On November 2–3, 1990, the Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz played each other in Japan, the first two regular-season games outside of North America for a major US sports league. The NBA had held international preseason games since 1978, but the Suns Jazz Games represented Commissioner David Stern’s desire to capitalize on fan and sponsor interest in a burgeoning league and increase its global appeal. The boost worked.
This weekend, the NBA returns overseas for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic began in March 2020, when the Golden State Warriors and Washington Wizards compete in preseason games on Friday and Sunday in Japan. It will be the 15th and 16th NBA games in Japan, a country that has embraced the sport even more in recent years.
Both games at Saitama Super Arena north of Tokyo are sold out, and fans are drawn to both the reigning champion Warriors and Wizards forward Rui Hachimura, who became the first Japanese-born player to be drafted in the first round of the NBA draft in 2019 . During the 2021-22 season, Warriors guard Stephen Curry had the most popular jersey on the NBA Store Japan website, while Golden State was the country’s most popular team based on merchandise sales.
Japanese fans also love Hachimura and Brooklyn Nets forward Yuta Watanabe, who grew up in Japan before coming to the United States to play preschool basketball for a year and then study at George Washington University. Yuta Tabuse, who appeared in four games with the Phoenix Suns in 2004, is the only other player who grew up in Japan to have played in an NBA regular-season game.
People in Japan also faced NBA players during last year’s Summer Olympics in Japan. And they have access to all NBA games, many of which are in Japanese, through NBA Rakuten, a streaming service similar to NBA League Pass in the US. Next year, Japan, Indonesia and the Philippines will host the 2023 FIBA Basketball World Cup.
“There’s a real dynamic around basketball in Japan,” said Ramez Sheikh, managing director of NBA Asia and India. “We will help to increase that.”
The NBA will also host other games outside of North America this season. The Atlanta Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks play two preseason games in Abu Dhabi on October 6 and 8, while the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat meet in Mexico City on December 17 and the Chicago Bulls meet the Detroit Pistons on January 19 compete in Paris.
The NBA has held more games in Mexico than any country other than the United States and Canada. There have also been 12 games in France, including a regular-season game between the Bucks and Charlotte Hornets in January 2020, the last NBA game to be played outside of the United States and Canada.
The games in Abu Dhabi will be the first time the league has played in the United Arab Emirates. The UAE
In addition to hosting NBA games in the UAE, the league launched a Jr. NBA League in Abu Dhabi for children in the country earlier this year and hosted an NBA 2K League exhibition at Middle East Film & Comic Con in March Dubai.
“Similar to Japan, we are bringing to market a range of engagement opportunities (in the United Arab Emirates), whether it be youth empowerment or outreach and fan events,” said Samantha Engelhardt, NBA vice president for global strategy and innovation. “The Abu Dhabi Games are not just an event in their own right, but part of a long-standing partnership.”
When choosing which teams to play overseas each year, Sheikh said “it’s a very collaborative process” between the league and the franchises, where the NBA juggles what’s best for business and making sure teams don’t have too many to travel abroad.
For the players and coaches, the international games are a mixed bag as the journey can be arduous but also offers an opportunity to see places they’ve never been and extends their reach beyond US Warriors guard Stephen Curry to expand, for example, Marketing has partnered with Rakuten, a major Japanese e-commerce and online retailer that also has extensive deals with the NBA and the Warriors. Rakuten is the Warriors’ shirt patch sponsor and, along with Nissan, is the NBA’s primary sponsor for this weekend’s games.
“It’s not the ideal way to go through camp,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said on San Francisco radio show Damon and Ratto this month. “It’s not what you make it up, but it’s an incredible opportunity to go to Tokyo, which is such a great city.”
Kerr added: “Any disruption to training camp is far outweighed by being in Tokyo with the team developing the game and seeing the Japanese cheer for Steph Curry and the team. It’s going to be a thrill.”
Despite some complaints about travel and jet lag, the NBA will certainly continue to play a few games abroad each year as it looks to continue its international growth. The NBA declined to disclose how much revenue it generates outside of the US and Canada, but it has 13 offices outside of North America and claims nearly 70% of its social media followers live outside of the US
This weekend isn’t just about the games. Far from it, because it offers the league the opportunity to host business partners, get in touch with fans and promote the sport. On Saturday, the NBA is hosting an event at Saitama Super Arena where fans can meet some of the Warriors and Wizards, see slam dunk and 3-point contests, and catch a concert with Yuzu, a Japanese rock duo. During the week, the league will also have a young female player clinic to interact with former WNBA players while teams participate in community service events.
“Ninety-nine percent of our (international) fans and most of our international partners do not have the opportunity to attend games,” Sheikh said. “It’s really important that we can offer a live gaming experience to our fans in the market.”