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Inside the NBA’s Plans to Get Big in Japan

As the NBA Japan Games arrive before the 2022-23 regular season, Boardroom explores the present and future of the league’s plans to grow the game with its Japanese audience.

Late former NBA commissioner David Stern will forever be remembered for his globalization of professional basketball, a trailblazer who felt the game could be marketed globally much in the same way as international soccer.

His dedication to grow the game beyond American soil was so brilliant that it spread like a wildfire — so much that Team USA men’s basketball is in danger of falling out of the No. 1 world ranking for the first time ever. Right on cue, the NBA’s past four MVPs — Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo — hail from overseas.

That’s where we stand today. This week, the NBA is back and crossing oceans for international exhibitions for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic first escalated in the spring of 2020. Two preseason games between the Golden State Warriors and Washington Wizards, the first of which tipped off Friday, mark league’s 15th and 16th games played in Japan.

So, what’s the NBA’s overarching goal in expanding further into the land that produced Wiz big man Rui Hachimura?

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“The goal of these games is to deepen our connection with Japanese fans,” NBA Asia Managing Director Ramez Sheikh told Boardroom. “International games not only allow us to bring the excitement of the NBA to fans who may never have had the opportunity to attend an NBA game, but partners, media, and celebrities look forward to these games. They offer tremendous exposure for teams and players, and they deepen our connection with fans, especially through the various youth development and community outreach activities that take place surrounding the games.”

Following the Japan journey, the league will make four other international stops this season: Abu Dhabi, Mexico City, and Paris. This comes on the heels of several international marketing moves the league made this offseason, including, but not limited to the development of a floating basketball court in London.

But the Association, which has been carried on Japan television since 1988, is growing at an increasingly rapid rate within the country. Today, business collaborations that spawned platforms like NBA Rakuten provide fans more and more streaming access to live NBA games and original content throughout the regular season, Playoffs and Finals.

“The NBA’s popularity in Japan is at an all-time high,” Sheikh said. “Our partnership with Rakuten helps us provide fans with the most expansive distribution of live NBA games and content ever in Japan, NBA merchandise is available at more than 700 retail stores across the country, and our localized social media accounts across Facebook, Twitter, LINE, and TikTok collectively have more than 1.6 million followers.”

The NBA has 19 marketing partners in Japan, including a record 15 supporting this year’s NBA Japan Games and the surrounding events. However, as Sheikh explained, a major factor is that there are homegrown, Japanese players like Rui Hachimura (Wizards) and Yuta Watanabe (Nets) that drive significant interest in Japan and inspire youth to play the game.

The Wizards and Warriors were both among the top five most-watched teams on NBA Rakuten, according to the league.

“All of these factors have contributed to the incredible momentum for basketball and the NBA in Japan.  Both the Warriors and the Wizards have also launched local Twitter accounts, which is reflective of the game’s growing popularity in Japan,” Sheikh said. “We’re proud of the ways we’ve been able to engage fans in Japan and the broader Asia region throughout the pandemic, there’s nothing that can replace seeing the excitement of the NBA up close and in person.”

As one would imagine, hosting these games at Saitama Super Arena in Tokyo takes a ton of preparation and personnel to make it happen. And both games were/are reported sellouts in the 36,500-seat arena. If that doesn’t speak volumes to the game’s popularity there, I’m not quite sure what does.

Sheikh explained how the infrastructure is built in executing the NBA Japan Games, leaning on the country’s extensive experience hosting world-class sporting events, including last summer’s Olympics.

To be clear, the emphasis isn’t so much about developing short-term revenue streams. Rather this is a long-term approach that, yes, will eventually lead to a return on investment in years to come via fan growth, international partners, marketing efforts, advertising via social media, and so much more. But in the meantime, every goal is united by the desire to bring the game of basketball literally and figuratively closer to the fans that love it most — no matter where in the world happen to live.

Next up: Abu Dhabi on Oct. 6.

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