People | WHY DID YOU LEAVE JAPAN?

Takehiko Nakamura: Kicking around the U.S. for a career in soccer

by Matthew Hernon

Contributing Writer

CEO, President and founder of the international sports company Blue United Takehiko Nakamura started out working in the international sales division for NEC Corp. Now based in New York, the entrepreneur was fairly competent in many areas, but back then, he lacked any real passion when it came to his job. The problem was, Nakamura says, he wasn’t particularly excelling in any specific field.

“I was an average salaryman,” Nakamura says in recent interview. “My situation was similar to many workers in Japan. I had a range of skills, but no in-depth knowledge.”

It was business trips to Washington that inspired Nakamura to move and, ultimately, change the path of his career.

“In Washington D.C., I witnessed a completely different working culture with an emphasis on developing individuals who are experts rather than generalists,” he says. “As a result employees were able to design and map out their own careers freely, which is what I wanted to do, and to achieve that I felt it was important to live overseas.

“Before leaving, though, I needed to figure out what I could specialize in.”

A huge fan of soccer, Nakamura decided to enroll in a sports management master’s course at the University of Massachusetts Amherst at the age of 26.

“Back in the early 2000s Japan didn’t have any courses like that, so up until then I hadn’t really considered the possibility of earning a living through soccer,” he recalls. “It was a great opportunity for me to study something I could put my heart and soul into, and in a country that I lived in as a child. I was 10 when I left (the U.S.) and was delighted to be returning after 16 years.”

Readjusting to life back in the States, however, wasn’t always easy. He’d lost much of the English vocabulary he’d picked up as a boy and relearning it felt like he was almost starting from scratch. At first, college life also proved tricky. He was used to the Japanese education system in which students silently made notes as teachers spoke, and he struggled when it came to voicing his opinion in class.

Another issue, he remembers, was his inability to think outside the box.

“One answer I gave in a test underlined how Japanese my thought-process was,” he says. “The question went something like, ‘You’ve got a budget of $500,000 for a winter sports event and a sponsorship agency comes to sell you a package for $700,000, what should you do?’ I wrote that the numbers didn’t match so you’d have to leave it.

“My professor told me to be more creative. He showed another student’s answer about buying a $300,000 package while offering assets such as billboards and hospitality tickets for a price within the budget. It never even occurred to me to give that kind of answer.”

In Japan, Nakamura’s experience of exams was completely different. It was “about finding one solution to each question with nothing else in between,” he says. “You were either right or wrong.”

Now, he says: “One of the most valuable lessons I learned at college in America was that not everything is black and white. Sometimes in business divergent thinking is required. This is something I constantly emphasize with my Blue United team, pushing them to look beyond the surface.”

While at Amherst, Nakamura’s confidence grew as he learned to unlock and cultivate his creative side. For his thesis he introduced the possibility of an international soccer tournament involving teams from Japan and America. In 2008, that idea developed into something tangible with the launch of the Pan-Pacific Championship in Hawaii. As well as Major League Soccer (MLS) and J. League representatives, the inaugural event featured a club from Australia and New Zealand’s A-League. The competition’s biggest draw, though, came from the inclusion of LA Galaxy and its star player at the time, David Beckham.

“(Beckham’s) presence created a real buzz and the tournament exceeded expectations,” says Nakamura. “I was working for the MLS then. My boss, Nelson Rodriguez, gave me great support and told me to spend 80 percent of my time on assigned work and the other 20 percent for my dream enterprise. I now adopt a similar approach at Blue United, encouraging my team to work on side projects built from their own initiative.”

In 2009, the Pan-Pacific Championship was bought out and subsequently moved to Los Angeles. According to Nakamura, it lost some of its charm as a result. Given more of a peripheral role in organizing the tournament, Nakamura decided it was time for a new challenge. He joined FC Barcelona as the club’s director of international business before becoming a general manager at LeadOff Sports Marketing, where he formed a good relationship with Alessandro Del Piero, bringing the Italian World Cup-winning striker to Japan to play in a charity game for the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami. Blue United was then founded in 2015.

“I started out with a laptop, going to cafes to get free Wi-Fi,” says Nakamura laughing. “Initially the focus was on sports management consultation and that’s still a big part of what we do. However, at some point I knew we’d have to shift from a business model in which we were completely dependent on clients to one where we were driving our own bus. That meant creating what I call ‘properties,’ such as our esports team and the Pacific Rim Cup (PRC), which we launched in February 2018.”

As with the original Pan-Pacific Championship, the 2018 PRC was held in Hawaii. Featuring teams from America, Canada and Japan, it attracted 11,693 fans, exceeding Nakamura’s target of 10,000. He’s hoping for more of the same at this year’s tournament set to take place in February.

“As well as the professional teams (Real Salt Lake, Vancouver Whitecaps FC, Iwaki FC and V-Varen Nagasaki), we’re going to have an all-star high school game,” says Nakamura. “Then in 2020 we plan to introduce women’s soccer and esports, turning it into an even bigger event.”

For Nakamura, the PRC is part of a much bigger plan to export Japanese and North American soccer to wider audiences around the globe.

“These are the two regions I know the most about,” he says. “I love living in the States and the freedom I have there, but I’ll always be Japanese. I want to be part of something that makes me and my country proud. I’ll never be able to do that playing the sport, but I think I can make a significant contribution to raising the international profile of soccer in this country.

“That’s my goal anyway.”

Profile

Name: Takehiko Nakamura

Profession: CEO and president of international sports company Blue United Corp.

Hometown: Tokyo

Age: 42

Key moments in career:

2002 — Moves to U.S. to study at the University of Massachusetts Amherst

2004 — Starts working for Major League Soccer

2008 — Launches Pan-Pacific Championship in Hawaii

2009 — Joins FC Barcelona as director of international business

2010 — Appointed general manager of LeadOff Sports Marketing

2015 — Founds Blue United Corp.

2018 — Founds Pacific Rim Cup

Favorite drink or food: Ramen or yakiniku (barbecued meat)

Favorite drink or food: Freemans Sporting Club in New York and Tokyo