NBA, Rakuten Celebrate Partnership Ahead Of Raptors Vs. Rockets Preseason Games In Tokyo

The last time the NBA held games in Japan, the two participating teams were Elton Brand’s Los Angeles Clippers and Ray Allen’s Seattle SuperSonics.

Which is to say, a long, long time ago.

It’s been 16 years since NBA action took to the court in Japan, but after its long hiatus the league has officially returned as it looks to cultivate its fan base and the sport of basketball in a country where it appears ripe for growth.

A day before the first NBA game in Japan since 2003, the NBA and its Japanese distribution and marketing partner Rakuten tipped off the festivities at a Tokyo reception. Rakuten chairman and CEO Mickey Mikitani and NBA commissioner Adam Silver each took the stage to celebrate the partnership and upcoming events, as well as to promote the groundwork they have laid for expanding the popularity of basketball and the NBA in Japan.

Mikitani expressed his belief that there is a “huge, huge opportunity” for the basketball’s growth, citing youth sport demographics. “If you look at the data, the most-played sport among junior high school and high school [students] in Japan is basketball,” Mikitani noted, emphasizing the fact that it’s played by both boys and girls.

The visibility of basketball in Japan, as I wrote in a recent article for Forbes on its growth, has largely waned since the end of the Michael Jordan era and the buoying effect his star power had for the NBA. But the plausibility of the NBA and Rakuten being able, as Mikitani envisions, to tap into a pool of youth basketball players in order to boost its popularity as a spectator sport has at least one analogous precedent in the case of soccer in the United States.

It wasn’t until generations of kids in the U.S. who played soccer in the seventies and eighties grew to adulthood that professional Major League Soccer was able to launch in 1993 in a spectator sport market dominated by American football, basketball, baseball and hockey.

Boosters of basketball in Japan face similar challenges in carving out viewership space in a team sports landscape dominated by baseball and soccer, but were given a huge assist when Rui Hachimura was drafted by the Washington Wizards with the ninth pick in the first round last summer.

Japan’s own professional basketball B.League is enjoying increasing growth, too, and the national men’s team having qualified for both the recent FIBA World Cup and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics gives added momentum to broadening the sport’s appeal outside the die-hard NBA fan base.

Whether or not all these elements will combine to form the perfect storm to really make the NBA take root again in Japan remains to be seen. But Silver exuded optimism as he provided some background on how the NBA’s partnership with Rakuten emerged in part from conversations he had several years ago with Mikitani, who had asked why the NBA was no longer in Japan.

“I learned more about [Rakuten’s] business,” Silver explained. “I learned about the streaming business, and here we are now opening this season with a new app, NBA Rakuten, [with] all the games available.”

The app, which got its own presentation at the reception, is now the platform for NBA League Pass in Japan and appears to be the showpiece for the NBA-Rakuten partnership: a content delivery vehicle especially catered to the linguistic and cultural needs of the Japanese NBA fan base.

But as excited as Silver and Mikitani may be about the new app, at the end of the day it all goes back to the players who play the games, and nothing thrilled the guests in attendance like the introduction of Houston’s P.J. Tucker and Toronto’s Fred VanVleet.

The pair expressed their gratitude to the Japanese fans and excitement to play in in their country. And in perhaps the most notable remark of the night, Tucker – himself decked out in colorful shorts and a blazer – raved about Japanese street fashion: “I just like people-watching here, they’re the best-dressed people in the world in Japan, so I enjoy it.”

Starting tomorrow, that well-dressed crowd will have plenty to enjoy as well, as they get the chance to feast their eyes on the likes of James Harden, Russell Westbrook (who is listed as probable), Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol. The preseason games between the Raptors and Rockets will be held on Tuesday, October 8 and Thursday, October 10 at 7 p.m. in Japan, 6 a.m. EDT.

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I've covered the Nuggets since 2005, writing for Forbes, BSN Denver, Roundball Mining Company, and more. Follow me on Twitter at @JoelRushNBA, where my views are my own