U.S. retailer seeks to shake up Japan’s merchandise market

Kodai Senga’s 12-strikeout no-hitter on the night of Sept. 6 was more than just a historic moment — it was the first of his career and the first since the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks franchise relocated to Kyushu from Osaka in 1988 — for the ace pitcher.

Senga’s gem might’ve also been a glimpse into the future of licensed merchandise in Japan.

If the latter is proven true, it might be the result of Fanatics, an American-based licensed merchandise company trying to change the way the game is played in Japan and already drawing attention from NPB clubs.

“There’s a lot of interest from the teams about what we do here in Japan about innovating this licensed merchandise industry which, in many aspects, hasn’t really changed over two decades or three decades,” Masanori Kawana, managing director of Fanatics Japan, told The Japan Times at the company’s headquarters in Tokyo.

Hawks fans were able to snap up shirts celebrating Senga’s achievement (because there is almost always a shirt when anything happens in Japanese baseball these days) in stores and online a couple days later, on Sept. 9.

Often the wait for such items is at least a week, during which demand can taper off, and product runs are limited.

Fanatics, however, is looking to change this, and more, by using its vertical commerce model in Japan.

“Most industries have quickly adapted to the digital economy, whereas the sports licensing market had been slow to change,” Kawana said in a followup email. “Fanatics is tackling a previously staid sector with tech, data, verticality and omni-channel integration.

“For decades, this industry historically faced long-lead buying cycles, trying to guess which teams and players will be hot each year — we now live in a world where consumers expect to get what they want, exactly when they want it.”

Fanatics was founded in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1995. Since then, it’s grown successful enough in the industry that it runs the e-commerce websites for MLB, MLS, NBA, NFL and other major sports leagues.

In NPB, Fanatics is working with the Chiba Lotte Marines, the Hawks, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, Seibu Lions and Tokyo Yakult Swallows.