Between September 30 and October 2, tens of thousands of basketball fans will gather at Saitama Super Arena, northwest of Tokyo, to watch the 2022 NBA champion Golden State Warriors take on the Washington Wizards for the NBA Japan Games 2022 Presented by Rakuten & Nissan.
The spectacle marks the second time Rakuten has hosted NBA preseason games in the country: In 2019, the NBA came to Japan for the first time in nearly two decades for a matchup between the Houston Rockets and then-defending champions the Toronto Raptors. The event came following the launch of a comprehensive partnership between Rakuten and the NBA, an alliance which continues to thrive today.
Three years later, and it’s game on once again — this time between Japan fan-favorites the Washington Wizards and current defending champs, and Rakuten global partners, the Golden State Warriors, who will meet for back-to-back preseason games in Saitama. For the inside scoop on how this exciting matchup came to fruition and what fans in the country have in store, we spoke to two key figures behind the NBA Japan Games 2022 Presented by Rakuten & Nissan: Rahul Kadavakolu, Vice President of Rakuten’s Global Sports Business and the company’s Global Marketing and Sports Partnerships Director, and Yuta Nodera, General Manager of Rakuten’s Basketball Business Department.
“I think the players will be surprised by the level of passion from the Japanese fans — it will rival that of fans in their home arenas.”YUTA NODERA, GENERAL MANAGER OF RAKUTEN’S BASKETBALL BUSINESS DEPARTMENT
The Golden State Warriors vs. the Washington Wizards — why these two teams?
Rahul Kadavakolu: We evaluated team combinations and options with the goal of bringing the best sporting experience to fans in Japan, and we ended up with this very special matchup.
Rakuten is the official jersey badge partner of the Warriors and Stephen Curry is a global brand ambassador for Rakuten — we have a great partnership with Stephen through which we support his Eat. Learn. Play. and Underrated Tour programs.
Rui Hachimura and the Wizards, meanwhile, are among the most followed NBA players and teams by Japanese fans. I don’t think we could have asked for a better matchup.
Yuta Nodera: Both the Warriors and the Wizards are playing in Japan for the first time. Especially with the reigning champions in the arena, I think the players will be surprised by the level of passion from the Japanese fans — it will rival that of fans in their home arenas.
What does NBA basketball have to offer that’s different from other sports in Japan?
RK: When we held the games in 2019, we were not sure what to expect. We knew that baseball and soccer were more watched and followed in Japan. But we were amazed by the results, and watching the games played for tens of thousands of enthusiastic fans was really special.
The format and length of basketball lends itself to bringing cool intersections with other forms of entertainment — dance, fashion, music, etc. We have timeouts, quarters, and half-time slots that are packed with performances and activities that make this sport a great source of entertainment. The halftime shows are almost as popular as the game itself!
I feel the opportunity to engage fans in exciting events during the game is much higher than in other sports.
YN: We are investing in the content we have lined up for the Saturday night fan event. We’re planning a number of fan-focused events like a Slam Dunk Contest, Shooting Stars Competition and Three-Point Contest — favorites from NBA All-Star Weekend. We want to recreate these experiences for our amazing fans in Japan.
Another thing to look forward to is a performance from rock duo Yuzu. I think there’ll be a lot for fans to enjoy, even between the two games.
From a planning perspective, how do this year’s Games compare to 2019?
YN: The pandemic obviously presented challenges. From the planning stages, we worked closely with local governments and venue managers to ensure that holding such an event would be possible, while also keeping an eye on Japan’s border restrictions.
In order to realize a safe, secure event, we are taking measures to manage potential risks such as considering alternative ways for fans to cheer on their favorite players inside the arena.
Another challenge has been improving the profitability of the event. Our main objective is to hold an event that can deliver fans the most enjoyment, but we also need to make the event work from a business perspective.
Compared to 2019 we had a lot more time to organize sponsorships, merchandising and ticket bundles. For the 2022 Games, we were able to work with our partners the Warriors from an early stage to plan a number of initiatives — such as Dream Packages, which combine tickets for the NBA Japan Games with Warriors home games back in the U.S., allowing fans to experience the NBA in both environments.
“We’re taking an approach that combines content, commerce and community to build the business. Our goal is to grow the sport of basketball while also growing the fanbase — it’s the combination of these two factors that will lead to business growth.”RAHUL KADAVAKOLU, VICE PRESIDENT OF RAKUTEN’S GLOBAL SPORTS BUSINESS AND THE COMPANY’S GLOBAL MARKETING AND SPORTS PARTNERSHIPS DIRECTOR
How is Rakuten’s NBA business in Japan performing?
RK: We’re growing steadily. This is not a short-term project.
We’re taking an approach that combines content, commerce, and community to build the business. Our goal is to grow the sport of basketball while also growing the fanbase — it’s the combination of these two factors that will lead to business growth.
Only 1% of fans get to actually watch games in the stadium. We want the Japan Games to be part of our growth strategy, to create excitement by giving fans the opportunity to experience the NBA live.
Our vision for this project is to grow the game of basketball and grow the fan base in Japan. This is key to building a successful business around NBA IP. We have created positive momentum and are seeing steady growth. We are very committed to the vision and goals we have set for this partnership
What are you looking forward to most about the upcoming games?
YN: I’m looking forward to delivering the world’s best, most authentic basketball entertainment experience to fans in Japan — a combination of sports and entertainment.
On one side, we have reigning champions the Golden State Warriors, and superstars like Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. On the other side, we have Bradley Beal, Kyle Kuzma and Rui Hachimura with the Washington Wizards. I think we have two of the most highly anticipated games in Japanese NBA history on our hands.
RK: What we are bringing to the fans in Japan is the actual NBA product — what fans would see if they were watching an NBA game at any stadium in the U.S. or Canada, with no customization or scaling down.
We know there is a lot of convergence in sports today with music, fashion, etc. We have added some really cool entertainment features as part of the games and Saturday Night fan event — including the special performance from Yuzu.
I can’t wait to see the excitement and joy on the faces of Japanese fans when two of their favorite teams tip-off on game day.