As NBA struggles in China, Japan emerges as key international market

Akiko Fujita

The NBA’s ratings may be in steep decline so far this season, but it’s attracted an explosive following in one unexpected market: Japan. 

As the league struggles to repair the political fallout in China from Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey’s tweet, Japan has emerged as a key international focus for the NBA, with subscriptions for its live viewing platform in the country up 30%, according to Deputy Commissioner and Chief Operating Officer Mark Tatum.

“Japan is a market where we have been in for about 30 years. We’ve been in games there but one of the big difference makers has been a player like Rui Hachimura,” Tatum said, speaking to Yahoo Finance’s On The Move. “We’re seeing unprecedented growth in our business there.”

The Wizards’ rookie became the first Japanese basketball player to be drafted in the first round this year, elevating the league’s exposure in the world’s third largest economy. NBA executives quickly took notice 24 hours after the draft, when nearly 100 members of the Japanese media showed up for Hachimura’s introductory press conference. 

Dec 8, 2019; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Wizards forward Rui Hachimura (8) stands on the court during the second half against the Los Angeles Clippers at Capital One Arena. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Monumental Sports, which owns the Wizards, responded by building out a Japanese digital content team, complete with a Japanese digital correspondent, a Japanese language Twitter account, even a video series called “Wizards Players’ Diaries,” which goes behind the scenes with Hachimura and his teammates. All of the content combined, has logged 8 million video views in just two months, with more than 50 million interactions, according to Monumental Sports.’

The NBA’s league accounts have seen their Japanese social media following swell to 1.6 million users.

Tatum compares the sudden popularity in Japan, to the league’s growth witnessed in China, during Yao Ming’s rookie year. Commissioner Adam Silver has been especially aggressive in expanding the NBA’s international footprint during his tenure, opening up six academies in places like India, and establishing junior leagues in 75 countries to increase the game’s exposure.

This year, the NBA hosted its first pre-season games in India and Japan.

“We have a very deliberate approach when we go into a market...and we’ve seen great success there,” he said, adding that its partnership with Japanese e-commerce giant Rakuten (RKUNY) had also helped expand the game’s reach. “Providing local content, providing the games, having the right partners to make those games accessible and available to fans really helps drive interest in the overall sport.”

Fans take pictures as players warm up before an NBA preseason basketball game between the Houston Rockets and the Toronto Raptors Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019, in Saitama, near Tokyo. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Even with all the success in Japan, China remains the NBA’s largest international market. Tatum says he has made multiple trips, to repair the damage stemming from comments related to the Hong Kong protests, adding the league is “continuing to engage the Chinese community.”

While Tencent (TCEHY), the league’s largest partner outside of the U.S., has resumed lives stream of games on its platform, state-run CCTV, the NBA’s exclusive broadcast partner in China has continued its blackout. 

“We are two different countries with two different political beliefs and values systems in some cases and those values travel with us wherever we go,” Tatum said, addressing the challenges of doing business in China. “We’re very sensitive and cognizant of wherever we do business, the places that we're doing business in, but I think we will get through this.”

Akiko Fujita is an anchor and reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter @AkikoFujita

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