Many consider soccer to be the world’s most popular game – and with an estimated 4 billion followers, including many in the U.S., it’s hard to disagree. But, recently it’s a homegrown American sport that has been making headlines for its global growth: basketball.

With Rakuten’s recent announcement that we are partnering with the NBA to become exclusive distributor of all live NBA games in Japan and a global marketing partner of the league – not to mention our new jersey partnership with the reigning NBA champions, the Golden State Warriors – the company is doing its part to promote the game in Japan and continue this globalizing trend.

All-stars vs. amateurs

While the future of basketball may be borderless, its past is decidedly American. The National Basketball Association long ago solidified its place alongside American football and baseball in the canon of great American sports. In fact, the U.S. was so dominant internationally in the ’90s, that the thought of inter-nation matches was once completely abandoned. At the Olympics, fans tuned in simply for the spectacle of seeing match-ups of what amounted to all-stars vs. amateurs.

This was exemplified by the 1992 “Dream Team” led by Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson, which won their 8 matches at the Barcelona Olympics by an average score of nearly 44 points per game. In the face of such overwhelming dominance, the world could have been forgiven for losing interest.

International stars emerge

But then in 2004, a strange thing happened: the US men’s basketball team lost at the Olympics. At the Athens Games, the hoops juggernaut struggled to even reach the semifinals, where it fell to unsung Argentina. While this shocked the sporting world, it also awakened it to the growth of the game outside of the U.S.. International stars like Argentina’s Manu Ginóbili, Germany’s Dirk Nowitski, Spain’s Pau Gasol, Canada’s Steve Nash, and, most significantly, China’s Yao Ming, were sparking an explosion of growth for basketball around the world.

In the 1980-81 season, athletes born outside the US represented just 1.7% of NBA players. By 1997-98, this figure had grown to 7.6%. In 2015-16, this trend reached an incredible 28.6% of players hailing from countries other than the United States. The college ranks are also seeing a surge in foreign-born talent, with an increase of 40% over the past 10 years. Further, a staggering 15 of the top 30 picks in the first round of the 2016 NBA draft were born outside of the United States, a fact noted by Warriors owner Peter Guber at last month’s joint press conference announcing the partnership with Rakuten.

While the rest of the world may yet have some work to do to dethrone the US as the dominant basketball nation, the Americans can no longer rest on their laurels.

Growing fan base

As remarkable as this growth is, trends in global fandom may be even more impressive. In 2016, the NBA announced it had become the first professional sports league to have more than “1 billion likes” across its global social media accounts, outperforming the two biggest leagues in the world of soccer, the English Premier League and the Champion’s League. Most recently, the NBA announced the 2017 finals – featuring arch-rivals Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors for the third consecutive year – were broadcast to over 200 countries.

While basketball owes a tremendous debt to the great international players that have helped to introduce the game to the world, the NBA should also be credited for identifying new markets, investing in growth and pressing its advantage with savvy promotion. Case in point, current Golden State superstars Steph Curry and Klay Thompson made a splash in China over the summer, while reigning NBA Finals MVP Kevin Durant set a Guinness World Record in India for largest basketball lesson ever held.

It remains to be seen which sport will be the world’s most popular in the future, but with partnerships with the top teams in both soccer and basketball, Rakuten is betting on a sunny future.