For the first time in 16 years, two NBA teams are preparing to tip off in Japan. On October 8 and 10, 2019 NBA Champions the Toronto Raptors will play a pair of preseason games against the Houston Rockets at the Saitama Super Arena north of Tokyo for the NBA Japan Games 2019 Presented by Rakuten.
For some background behind these historic games, Rakuten Today sat down with two of the driving forces behind Japan’s basketball renaissance.
Alongside its sponsorship of the Golden State Warriors, Rakuten has been in partnership with the NBA since 2017, holding a wide variety of fan events in Japan with NBA stars including Draymond Green and NBA legend Ray Allen, and distributing NBA games online through Rakuten TV.
Helping grow the game in Japan: Mak Arima and Laura Li
A veteran of Japan’s IT world, Mak Arima met Rakuten CEO Mickey Mikitani in the mid-nineties — when Rakuten itself was but an idea. Having worked at Yahoo Japan and later as country managing director at Google Japan, Arima was sought out by Mikitani for his expertise in digital marketing. Arima joined Rakuten in 2017, and now serves as Chief Revenue Officer and president of the Media & Sports Company, where he has responsibility for company direction on Rakuten’s many sports and entertainment properties and partnerships.
“Rakuten had already found success with its baseball team in Japan, and then with soccer in Kobe,” Arima explains. Sports marketing catapulted Rakuten to household name-status in Japan, and Rakuten has since taken this strategy global. “Sports is a great vehicle for growing global brand awareness. That’s a big reason why Rakuten has partnered with FC Barcelona and the Golden State Warriors.”
Arima believes the strategy is paying off. “It seems to have been very successful so far. Brand awareness of Rakuten in the U.S. has surpassed 29.8%, and over 44% in Spain.”
Laura Li started her career in investment, working with a number of startups across the U.S. before being recruited to Rakuten’s Chief Executive Innovation Office.
Today, she’s the program lead for Rakuten’s NBA Partnership. “The NBA opportunity came up, and everyone knew I loved basketball,” she recalls. “I always loved basketball, but I never dreamed I would actually end up working with the NBA!”
Japan’s basketball renaissance
In the 1990s, Japan was sent into a basketball frenzy, thanks to one of the best-selling manga series of all time: Slam Dunk. The series inspired countless fans to take up the then-unfamiliar sport. Today, basketball in Japan is experiencing another surge in popularity.
“Recently I’ve been hearing that basketball is even more popular than baseball in junior high school in Japan,” remarked Arima.
Li says this is a good sign. “What kids do really represents where sports are going,” she explains. “With basketball, you can just play in the park… it’s much easier to get into than soccer or baseball.” Recent signings of high-profile Japanese players to the NBA is also another major factor, she adds.
Since 2017, Rakuten TV has been the live viewing destination for hoops fans in Japan. But Rakuten hasn’t just limited itself to broadcasting: It has hosted countless public viewings and community events, bringing both active NBA players and league legends to meet their Japanese fans.
“We believe Rakuten is bringing a lot of benefits to the basketball market,” Li says. “Rakuten in Japan is a very strong household name. Over the last two years, we have grown NBA subscribership here by seven times.”
“Promotion of the NBA in Japan is expanding the fanbase of basketball as a whole,” said Arima. “It’s also contributing to a leveling up in the quality of play — being able to see live action from some of the best teams in the world.”
Li is ambitious about the future of Japanese basketball. “I’m very hopeful, because there are a number of high-profile Japanese players these days, which is a key driver,” she added. “That’s how China succeeded with their domestic basketball program.”
NBA fever in Saitama
The October dates are the first NBA games to be played in Japan for 16 years, and fans are ravenous: Both games will be packed with capacity crowds, with a fan event involving on-court activities with players from both teams also planned for October 9. NBA Fan Night Presented by Rakuten celebrates the game of basketball and will showcase the convergence of the NBA and popular culture for a unique fan experience. NBA Legends Dikembe Mutombo, Chris Bosh and Shawn Marion, as well as local celebrities, will also take to the court as part of the event.
For the fans lucky enough to be watching hoops featuring super stars like James Harden and Kyle Lowry, one thing is undeniable: basketball is making a big comeback in Japan.
“This is an exciting period in the history of Japanese basketball,” Li concludes. “I’m very glad we are part of it!”
As the NBA’s exclusive broadcast partner in Japan, Rakuten has streamed NBA games through its “Rakuten NBA Special” and “NBA League Pass” programs. In order to provide an even more fulfilling experience to users, Rakuten will be providing a renewed platform with expanded functionality from the 2019-2020 season. Further details on functionality, features and payment plans will be announced in mid-October.