TOKYO – Japanese basketball fans will get to see NBA stars up close when the reigning league-champion Golden State Warriors take on the Washington Wizards in two preseason games.
Not surprisingly, Stephen Curry and Japanese-born Rui Hachimura will be the star attractions for each team.
And as clearly as the logo of Japanese online retailer Rakuten is splashed on Curry’s jersey, big money is riding on the NBA’s most recent foray into Japan.
Junya Ogura, senior manager at Japanese automaker Nissan’s brand and media strategy department, thinks it’s all worth it, given the NBA’s strong appeal to the younger generation, a trend that’s backed up by marketing studies.
Nissan Motor Co., which sponsors Japanese professional baseball and soccer, had a high-profile deal with tennis superstar Naomi Osaka which recently ended. This is the first time it’s sponsoring NBA games.
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.
“These are the Japanese people who grew up on Michael Jordan,” said Ogura. “We are banking on a return that will come in the future.”
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.
Rakuten, which also sponsors Japanese baseball and soccer and holds the Japan Open tennis championships, live-streams NBA games.
“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 U.S. 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 last time the NBA played in Japan was in 2019, when Houston and Toronto played a pre-season game. The coronavirus pandemic had postponed their return to Japan until now.
And so the NBA is again courting Japan.
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 (Hachimura),” 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, exhibition games are scheduled for Abu Dhabi this season. Regular-season games are being played in Paris and Mexico City.
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.
“This is a big moment. It’s a big stage,” Kuzma said after a practice session in Tokyo on Thursday.