Warriors Wizards games in Japan to woo NBA fans and sponsors

TOKYO — Japanese basketball fans will get an up-close look at NBA stars as reigning league champions Golden State Warriors take on the Washington Wizards in two preseason games.

Not surprisingly, Stephen Curry and Japanese-born Rui Hachimura will be the main attractions for each team.

And as clearly as the logo of the Japanese online retailer Rakuten is emblazoned on Curry’s jersey, the NBA’s latest advance in Japan is about big money.

Junya Ogura, a senior manager in 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 supported by marketing studies.

Nissan Motor Co., which sponsors Japanese professional baseball and soccer, had a high-profile contract with tennis superstar Naomi Osaka that recently ended. This is the first time it has sponsored NBA games.

Tickets cost up to 420,000 yen ($2,900) each for “VIP” courtside seats. Both Friday and Sunday games at Saitama Super Arena are sold out

“These are the Japanese who grew up with Michael Jordan,” Ogura said. “We are counting on a return that will come in the future.”

The NBA has secured 15 marketing partners to support 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 hosts the Japan Open tennis championships, streams NBA games live.

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

“Building a following in Asia and everywhere else in the world leads to more sponsorship money, more media rights and more merchandise sales.”

According to Dorfman, who has worked in Japan, the NBA may have greater global appeal than other US sports because it’s easier to understand than soccer, for example.

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

This means not only sponsorship money, but also spending on sneakers and other fashion items and merchandising by the young people.

Between 1990 and 2003, the NBA hosted 12 regular season games in Japan. The last time the NBA played in Japan was in 2019 when Houston and Toronto played a preseason game. The coronavirus pandemic had delayed her return to Japan until now.

And so the NBA is courting Japan again.

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

While players are in town, they take part in various fan events. In addition to Hachimura, the NBA now has another Japanese player, Yuta Watanabe, who plays for the Brooklyn Nets.

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

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

Wizards officials admitted they were surprised by the huge response that signed Hachimura from Japan. They suddenly saw more Japanese people in the stands, tour buses came, and Japanese media showed up in large numbers.

“It was all about Rui (Hachimura),” said Hunter Lochman, chief marketing officer at Monumental Sports & Entertainment, which owns The Wizards. “It’s fast-moving. It’s a high score. It’s a great sport and a global sport.”

In addition to Japan, there are also exhibition games in Abu Dhabi this season. Regular season games are played in Paris and Mexico City.

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

He already had sushi, wanted 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 training session in Tokyo on Thursday.

Yuri Kageyama is on Twitter https://twitter.com/yurikageyama

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