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NBA Teams Branch Out Beyond English To Reach Global Fans

The Wizards’ Spanish accounts aim to share wide-ranging coverage of the team’s 2022-2023 season, including game coverage, media availability, behind-the-scenes access and other fan-related content.

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With a global audience of 1.6 billion fans, the NBA is one of the few American sports leagues that boasts both domestic and international household names. For every homegrown talent like LeBron, Steph and Zion who grace the hardwood, they’re becoming increasingly matched by popular stars from abroad — Giannis, Luka, Rui and many others.

As the NBA continues to assert itself as a melting pot of talent, its 30 clubs are beginning to reach some of their international players’ countries through multi-language social media accounts. 

The Washington Wizards recently added to their diverse social media portfolio by creating their first-ever Spanish-language account. Launched on both Instagram and Twitter, the Wizards’ Spanish-centric social media channels will provide an outlet for not only their Spanish-speaking fans abroad, but for the growing Spanish-speaking population in the D.C. area. The greater D.C. area is considered one of the fastest-growing Latin American communities nationwide, with a 42% increase in the 2010s.

The Wizards’ Spanish accounts aim to share wide-ranging coverage of the team’s 2022-2023 season, including game coverage, media availability, behind-the-scenes access and other fan-related content.

“Latino people are hungry for basketball,” Tania Henao, director of digital content at the Wizards, said in an interview. “They love the NBA and they want an outlet to be able to enjoy that as well.”

The Wizards’ launch of their new Spanish account is just the latest example of their efforts to broaden their international reach. It was in 1979 when, after winning the 1979 NBA title, Washington —then known as the Bullets — became the first U.S. sports team to be invited to China. The Bullets went onto play in two exhibition games against the Chinese national team and the now-defunct Bayi Rockets in Beijing and Shanghai, respectively.

Nearly 40 years after their China tour, the Wizards looked elsewhere in Asia to find more than just their next lottery pick. After drafting Japanese-born and Gonzaga star Rui Hachimura with the ninth-overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, they would hire a Japanese digital correspondent and launch a Japanese language website, Twitter account and weekly podcast.

While the Wizards’ international history preceded Hachimura’s arrival, the 24-year-old was nonetheless the reason behind their increased marketing efforts outside the U.S.

“We had done many ‘Heritage Nights’ over the years with different cultures and countries, but Rui was really the catalyst to look into the opportunity to grow our brand globally,” Rebecca Winn, senior vice president of marketing at the Wizards, said in an interview.

Like Winn said, 2019 was just the start of the Wizards’ multilingual social media efforts. When Washington again went outside the U.S. for their 2020 lottery pick — Israel’s Deni Avdija — it commemorated the news by becoming the first NBA team to create a Hebrew-specific Twitter profile.

One notable difference between the Wizards’ Spanish-speaking profile and their other foreign-language channels? The lack of a Spanish player on their roster. With the help of players like Hachimura and Avdija, the Wizards’ Japanese and Hebrew Twitter profiles have attracted nearly 87,000 and 12,000 followers, respectively. The Japanese Instagram account has also grown to roughly 59,000 followers.

Lacking that Spanish face to represent their newest channel, the Wizards will be leaning more into the increasingly diverse DMV area — as well as a new social media manager — for content purposes. 

“Without having a representative on our team at the moment for the Hispanic-Latino community, I think that’s where we’ll be definitely putting more focus locally in D.C. versus trying to target a specific country,” Henao added. 

It’s not just the Wizards in the NBA that have expanded their social media efforts beyond English-speaking communities.

Since Washington traveled to China in 1979, the NBA has seen its clubs play overseas in what is known as the, “NBA Global Games.” After not having held an international contest since 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, the NBA will see the Bulls and Detroit Pistons face off on January 19th, 2023, at the AccorArena in Paris.

Because of their upcoming international game, the Bulls recently announced that it will be working with sports agency SPORTFIVE to develop a strategy to grow their fan base and business in France. According to GWI, the country boasts 5.5 million NBA fans, 1.4 million of whom are Bulls fans.

Ahead of the Bulls-Pistons matchup, SPORTFIVE will also help Chicago launch a comprehensive marketing campaign which will include digital audience development, strategic brand partnerships and on-site activations, among others.

Already, SPORTFIVE has helped the Bulls launch their first official French language Instagram account, @leschicagobulls. As of October 23rd, the channel has roughly 6,800 followers.

The Bulls’ French endeavors are their latest attempt at making themselves an international brand, said Joe Pinchin, the team’s senior manager of digital content. Recent years have seen Chicago engage globally through platforms like fan pages and fan groups. The team also saw its international profile rise due to The Last Dance docuseries which chronicled Michael Jordan’s time as a Bull. Coincidentally, the first episode documented the Bulls’ 1997 preseason trip in, you guessed it, Paris. 

“In terms of the language approach, that is just a more authentic way to speak to fans,” Pinchin said in an interview. “I think that we take for granted how much of the world speaks English, but there’s so much of our fan base where English isn’t their first language. And so French was like the starting point for us.”

It’s not even just teams in notable U.S. cities like Chicago and Washington D.C. that have invested more resources into international marketing.

One of the first teams to create a Spanish-language social media handle? The Oklahoma City Thunder, which created @elthunder on both Facebook and Twitter in 2015. 

While @elthunder’s inception dates back to the Thunder’s days of dominance with former stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, their attempts at reaching Spanish-speaking fans have persisted despite the departure of their most notable players. 

When the Thunder first launched @elthunder, their initial efforts were just to make sure that their messaging was translated correctly, according to Michelle Matthews, the team’s manager of fan development. 

Over time, the Thunder began finding other ways to create what Matthews called a, “365 effort to engage with our Hispanic community.” Those efforts range from interactions with Latino school groups to using their social media platform to highlight local Hispanic business owners throughout the pandemic. 

With the 2022-2023 season officially underway, Matthews says that the team is continuing to find both new and existing ways at supporting Oklahoma City’s Spanish community. The Thunder have had home games announced in Spanish on WKY radio (930 AM in Oklahoma City) by broadcaster Eleno Ornelas since the 2009 campaign.

Lately, the Thunder have also seen the power of influencer marketing help them attract Spanish fans. They have been working with several micro-influencers to help bring more attention to Oklahoma City by having them post about relevant topics like the best Spanish restaurants to visit and highlight local brands that support the Hispanic demographic.

“When we started this journey, we were trying to make sure that our messaging was just simply translated correctly to the audience that we were hoping to speak to,” Matthews said in an interview. “And what we quickly learned was we wanted to go more than just surface level with that connection.”

Even with the start of a new season, it hasn’t stopped teams like the Bulls, Thunder and Wizards from using their non-English speaking social media accounts to generate buzz. 

The Wizards continue to reach fans in other foreign regions. They recently joined Weibo, one of the biggest social media platforms in China with 582 million monthly active users. With @WizardsArabic, they also became the first NBA franchise to create a social media profile specifically for Arabic-speaking audiences.

As for the Bulls, Pinchin hopes to launch a second-language Instagram account to complement @leschicagobulls. He also recognizes the importance of maintaining a pulse on the Chinese sports fans. Two other Bulls accounts — the official team profile and their mascot, Benny The Bull — have attracted TikTok followings of nearly 950,000 and 5.4 million followers, respectively.

To Pinchin, the opportunity for both the Bulls and other teams to reach non-English speaker supporters is an objective that, if done correctly, can help convert casual followers into lifelong fans.

“If we can remove some barriers for people to engage with us, and provide it in a way that makes sense for them versus it makes sense for us, I think it’s going to put us in a really, really good spot,” Pinchin said.

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