Big in Japan: Warriors-Wizards games to woo NBA fans, sponsors

Big in Japan: Warriors-Wizards games to woo NBA fans, sponsors
Washington Wizards players including Rui Hachimura, center, work out in Tokyo, Thursday, ahead of the NBA preseason games in Japan. (AP)
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Updated 30 September 2022

Big in Japan: Warriors-Wizards games to woo NBA fans, sponsors

Big in Japan: Warriors-Wizards games to woo NBA fans, sponsors
  • The financial rewards are as clear as the patch of Japanese online retailer Rakuten on the jerseys that Curry and the Warriors will wear
  • Ogura thinks the investments being made by Japanese companies for these games is worth it given the NBA’s strong appeal to the younger generation

TOKYO: Before Stephen Curry makes a single 3-pointer, before Rui Hachimura gets his first ovation from Japanese fans who came to cheer one of their own, the NBA Japan Games are already a huge win in one regard.

The money.

Big money is riding on — and getting spent on — the NBA’s most recent foray into Japan, which has the reigning champion Golden State Warriors and Washington Wizards set to play a pair of preseason games there on Friday and Sunday. Every seat inside Saitama Super Arena has been sold, and the league has more marketing partners for games in Japan than ever before.

The financial rewards are as clear as the patch of Japanese online retailer Rakuten on the jerseys that Curry and the Warriors will wear.

“These are the Japanese people who grew up on Michael Jordan,” said Junya Ogura, senior manager at Japanese automaker Nissan’s brand and media strategy department. “We are banking on a return that will come in the future.”

Nissan Motor Co., which sponsors Japanese professional baseball and soccer, had a high-profile deal with tennis superstar Naomi Osaka which recently ended. It is sponsoring NBA games for the first time.

Ogura thinks the investments being made by Japanese companies for these games is worth it given the NBA’s strong appeal to the younger generation, a trend that’s backed up by marketing studies. Nissan is sharing the role of presenting partner for the games with Rakuten, which has had a lucrative relationship with the Warriors — at least $20 million a year, largely to have its patch on Golden State’s jerseys — since 2017.

Rakuten also has a sponsorship deal with Curry, part of his massive off-court empire. Rakuten also sponsors Japanese baseball and soccer and holds the Japan Open tennis championships, plus live-streams NBA games. And that was one of the primary reasons why the NBA returned to Japan for a pair of preseason games between Houston and Toronto in 2019, ending what was a 16-year drought between games in that country.

“Excited to be here,” Curry said.

The tickets cost up to 420,000 yen ($2,900) each for courtside “VIP” seats. Both Friday and Sunday games are sold out at the Saitama Super Arena, where the US won the gold medal at the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics in 2021. The massive arena was largely empty for those games, tickets unable to be sold because of the virus.

Now, every seat has been grabbed. Plus, the NBA has drawn 15 marketing partners to support the preseason games in Japan, including American Express, Hennessy, NEC and Nike, and now has 19 marketing and promotional partners in Japan.

“Obviously it’s about the money,” said Bob Dorfman, a San Francisco-based sports analyst at Pinnacle Advertising.

“Building the fan base in Asia, and everywhere else in the world, results in more sponsorship dollars, increased media rights and greater merchandise sales.”

The NBA may have more global appeal than other US sports, being easier to understand than football, for instance, according to Dorfman, who has worked in Japan.

“Every team has foreign-born players on their rosters, and the league’s top stars are cultural icons, trendsetters, and social media giants. The game is cool,” he said.

That translates not only into sponsorship money but also youngsters spending on sneakers and other fashion items and merchandising.

Between 1990 and 2003, the NBA staged 12 regular-season games in Japan. The courtship between the NBA and the Japanese fan — not to mention Japanese companies and NBA fans globally — is now fully underway again.

A giant 3D display at a Tokyo street-crossing depicts Curry and other NBA stars as “manga,” or Japanese comic, characters. The NBA’s Japanese-language social media accounts have amassed more than 1.6 million followers.

While the players are in town, they will be taking part in various fan events. Besides Hachimura, the NBA now has another Japanese player, Yuta Watanabe, who is with the Brooklyn Nets.

The NBA is also excited about the potential for women’s basketball. Japanese women were the silver medalists in the last Olympics. Rui Machida, an Olympian, signed earlier this year with the WNBA’s Washington Mystics.

“Our fan base is growing,” said NBA Asia managing director Ramez Sheikh. “There is real momentum around basketball in Japan, and it’s a real important market for the NBA.”

Wizards officials acknowledged they were surprised by the big reaction signing Hachimura drew from Japan. They suddenly saw more Japanese in the stands, tour buses started coming, and Japanese media showed up in big numbers.

“It was all about Rui,” said Hunter Lochman, chief marketing officer at Monumental Sports & Entertainment, which owns the Wizards. “It’s fast-paced. It’s high scoring. It’s a great sport and it’s a global sport.”

Besides Japan, a pair of preseason games are scheduled for Abu Dhabi this season, with the Atlanta Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks going there early next month. Regular-season games will be played in Mexico City in December and Paris in January.

Kyle Kuzma, a Wizards forward, said he was excited about being in Japan for the first time.

He already had sushi, planned to go shopping and was approached by a fan on the street, who gave him chopsticks with his name and the name of his girlfriend etched onto them.

“This is a big moment,” Kuzma said. “It’s a big stage.”


Messi fans from Asia cheer on Argentina at World Cup

Messi fans from Asia cheer on Argentina at World Cup
Updated 15 sec ago

Messi fans from Asia cheer on Argentina at World Cup

Messi fans from Asia cheer on Argentina at World Cup
DOHA: On their way to Argentina’s decisive game against Poland, Mohit Daga and Aayush Verma approached the stadium carrying a massive painting of their heroes Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona with the World Cup trophy.
Daga had spent 17 days painting it. It weighed 5 kilograms. An offering. Anything for Messi.
“He is the epitome of everything. He is the source of inspiration and happiness,” said Daga, who is from Kolkata, India. “He brings happiness to our life.”
Argentina are finding a legion of passionate superfans from India, Bangladesh and other Asian countries at the World Cup in Qatar.
Thousands have traveled to the Gulf nation specifically to see Messi and his team with their own eyes, while many others are among migrant workers that make up about 90 percent of the emirate’s population of 3 million.
Other Argentina fans cheered from afar. In Indonesia, social media showed hundreds of people celebrating Argentina’s team’s 2-0 win over Poland after watching the game on large screens. They paraded on motorbikes waving flags after Argentina secured progress to the knockout stages. A newsreader wore an Argentina shirt during a broadcast.
Smitha Issac, originally from India, now living in Qatar, was attending the game with her family, including two sons who were “too excited” to see Messi.
Isaac said: “We are expecting that he will just make something like magic today.”
Outside Stadium 974 shortly before kickoff on Wednesday, Argentina fans were still scrambling for any spare tickets to see the game. Demand far outstripped supply for the 44,000-capacity stadium.
Mohammed Haque from Bangladesh, now living in Australia, was one of the lucky ticket holders. He waved a large Argentina flag as he walked toward the flood-lit stadium made of shipping containers, approaching it like a holy shrine.
“It’s unbelievable,” Haque said of seeing Messi for the first time. “I’ve actually been preparing for the last two or three weeks for this. I had a sleepless night last night.”
Argentina has had a big following in Bangladesh since the days of Maradona, one of the greatest to play the game, and an icon to fans around the world.
“Diego Maradona, he was exceptional. And from then I just loved this country and especially the soccer every time,” Haque said. “Then later, (Gabriel) Batistuta, (Hernan) Crespo, every Argentine player, and now Messi is the legend.”
Bangladesh, India and Pakistan — where cricket is king — have never played a World Cup. So when the tournament comes along, many soccer fans typically root for Argentina or Brazil, soccer powerhouses admired for their attacking style of play and a long line of international stars, including Messi, Maradona and Pele.
Fans who had traveled from Argentina to support their team in Qatar were delighted with the support from non-Argentines.
“We love to see other countries showing their love for Messi and Maradona,” said Mauricio Neraj from Mendoza, Argentina. He posed for pictures next to the Messi and Maradona painting by Daga outside the stadium.
Some of the South Asian fans in Qatar said they were deeply hurt by speculation on social media and in some Western media before the tournament that they were hired actors, paid by Qatar to fill the stadiums. The World Cup organizing committee rejected the reports as false.
“It is coming from the bottom of our hearts. It is not coming from any outside forcing or anything like that,” said Binoy John, and Indian worker in Qatar who has been an Argentina fan since childhood when he saw Maradona lead Argentina to win the 1986 World Cup. “All the fans are true fans. There is nothing like fake fans out here.”
Argentina have a following among Arab soccer fans, too. Messi-devotion brought Ahmed Qassim Nasher from Yemen to see his favorite player as Argentina advanced.
“Football is a festival, joy, celebrations. It connects people from different nationalities, different languages, and different ethnicities,” Nasher said. “You will find Arabs and non-Arabs coming to cheer for Messi. It’s common sense that he will have the best audience and fans, because he is the best player throughout history.”

Morocco roar past Canada to top group, cruise into World Cup last 16

Morocco roar past Canada to top group, cruise into World Cup last 16
Updated 27 min 54 sec ago

Morocco roar past Canada to top group, cruise into World Cup last 16

Morocco roar past Canada to top group, cruise into World Cup last 16
  • Morocco, who last reached the knockout stages of the World Cup in 1986, will face the runners-up from Group E
  • Morocco’s raucous fans erupted in celebration at the whistle

DOHA: Morocco powered into the last 16 of the World Cup for the first time in 36 years on Thursday with a 2-1 victory over eliminated Canada.
Goals from Hakim Ziyech and Youssef En-Nesyri ensured the North Africans finished top of Group F ahead of 2018 World Cup runners-up Croatia.
Morocco, who last reached the knockout stages of the World Cup in 1986, will face the runners-up from Group E in the last 16, with the identity of their opponents decided later Thursday.
Canada’s defeat meanwhile capped a disappointing World Cup for the CONCACAF side, who depart after losing all three of their group games on their long-awaited return to the finals.
Morocco put themselves firmly on course for the second round after upsetting Belgium 2-0 on Sunday, a result that left them needing only a point against Canada on Thursday to be sure of advancing.
Achieving that objective never looked in doubt after the Moroccans grabbed the lead after only four minutes in front of 43,102 fans at the Al-Thumama Stadium.
Canada captain and goalkeeper Milan Borjan raced off his line to clear an underhit backpass from Steven Vitoria but could only watch in horror as the ball fell to Morocco’s Ziyech.
The Chelsea star seized the opportunity ruthlessly, coolly lifting a finish over the stranded Borjan into the empty net for 1-0.
That early setback winded Canada, who struggled to gain any sort of a foothold against a rampant Morocco who were soon 2-0 up.
Right-back Achraf Hakimi’s long ball caught the Canadian defense napping and En-Nesyri darted in behind before smashing home a finish at the near post to beat Borjan.
Canada pulled a goal back on a rare foray forward five minutes from half-time when defender Sam Adekugbe skipped clear down the left and rifled in a low cross.
Defender Nayef Aguerd stuck a leg out and the ball deflected into the net past Morocco goalkeeper Yassine Bounou to make it 2-1.
Morocco thought they had restored their two-goal cushion in first-half stoppage time when En-Nesyri lashed home eight yards out only for the effort to be deemed offside.
Canada started the second half brightly, with Alphonso Davies jabbing a shot just wide after a promising attack.
But Morocco dropped deeper and Canada lacked the inventiveness to seriously threaten.
Their best chance of drawing level came from a setpiece on 71 minutes, when substitute Atiba Hutchinson’s header from a corner crashed off the underside of the crossbar and bounced off the goal-line.
Full-back Alistair Johnston failed to control the rebound and Morocco’s lead remained intact.
Canada captain Borjan almost got caught out again in another risky advance in injury time, but Davies was on hand to snuff out the danger before Morocco’s raucous fans erupted in celebration at the whistle.


Bounou back as Morocco eye World Cup last 16

Bounou back as Morocco eye World Cup last 16
Morocco's goalkeeper Yassine Bounou holds the ball during the Qatar 2022 World Cup Group F football match against Croatia. AFP
Updated 01 December 2022

Bounou back as Morocco eye World Cup last 16

Bounou back as Morocco eye World Cup last 16
  • Regragui brings back goalkeeper Yassine Bounou following his absence from Sunday’s win over Belgium in Group F

DOHA: Morocco coach Walid Regragui made two changes to his starting line-up as his team bid to clinch their place in the World Cup last 16 against already-eliminated Canada on Thursday.
Regragui brings back goalkeeper Yassine Bounou following his absence from Sunday’s win over Belgium in Group F.
He has also made an attacking change in midfield, with Abdelhamid Sabiri coming in for Selim Amallah.
Canada coach John Herdman has made four changes for his team’s final game of the tournament following defeats to Belgium and Croatia.
Mark-Anthony Kaye comes into midfield for his first start of the tournament while Sam Adekugbe, Junior Hoilett and Jonathan Osorio have also been named in the starting line-up.
Bayern Munich star Alphonso Davies has been pushed into a more advanced role as Canada aim to thwart Morocco’s qualification bid at the Al Thumama Stadium.
Morocco, who are second in Group F with four points, need only a draw to be assured of a place in the knockout rounds.
Teams:
Canada (3-4-3)
Milan Borjan; Alistair Johnston, Kamal Miller, Steven Vitoria; Sam Adekugbe, Mark-Anthony Kaye, Jonathan Osorio, Junior Hoilett; Alphonso Davies, Jonathan David, Tajon Buchanan
Coach: John Herdman (ENG)
Morocco (4-3-3)
Yassine Bounou; Achraf Hakimi, Nayef Aguerd, Romain Saiss (capt), Noussair Mazraoui; Sofyan Amrabat, Azzedine Ounahi, Abdelhamid Sabiri; Youssef En-Nesyri, Sofiane Boufal, Hakim Ziyech
Coach: Walid Regragui (MAR)
Referee: Raphael Claus (BRA)


I couldn’t sleep over World Cup injury fear: Pepe

I couldn’t sleep over World Cup injury fear: Pepe
Portugal's defender Pepe (front) kicks the ball in front of Uruguay's forward Darwin Nunez during the Qatar World Cup. AFP
Updated 01 December 2022

I couldn’t sleep over World Cup injury fear: Pepe

I couldn’t sleep over World Cup injury fear: Pepe
  • Pepe suffered a knee sprain in early October and made his return as a substitute for his club Porto in their final match before the World Cup on November 12
  • “I can’t say if it’s the last World Cup that I will play,” said Pepe

DOHA: Veteran Portugal defender Pepe admitted on Thursday he lost sleep before the World Cup because he was worried he would miss the tournament through injury.
The 39-year-old became the third-oldest outfield player to feature at a World Cup on Monday, starting for the first time in almost two months in the 2-0 win over Uruguay.
Pepe suffered a knee sprain in early October and made his return as a substitute for his club Porto in their final match before the World Cup on November 12.
“When I had the injury, I couldn’t sleep to be honest,” Pepe told a press conference, a day before his team play South Korea in their final Group H match.
“I couldn’t sleep because I wanted to recover as soon as possible and play in another World Cup, to contribute to my national team, to achieve victory.
“So the journey seemed very long, but it is now over.
“I have to look ahead, to look forward with objective of doing the best I can to secure a win.”
Portugal have already qualified for the last 16 but can guarantee top spot if they win or draw against South Korea on Friday.
Danilo Pereira started at center-back alongside Ruben Dias in the first game but fractured three ribs in training, allowing Pepe to step in and produce a strong display to shut out Uruguay.
He said even after 130 appearances he was still enjoying playing for his country.
“I can’t say if it’s the last World Cup that I will play,” said Pepe.
“I am here to enjoy the tournament. It’s a privilege to do what I love, to play football.”
Portugal have one of the stronger squads at the tournament, featuring Cristiano Ronaldo, Bruno Fernandes and Bernardo Silva.
However, Pepe believes that talent alone will not be enough to earn Portugal their first World Cup trophy.
“We have several ingredients, and if we don’t put all the ingredients together, as our coach has said, (it doesn’t work).
“If we prepare a salad, you can’t have tomato on one side and onion on the other side, you have to put them all together.
“We have a high-quality national team, but unless we work very hard, respect our opponents and do what our coach says, we won’t benefit so much from this quality.”


Belgium drop Eden Hazard for Croatia World Cup clash

Belgium drop Eden Hazard for Croatia World Cup clash
Belgium's forward Eden Hazard attends a press conference at Salwa Beach, southwest of Doha. AFP
Updated 01 December 2022

Belgium drop Eden Hazard for Croatia World Cup clash

Belgium drop Eden Hazard for Croatia World Cup clash
  • The Real Madrid forward was left out of the XI as one of four changes from the team which started the surprise 2-0 defeat by Morocco last weekend

DOHA: Belgium coach Roberto Martinez dropped captain Eden Hazard to the bench for his side’s crucial World Cup game against Croatia on Thursday.
The Real Madrid forward was left out of the XI as one of four changes from the team which started the surprise 2-0 defeat by Morocco last weekend.
The Belgians played down media reports of an altercation between senior players, including Hazard, earlier this week, with Martinez calling the rumors “fake news.”
Belgium have to beat 2018 runners-up Croatia in their final Group F match at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium to be sure of qualification to the last 16.
Martinez also gave in-form Brighton attacker Leandro Trossard and veteran winger Dries Mertens their first starts of the tournament.
Leander Dendoncker replaced the suspended Amadou Onana in midfield.
Striker Romelu Lukaku was again only fit enough for a place on the bench after making a brief substitute appearance against Morocco.
Croatia boss Zlatko Dalic named an unchanged starting line-up after the impressive 4-1 victory over Canada left them only needing to avoid defeat against Belgium to go through.
Morocco take on already-eliminated Canada simultaneously in the other last Group F game, knowing a point would secure a place in the knockout phase for the first time since 1986.
Starting line-ups:
Croatia (4-3-3)
Dominik Livakovic; Josip Juranovic, Dejan Lovren, Josko Gvardiol, Borna Sosa; Mateo Kovacic, Luka Modric, Marcelo Brozovic; Ivan Perisic, Andrej Kramaric, Marko Livaja
Coach: Zlatko Dalic (CRO)
Belgium (4-3-3)
Thibaut Courtois; Thomas Meunier, Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen, Timothy Castagne; Axel Witsel, Leander Dendoncker, Kevin De Bruyne (capt); Yannick Carrasco, Leandro Trossard, Dries Mertens
Coach: Roberto Martinez (ESP)
Referee: Anthony Taylor (ENG)