Big in Japan: Warriors-Wizards games to woo NBA fans, sponsors

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TOKYO: Before Stephen Curry makes a single 3-pointer, before Rui Hachimura gets his first ovation from Japanese fans who came to cheer one of their own, the NBA Japan Games are already a huge win in one regard.

The money.

Big money is riding on — and getting spent on — the NBA’s most recent foray into Japan, which has the reigning champion Golden State Warriors and Washington Wizards set to play a pair of preseason games there on Friday and Sunday. Every seat inside Saitama Super Arena has been sold, and the league has more marketing partners for games in Japan than ever before.

The financial rewards are as clear as the patch of Japanese online retailer Rakuten on the jerseys that Curry and the Warriors will wear.

“These are the Japanese people who grew up on Michael Jordan,” said Junya Ogura, senior manager at Japanese automaker Nissan’s brand and media strategy department. “We are banking on a return that will come in the future.”

Nissan Motor Co., which sponsors Japanese professional baseball and soccer, had a high-profile deal with tennis superstar Naomi Osaka which recently ended. It is sponsoring NBA games for the first time.

Ogura thinks the investments being made by Japanese companies for these games is worth it given the NBA’s strong appeal to the younger generation, a trend that’s backed up by marketing studies. Nissan is sharing the role of presenting partner for the games with Rakuten, which has had a lucrative relationship with the Warriors — at least $20 million a year, largely to have its patch on Golden State’s jerseys — since 2017.

Rakuten also has a sponsorship deal with Curry, part of his massive off-court empire. Rakuten also sponsors Japanese baseball and soccer and holds the Japan Open tennis championships, plus live-streams NBA games. And that was one of the primary reasons why the NBA returned to Japan for a pair of preseason games between Houston and Toronto in 2019, ending what was a 16-year drought between games in that country.

“Excited to be here,” Curry said.

The tickets cost up to 420,000 yen ($2,900) each for courtside “VIP” seats. Both Friday and Sunday games are sold out at the Saitama Super Arena, where the US won the gold medal at the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics in 2021. The massive arena was largely empty for those games, tickets unable to be sold because of the virus.

Now, every seat has been grabbed. Plus, the NBA has drawn 15 marketing partners to support the preseason games in Japan, including American Express, Hennessy, NEC and Nike, and now has 19 marketing and promotional partners in Japan.

“Obviously it’s about the money,” said Bob Dorfman, a San Francisco-based sports analyst at Pinnacle Advertising.

“Building the fan base in Asia, and everywhere else in the world, results in more sponsorship dollars, increased media rights and greater merchandise sales.”

The NBA may have more global appeal than other US sports, being easier to understand than football, for instance, according to Dorfman, who has worked in Japan.

“Every team has foreign-born players on their rosters, and the league’s top stars are cultural icons, trendsetters, and social media giants. The game is cool,” he said.

That translates not only into sponsorship money but also youngsters spending on sneakers and other fashion items and merchandising.

Between 1990 and 2003, the NBA staged 12 regular-season games in Japan. The courtship between the NBA and the Japanese fan — not to mention Japanese companies and NBA fans globally — is now fully underway again.

A giant 3D display at a Tokyo street-crossing depicts Curry and other NBA stars as “manga,” or Japanese comic, characters. The NBA’s Japanese-language social media accounts have amassed more than 1.6 million followers.

While the players are in town, they will be taking part in various fan events. Besides Hachimura, the NBA now has another Japanese player, Yuta Watanabe, who is with the Brooklyn Nets.

The NBA is also excited about the potential for women’s basketball. Japanese women were the silver medalists in the last Olympics. Rui Machida, an Olympian, signed earlier this year with the WNBA’s Washington Mystics.

“Our fan base is growing,” said NBA Asia managing director Ramez Sheikh. “There is real momentum around basketball in Japan, and it’s a real important market for the NBA.”

Wizards officials acknowledged they were surprised by the big reaction signing Hachimura drew from Japan. They suddenly saw more Japanese in the stands, tour buses started coming, and Japanese media showed up in big numbers.

“It was all about Rui,” said Hunter Lochman, chief marketing officer at Monumental Sports & Entertainment, which owns the Wizards. “It’s fast-paced. It’s high scoring. It’s a great sport and it’s a global sport.”

Besides Japan, a pair of preseason games are scheduled for Abu Dhabi this season, with the Atlanta Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks going there early next month. Regular-season games will be played in Mexico City in December and Paris in January.

Kyle Kuzma, a Wizards forward, said he was excited about being in Japan for the first time.

He already had sushi, planned to go shopping and was approached by a fan on the street, who gave him chopsticks with his name and the name of his girlfriend etched onto them.

“This is a big moment,” Kuzma said. “It’s a big stage.”

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