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.”


Swiss loss sets up enticing rematch with Serbia 

Swiss loss sets up enticing rematch with Serbia 
Updated 29 November 2022

Swiss loss sets up enticing rematch with Serbia 

Swiss loss sets up enticing rematch with Serbia 
  • Group G game between Switzerland and Serbia has been one to keep an eye on
  • It's not just because of the talented players on both teams, but because of the political tensions they brought on the field

DOHA: Switzerland’s loss made their upcoming World Cup rematch all the more enticing, and with a lot more on the line.

Ever since the match schedule was made in April, the Group G game between Switzerland and Serbia has been one to keep an eye on. Not just because of the talented players on both teams, but because of the political tensions they brought on the field when they met at the last World Cup.

Four years ago in Russia, Switzerland captain Granit Xhaka celebrated his goal against Serbia by making a double-headed eagle with his hands — thumbs representing the heads of the two eagles, fingers fanned to look like feathers. The figure is considered to be an Albanian nationalist symbol.

Xherdan Shaqiri added another goal in the final minute of the game, and did the same thing with his hands as the Swiss won 2-1 in the second of the three group matches.

Xhaka and Shaqiri both have ethnic Albanian heritage and family ties to Kosovo. They were teenagers growing up in Switzerland when Kosovo declared independence from Serbia, something the Serbs still don’t recognize 14 years later.

Both players were fined by FIFA during the tournament, and the government of Albania opened a bank account for people to contribute toward paying the 10,000 Swiss franc ($10,500) penalties.

On Friday, only one of the two teams will be able to advance to the round of 16 in Qatar. Brazil, who beat the Swiss 1-0 on Monday and defeated Serbia 2-0 last Thursday, have already assured themselves of a spot in the knockout round.

The Swiss likely need only a draw at Stadium 974, and Shaqiri should be available to play after sitting out the match against Brazil with a muscle injury.

Xhaka, now 30 and a mature leader for his country, brushed aside the controversial match from four years ago.

“(There’s) nothing in the history behind these two games,” the Arsenal midfielder said. “We are Switzerland, they are Serbia, that’s it. We are here to play football — them, us as well.”

Still, the Serbian delegation at this year’s World Cup has already made the politics of Kosovo an issue.

Serbia’s locker room ahead of their opening game against Brazil displayed a national flag with territory that included Kosovo and the slogan “No Surrender.” FIFA opened a disciplinary case against the Serbian soccer federation on Saturday.

The Kosovo Soccer Federation formally complained to FIFA after a photograph circulated and the country’s sports minister, Hajjrulla Ceku, described the image as using the World Cup to promote “hateful, xenophobic and genocidal messages.”

The Swiss advanced to the round of 16 in 2018 after a draw with Costa Rica in their final group match, while the Serbs were eliminated after losing to Brazil. This time, the teams go head-to-head in their final group game.

“Of course, the history is the history,” said Switzerland goalkeeper Yann Sommer, who also played against Serbia four years ago in Kaliningrad. “But in this moment it will be the game that is important.

“We know this game already,” Sommer added. “We had it in Russia.”


Juventus board of directors and president Agnelli resign

Juventus board of directors and president Agnelli resign
Updated 29 November 2022

Juventus board of directors and president Agnelli resign

Juventus board of directors and president Agnelli resign
  • The stunning move follows a preliminary investigation by the Turin Public Prosecutor’s Office into fraudulent accounting

TURIN, Italy: Juventus’ board of directors and president Andrea Agnelli resigned en masse on Monday.

The stunning move follows a preliminary investigation by the Turin Public Prosecutor’s Office into fraudulent accounting, of alleged hidden payments to players.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Juventus said 23 players agreed to reduce their salary for four months to help the club through the crisis. But its claimed the players gave up only one month’s salary.

A shareholders meeting rescheduled for Dec. 27 was postponed again to Jan. 18 to choose a new board.
 


Tiger Woods withdraws from his tournament with foot injury

Tiger Woods withdraws from his tournament with foot injury
Updated 29 November 2022

Tiger Woods withdraws from his tournament with foot injury

Tiger Woods withdraws from his tournament with foot injury
  • The Hero World Challenge was to be the start of a December in golf ruled by Woods

NASSAU, Bahamas: Tiger Woods was out before he was officially back, withdrawing Monday from his Hero World Challenge with plantar fasciitis in his right foot.

The Hero World Challenge was to be the start of a December in golf ruled by Woods, who also has a made-for-television match next weekend, followed by the PNC Championship with his 13-year-old son on Dec. 17-18.

Two of those are still on his schedule. The foot injury was a surprise and is a big setback for those who haven’t seen Woods play since July at St. Andrews. The Hero World Challenge has network coverage on NBC for the weekend.

“In preparation and practice for this week’s Hero World Challenge, I’ve developed plantar fasciitis in my right foot, which is making it difficult to walk,” Woods said on Twitter. “After consulting with my doctors and trainers, I have decided to withdraw this week and focus on my hosting duties. My plan is still to compete in The Match and the PNC Championship.”

The Match is Dec. 10 with Rory McIlroy as his partner competing in a 12-hole match against Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas.

Woods has played only three tournaments this year because of a right leg weakened by a February 2021 car crash outside Los Angeles that shattered so many bones that Woods said doctors contemplated amputation.

A year ago in the Bahamas, he hit drivers on the back end of the range at Albany Golf Club, sparking speculation he might return. He played the PNC Championship with son Charlie and they finished second by one shot.

Woods then played the Masters, where he finished all four rounds at Augusta National, a tough walk with healthy legs. He made the cut in the PGA Championship at Southern Hills, only to withdraw after the third round.

His last appearance was the British Open at St. Andrews, where he missed the cut.

Woods has said he would have a limited schedule going forward, and this year was an example of what to expect. The World Challenge would have been one of the easier walks on the flat terrain of Albany.

The 20-man field features 15 of the top 20 players in the world. Woods was replaced by Austria-born Sepp Straka, who went to Georgia. Earlier, Hideki Matsuyama withdrew with injury and was replaced by Corey Conners.

Woods is No. 1,277 in the world ranking and is exempt as the tournament host. Being replaced by Straka (No. 29) means the entire 20-man field is among the top 33 in the ranking. The strength of field increases even as TV ratings are sure to take a hit.


Fernandes double sends Portugal into World Cup knock-outs

Fernandes double sends Portugal into World Cup knock-outs
Updated 29 November 2022

Fernandes double sends Portugal into World Cup knock-outs

Fernandes double sends Portugal into World Cup knock-outs
  • Manchester United midfielder Bruno Fernandes scored a cross-cum-shot nine minutes into the second half and then added an injury-time penalty
  • The match also featured the first pitch invader of the Qatar tournament — the man carried messages of support for Ukraine and Iranian women and had a rainbow flag

DOHA: Bruno Fernandes scored twice to give Portugal a 2-0 victory over Uruguay on Monday and send them into the knock-out stages of the World Cup alongside France and Brazil.
The Manchester United midfielder scored a cross-cum-shot nine minutes into the second half and then added an injury-time penalty following a handball by Jose Maria Gimenez.
The match at Doha’s spectacular 89,000-capacity Lusail Stadium also featured the first pitch invader of the Qatar tournament — the man carried messages of support for Ukraine and Iranian women and had a rainbow flag.
With Portugal already through, Uruguay must now beat Ghana in their final Group H match to stand any chance of also progressing.
Both sides made three changes from their opening matches, with Portugal bringing in veteran Pepe for the injured Danilo Pereira, who suffered cracked ribs in training.
Pepe became the third-oldest outfield player in World Cup history.
Portugal dominated the first half, hogging the ball and creating several chances, but without ever testing Uruguay goalkeeper Sergio Rochet.
Uruguay’s forward, Edinson Cavani and Darwin Nunez were starved of the ball but the South Americans still had the best opportunity of the first period.
Rodrigo Bentancur picked the ball up in his own half and surged forward, slipping between two defenders to find himself one-on-one with goalkeeper Diogo Costa, who spread himself well to save the midfielder’s shot.
Portugal captain Cristiano Ronaldo was largely anonymous in the first 45 minutes but did delight fans with a shoulder pass to pick out William Carvalho, who volleyed over.
The main drama came after the break.
Moments after a pitch invader ran onto the pitch carrying an LGBTQ rainbow flag and with a message supporting Ukraine and Iranian women on his T-shirt, only to be spectacularly tackled by security, Portugal went in front.
Fernandes created space for himself on the left and curled an inswinging cross into the mixer, with Ronaldo breaking the offside trap to attempt a glancing header.
As the ball nestled in the goal, Ronaldo wheeled away in celebration but FIFA decided he had not touched the ball, thus denying him a ninth World Cup goal, which would have put him level with Portuguese great Eusebio.
Uruguay coach Diego Alonso threw on forward Maxi Gomez and Luis Suarez as the South Americans belatedly began to exert some pressure, and both came close to an equalizer.
Gomez’s rasping drive from 20 yards came back off the post with Costa beaten, while Suarez hit the side netting from close range.
With the 90 minutes almost up, Fernandes nutmegged Gimenez, whose trailing hand diverted the ball away from the midfielder and prevented him from finding himself one-on-one with Rochet.
Iranian referee Alireza Faghani awarded the spot-kick after a VAR check and Fernandes sent Rochet the wrong way after his signature hop, skip run-up.
He then almost completed a hat-trick but hit the post from 20 yards.


Kudus double for Ghana sinks South Korea 3-2

Kudus double for Ghana sinks South Korea 3-2
Updated 28 November 2022

Kudus double for Ghana sinks South Korea 3-2

Kudus double for Ghana sinks South Korea 3-2
  • Despite their efforts, South Korea look likely to crash out of the tournament at the group stage for the third straight World Cup

DOHA: Mohammed Kudus scored twice as Ghana beat South Korea 3-2 in a pulsating World Cup encounter on Monday to keep their World Cup hopes alive and leave Paulo Bento’s side facing an early exit.

Mohammed Salisu opened the scoring against the run of play midway through the first half at Education City Stadium and Ajax midfielder Kudus doubled the Black Stars’ lead.

But the Asian side, who looked toothless in the first half, roared back after the break, pulling level through a quickfire double from forward Cho Gue-sung either side of the hour mark.

Ghana looked shell-shocked as the Korean fans celebrated wildly but they were back in front in the 68th minute when Kudus finished calmly at the back post after Iñaki Williams failed to connect with a cross from the left.

The result takes Ghana into second in Group H on three points.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal will have six points and secure qualification for the last 16 if they beat Uruguay in the later kickoff in Qatar.

Despite their efforts, South Korea look likely to crash out of the tournament at the group stage for the third straight World Cup.

The Asian side, captained by Son Heung-min, were quicker to settle, forcing a succession of corners as they dominated possession but they were unable to fashion a shot on target in the entire first half.

Son looked uncomfortable in the black face mask he is wearing after having surgery for a facial injury he suffered while playing for Spurs, constantly readjusting it.

Ghana, who lost their opener 3-2 to Portugal, struggled to gain a foothold in the game.

But the match totally changed complexion in the 24th minute when the impressive Jordan Ayew, playing down the left for Ghana, swung in a cross following a free kick.

South Korea failed to clear and Southampton center-back Salisu finished with his left foot, sparking wild scenes of celebration among the Ghana fans decked out in red, white and green.

The goal revitalized the African nation, who reached the quarterfinals in 2010, with South Korea struggling to deal with their physicality and direct approach.

Now playing with flair and confidence, Ghana poured forward and doubled their lead in the 34th minute when Kudus powered a header home after a pin-point Jordan Ayew cross from the left.

Captain Andre Ayew — the brother of Jordan — called his men into a team huddle on the pitch and the players got soaked by the sprinklers before they went off for their halftime beak.

The Koreans at last produced an effort on target in the 53rd minute, when goalkeeper Lawrence Ati Zigi punched away a header from Cho.

But the Korean found the net just minutes later, heading home a cross from substitute Lee Kang-in, who had just been brought on by Bento.

And they were level just three minutes later when Cho headed home Kim Jin-su’s ball from the left, sparking scenes of delirium among the Korean fans.

Now Ghana were rocking but they restored their lead midway through the second half through Kudus.

South Korea came back again. Zigi was forced into a scrambling save to push away a free kick while Salisu cleared off the line.

The fourth official held up a board for 10 minutes of added time. South Korea continued to pour forward but they could not find the net and a number of their players collapsed to the turf at the final whistle.

Bento was sent off for protesting at the end of the match.