Rui Hachimura of the Washington Wizards and Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors speak to the … [+]
Photo by Joel Rush
When the NBA tipped off its 2022-23 preseason with its first return to Japan since 2019, it marked a celebratory rekindling of the country’s still-growing relationship with the league.
The primary of two games between the Washington Wizards, featuring Japan’s biggest homegrown NBA star Rui Hachimura, and the defending champion Golden State Warriors, was also the primary match of the preseason schedule as a complete, and was symbolically fitting for the renewed priority the league is placing in deepening its ties with Japan, and cultivating the continued growth here of each the NBA and the game of basketball more broadly.
A key aspect of the NBA’s plans to proceed expanding its popularity in Japan is increasing the opportunities for fans to access “not only the NBA experience, the live NBA experience,” NBA Asia Managing Director Ramez Sheikh said at a media roundtable prior to the primary game.
““That’s what this weekend is all about,” Sheikh said, “because half of fandom in Japan especially is thru events, through those experiences. And people experiences imprint, and make a level of difference.”
In that respect, the NBA Japan Games seemed to be a significant success, each by the numbers (each of the 2 games sold out, in line with NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum) and by the extent of pleasure and interest shown by the fans.
“The magnification of the Japan Games was awesome,” said Hiroaki Tanaka, an office employee from Tokyo whose favorite team is the Denver Nuggets. “This showed us tons of Japanese guys love NBA Games.”
Tanaka added, “We wish the NBA to push to make our NBA community larger and higher.”
Many Japanese fans echoed the importance Sheikh said the league places in creating more live events here.
“The very best approach to enjoy sports, not only the NBA, is to look at them live in an arena,” said Makoto Kokushi, a Los Angeles Lakers fan from Tokyo who works within the printing and publishing industry. “I feel crucial thing concerning the NBA Japan Games was that I used to be capable of experience an NBA game live.”
After all, even when the NBA brings more live games and events to Japan, they’ll only accomplish that in a limited capability, and Shota, an office employee from Osaka who like Tanaka is a Nuggets fan, alluded to a different common theme amongst Japanese fans: a desire for the league to expand its broadcast footprint to television.
Asked what the NBA could do to extend its popularity in Japan, Shota said they need to have each “an everyday holding of [live] Japan Games” and more frequent “television broadcasts through the NBA season.”
Lui, a marketer from Tokyo whose favorite team is the Dallas Mavericks, agrees. To “sometimes hold Japan Games, I suppose a few times in a 12 months is enough,” he said, but added that the NBA should “broadcast the playoffs on television in Japan” as well.
“Broadcast television still has more influence and power in Japan,” Lui explained.
Tanaka took a somewhat different view, saying that the NBA should broadcast games “not only on TV, but in addition on YouTube and Tik Tok consistently.”
“People like me who’re older than their 20s watch on TV, but younger ages won’t watch shows on TV,” he said. “They watch on YouTube or Tik Tok or Instagram.”
As things stand now under the league’s current exclusive licensing agreement with Rakuten, NBA games in Japan are only viewable through the Rakuten NBA app’s streaming service. There are some very helpful facets of this, including an increasing amount of NBA content directly targeted for the Japanese audience, and the league securing a solid foothold in within the Japanese viewing market which had previously slipped over time, especially after the retirement of Michael Jordan, who stays unequivocally the preferred NBA player in Japan despite the actual fact he played his last game nearly twenty years ago.
And while the NBA clearly has a powerful, loyal core Japanese fan base, expanding its popularity to a wider, more mainstream audience stays a formidable challenge.
But beyond the streaming and broadcasting questions, the increased opportunities for live NBA Japan Games and events, which were set back by the coronavirus pandemic delaying the league’s intended 2021 return, will remain a central focus for the NBA in Japan, and remain an experience that fans, players and coaches alike find special, exciting and rewarding.
Following the second game, I asked Hachimura about how much he values the possibility to bring the NBA to his home country. “It was a special moment for me, and this team, this country,” he said. “I used to be capable of share my culture, and the way beautiful the country is with my teammates, and I feel they loved it.”
Warriors star Steph Curry also shared how appreciative he was of the experience, especially with respect to interacting with the youth. “That’s what the sport is about,” he said. “Attempting to construct inspiration, confidence, fun for the following generation of youngsters that look as much as us and love basketball, love sports.”
“Understanding what impact that may have on kids, who knows in the event that they’re gonna pursue basketball at the best level, but just the lesson that sports teaches you, the proven fact that basketball has brought such a various group together, and a world group together, that’s what it’s all about,” Curry added.
Reaching the youth in Japan, one other of the NBA’s high priorities in line with Sheikh, is each precious by itself merits and would appear to be a sound strategy for the NBA to grow its fan base here as well. While many Japanese kids play basketball in junior high and highschool, its popularity as a spectator sport stays limited, so reaching adolescents on the age when basketball is a much bigger a part of their lives is smart.
Tanaka, for one, became an NBA fan in 2007 as a junior highschool student when the league was still on TV, a fandom which has now persevered 15 years and counting. If the league can reach more children in this manner, it bodes well for his or her making a more robust and expansive fan base that solidifies as they age into maturity – and the spending power that comes with that.
As for now, the impact of the NBA coming to Japan was clearly strong, and can likely be lasting, amongst fans of all ages.
“I attended Game 1 and Saturday Night of the NBA Japan Games, Kokushi said. “I used to be capable of experience firsthand the identical or much more excitement than within the U.S.”
“It was certainly one of the nice memories in my life,” he added. “I might like to see the NBA Japan Games change into an annual event in the longer term.”
Rui Hachimura thinks in order well. “Simply to play in front of Japanese fans, it was a really special moment for me and the team and the country,” he said. “This whole trip was special and different.”
“Hopefully we will come back here anytime soon and have more NBA games.”