus building
  • Requirement 6. Attracting new customers and providing information
  • Requirement 7. Designing for profitability
  • Requirement 8. Management (operation, maintenance, repair, etc.) critical to sustainability
  • Requirement 9. Compliance and risk management for stadium and arena maintenance
  • Requirement 10. Leveraging the vitality of the private sector
  • Requirement 11. Various financing schemes
  • Requirement 12. Goal setting, evaluation, feedback
  • Requirement 13. IT and data utilization in stadium and arena management
  • Requirement 14: Stadium and Arena management personnel
Japan Taxi_author
Another shiny black Japan Taxi.

Designed by committee, Toyota’s Japan Taxi becomes an expensive Olympic symbol.

That’s a damning headline, one that Olympic-haters love to see. News editors like it because they know readership will want to read and moan about the waste that the Olympics and other big-tent events incur. That’s why so many news channels picked up this May 22 Reuters story.

Toyota built a taxi that sticks out on the Tokyo roads – a black high-roofed automobile that boasts the Olympic and Paralympic logos – and they’re called “Japan Taxi”.

The Reuters article leads with the premise that the Japan Taxi has become a “high-priced icon of Tokyo’s budget-busting 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.” It goes on to state that the taxi was designed to answer too many stakeholder needs, including an air purifying conditioner, wheelchair ramp, liquefied petroleum and gas-hybrid engine – in other words, a Frankenstein-sort of taxi had been created. As a result, the car ended up retailing for over USD30,000, some USD7 to 8,000 more than the Toyota Crown that are gradually being replaced as taxis in Tokyo.

That is indeed a high price and Toyota admits to finding few interested buyers outside  Tokyo and Japan. Toyota admits they are losing money on this, manufacturing only 1,000 of these cars a month.

According to the article, taxi drivers have expressed discontent, although reasons beyond an unwieldy rarely-deployed wheelchair ramp are not provided. Additionally, taxi operators are concerned subsidies from the city and federal governments will disappear after the Olympics, although it is unclear in the article how big that overall cost is.

But what does the number one stakeholder think – the ones who are transported in Japan Taxi?

I’ll start with a highly unscientific study of one – myself. I LOVE these taxis! And I suspect I’m not alone. They’re easy to enter and they’re spacious – a business-class taxi with economy fares. You can cart your luggage in with ease. They’re classic looking, harking back to the design of the big old London taxis. And those who are wheelchair bound appear to have found an easier option.

The video report on this Reuters story (below) quotes Josh Grisdale, a wheelchair resident of Japan, who commented on the fact that before Japan Taxi you had to rely on specialized vans. Now he says you see Japan Taxi on the street all the time. “The most important thing is to have something available when you need it,” said Grisdale, the Head of Accessible Japan. “Up till now, you’ve had to book way in advance to book a taxi, and that’s very difficult for people who are not from Japan.

All the way at the end of the article, Reuters admits that taxi distributors actually like their Japan Taxis because “they consume half the fuel of older vehicles and their anti-collision sensors have reduced accidents by 10%,” and that “Toyota made other tweaks when it addressed the wheelchair ramp problem. It also made the automatic sliding passenger door close 1.5 seconds faster, reduced rear windscreen wiper noise with an intermittent setting and lowered the money tray on the driver’s seat to reduce shoulder strain.”

If a news agency comes out with a story on Japan Taxi about significant taxpayer money being wasted on something that  taxpayers don’t like, then fine. But my guess is that if you had a line of people waiting for taxis and the next two cars on the queue were a Japan Taxi and an older Toyota Crown (a perfectly fine car), the person first on line will likely be happy he’s not second.

Tokyo2020 tickets lottery application completed

The lottery has begun.

On May 9, 2019, Tokyo2020 began a registration process that allows people living in Japan to select tickets to events with an intent to purchase. This registration ends on May 28.

If you are a resident of Japan – meaning you have an address and telephone number in Japan – you can participate in a lottery for tickets to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. However, it is likely  you will have to wait. Last night on the first day of registration, wait times were an hour or so. More frustratingly for some was navigating the closing process.

I waited for about 60 minutes, started the process, and somehow lost the connection. When I tried to re-establish the process, I ended up re-starting the count. Another 60 minutes to kill. According to this article, “180,000 applicants were simultaneously in a waiting line.”

Waiting for Registration_Tokyo2020 tickets

The second time around, I selected tickets for opening and closing ceremonies, men’s basketball finals and a day of a bunch of track finals, which took me about 30 minutes to do. After pushing the complete button, I had to give final verification by calling a number, and I had about 2 minutes to do so, according to the site. Unfortunately, I got about 3 minutes worth of busy tone after dialing the number over ten times.

Somehow, I was able to figure out how to re-start the phone verification process, and in the end, persistence prevailed. At 11pm that night, I secured my place in the lottery. And so too, can you, if you live in Japan. According to the above-cited article, residents in Japan not only get first dibs, they get tickets that will be less expensive than those sold outside Japan, as ticket re-sellers tack on a handling charge of 20%. For a JPY300,000 ticket to the Opening Ceremony, that’s a hefty charge increase.

You have until May 28. Officials have emphasized and re-emphasized that the time you register and select events for the lottery is irrelevant. You have an equal chance of tickets whether you were the first or last person to register. First, get your ID, and then find a quiet time of the day (pre-dawn) to go to the site, and start picking events!

Ticket Price List