How the Warriors are expanding NBA reach in Japan

Yudai Baba is a 26-year-old shooter who will likely never make an NBA 15-man roster.

But when Baba rejected a training camp offer from the Golden State Warriors last summer to pursue overseas opportunities, some franchise executives — especially on the business side — were disappointed. It wasn’t just that Baba’s 3-point shot could have helped Golden State’s G League affiliate Santa Cruz. A star in his native Japan, he would have extended the Warriors’ already significant reach there.

“The reality is that we wanted Yudai Baba to stay,” Executive Vice President of Partnerships Mike Kitts said of a player who averaged 3.5 points per game in the Premier League team. Golden State summer in Las Vegas.

In the NBA’s perpetual quest to grow its global audience, Japan has become a top priority in recent years for one simple reason: a nation with the world’s third-largest economy falls far short of rivaling other Asian countries like the Philippines and China. in the excitement of basketball. That may soon change, however, thanks to the Warriors and an influx of Japanese-born players to the United States.

When Golden State plays preseason games on Friday and Saturday against the Wizards and hometown idol Rui Hachimura outside of Tokyo, it will see firsthand just how much it has already accomplished expanding the franchise’s footprint. league there. By agreeing to a $60 million jersey sponsorship deal with Japanese e-commerce company Rakuten in 2017, the Warriors paved the way for the NBA’s biggest-ever media partnership in Japan: a multi-year, $225 million Rakuten deal. of dollars which, according to experts, is responsible for the growth. the league’s fan base there exponentially.

Hundreds of thousands of people in Japan regularly watch the NBA on the Rakuten streaming service, with the league eyeing millions more regular viewers in the years to come. The NBA has 1.6 million followers on its Japanese Facebook, Twitter and Line accounts. League merchandise is now available at over 700 retail stores across the country.

Last season, Stephen Curry and the Warriors topped the most popular jersey and team product lists on the NBA Japan online store, respectively. According to Golden State research, one in six Japanese NBA fans consider the Warriors their favorite team.

That says more than just the dynastic status of the franchise or Curry’s sponsorship deals there. In addition to wearing the logo of one of Japan’s most recognizable companies on their jerseys, the Warriors have created a Japanese Twitter account and signed Asian celebrities as brand ambassadors.

One of those partners, Japanese rock duo Yuzu, is set to perform a new song during Saturday’s pre-season game at Saitama Super Arena. Other festivities include a slam-dunk contest with professional dunkers, a 3-point contest with Warriors and Wizards players, and several youth development clinics.

“About 99% of our international fans cannot attend an NBA game,” said Ramez Sheikh, general manager of NBA Asia. “These global games are an opportunity for fans to experience who we are and to feel closer to the product they are consuming online or on TV.”

It’s not a new concept. In November 1990, the Suns played the Jazz in Tokyo, marking the first time an American sports league had held a regular season game outside of North America. Over the next 13 years, the NBA hosted 11 more regular season games in Japan, including four regular season openers.

But unlike similar league efforts in China, sold-out crowds at NBA games have not translated to an increase in the sport’s popularity locally. With limited space in an island nation of more than 125 million people, according to FIBA, only 30 basketball courts exist, limiting the growth of streetball culture.

It also didn’t help that the management of Japanese professional basketball had long been in chaos. In 2014, FIBA ​​suspended the Japan Basketball Association for running two competing professional leagues. Even after the problem was resolved in 2016, when the two leagues merged into a three-tier organization called the B.League, many young Japanese athletes were more interested in baseball and soccer than basketball.

Experts trace basketball’s current distinction as the second most popular youth sport in Japan behind soccer to a few key factors: NBA games are readily available on streaming services there, and kids Japanese now have two Japanese-born NBA players to emulate in Hachimura and Nets forward. Yuta Watanabe.

It’s no coincidence that Chinese basketball rose to popularity when Yao Ming played in eight All-Star Games for the Rockets. While Hachimura and Watanabe probably won’t address Yao’s legacy, they are a huge step up from the only other Japanese-born player to reach the NBA.

Yuta Tabuse, a 5-foot-9 point guard, totaled 17 minutes in four games for the Suns in 2004. Desperate to cheer on someone like them, 10,000 Japanese fans regularly packed the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium for high school games of Hachimura. More than 1.1 million people in Japan watched Hachimura finish ninth in the 2019 NBA Draft, and more than 60 Japanese media members attended his summer league premiere.

Now entering his fourth season with career averages of 13 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game, Hachimura is the main reason the Wizards were chosen for the NBA’s first Japan Games since 2019. As Warriors executives witness his return, few would blame them for wondering how much bigger Golden State could be with a Japanese-born player.

But even if Baba had accepted the Warriors’ training camp offer, he likely would have been knocked out during pre-season and relegated to the G League. For a prospect of Yao or even Hachimura caliber to ever adapt to Golden State, the NBA must continue to expand its reach in Japan so that more and more young children pick up basketballs instead of baseballs. or soccer balls.

“Going out there for these games is not just huge for our players and our team,” Warriors president Brandon Schneider said. “It’s huge for the future of Japanese basketball.”

Head coach Steve Kerr acknowledges this, which is why he refrained from complaining about the logistical difficulties of the trip. A preseason stint around the world is less than ideal for a team trying to defend an NBA title. In addition to having to revise their training schedule, the Warriors face a throw leg when they arrive in Tokyo on Wednesday and again next week when they return to San Francisco.

The good news? Eleven-hour flights, sightseeing in a foreign country, and the unique opportunity to serve as NBA ambassadors should only bring players closer together.

“We know the big picture,” Kerr said. “Everything is pretty positive.”

Connor Letourneau is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @Con_Chron

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