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

  • 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.”

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Kane extends World Cup goal drought but equals Beckham feat

Updated 30 November 2022

Kane extends World Cup goal drought but equals Beckham feat

  • Against a Wales team broken by goals from Marcus Rashford and Phil Foden, Kane was looking to finally get off the mark in Qatar
  • Rashford added a third of the match and his third of the tournament

DOHA: For Harry Kane, the wait for a first goal at this World Cup goes on.
Substituted after 58 minutes of England’s 3-0 win against Wales on Tuesday, he embraced his replacement Callum Wilson and made his way to the bench to watch the remainder of the game.
England coach Gareth Southgate clearly thought the job was done and qualification to the knockout stage secured.
Kane, despite shaking hands with his coach, might not have shared that view.
For a man who is famously reluctant to sit out any opportunity to add to his scoring record, it was likely a frustrating watch from the sidelines at Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium.
Against a Wales team broken by goals from Marcus Rashford and Phil Foden, Kane was looking to finally get off the mark in Qatar. Instead, Rashford added a third of the match and his third of the tournament.
“He’s enjoying his football, but for any forward you want to be scoring goals,” Rashford said.
England scored nine goals as they topped Group B, but none came from their most prolific forward.
Yet Kane, who was the Golden Boot winner at the World Cup in Russia four years ago and is two short of Wayne Rooney’s all-time England record of 53 goals, has still made a notable contribution.
Providing the cross for Foden’s second-half strike, he became England’s first player to register three assists at a World Cup since David Beckham in 2002. He can add to that total when England play Senegal in the round of 16 on Sunday.
“You need goals from all areas, and it is a problem for opposition teams if the threat is coming from other areas of the pitch,” Southgate said. “Across the three games pretty much all of our forward line has got off the mark — if not with goals then with important, quality assists and that’s a good place for the forward to be. They want to have that confidence.”
England’s captain has always been a creator as well as a finisher and his assist statistics in his opening three games — also setting up goals for Raheem Sterling and Rashford against Iran — is evidence of just how complete a forward he is.
It also underlines his enduring importance to England.
Kane hurt his ankle and foot in the opening match against Iran, but Southgate has started the 29-year-old striker in all three matches.
“It is competition for places, which is what we need and people have to deliver,” Southgate said.
Goals aren’t a particular concern for England, with Rashford, Bukayo Saka (two), Sterling, Jack Grealish and Jude Bellingham all scoring so far.
Rashford, who missed a penalty in England’s shootout loss to Italy in the European Championship final last year, is the tournament’s co-leading scorer alongside Kylian Mbappé, Cody Gakpo and Enner Valencia.
“In a long career, you’re always going to have ups and you always will have downs and it’s all about how you bounce back from them,” Manchester United and England teammate Harry Maguire said after the Wales match. “I can’t speak highly enough about Marcus. He’s a wonderful man and he’s a great player and I think tonight again he’s shown that he belongs on this stage.”


Historic win over world champions not enough to see Tunisia progress

Updated 30 November 2022

Historic win over world champions not enough to see Tunisia progress

  • Australia’s 1-0 victory over Denmark means North African nation yet to reach the knockout stages of World Cup

DOHA: A stunning goal from Wahbi Khazri may have been enough to give the Carthage Eagles a heroic 1-0 victory over reigning champions France on Wednesday, but it was not enough to send the team into the latter stages of the World Cup for the first time.

While the win, just the third in total at the competition and a first against European opposition, was something to celebrate, Australia’s win over Denmark by the same scoreline means that Tunisia are heading home.

That was always the danger. Tunisia, bottom of the group before kickoff with just one point, needed nothing less than a win to have a chance of finally making it to the latter stages, at the sixth time of asking.

Even victory was not going to be a guarantee of progress, however, as there was still the other game in the group to contend with.

An Australian victory would send the Socceroos through. As well as needing to win, Tunisia wanted the other two to draw. The promised land always seemed far away.

Coach Jalel Kadri promised that he would resign if the team failed to progress, but he will not need an extended period of reflection to know that his team’s dreams were dashed by lack of firepower.

It had been obvious all through the competition. The opening 0-0 draw with Denmark was a fine, battling performance against a team ranked 10th in the world. It provided a solid platform for the second, and on paper most winnable, game against Australia.

Falling behind to a fine header from Mitchell Duke midway through the first half, Tunisia were unable to penetrate the defense of the hardworking Socceroos, and while the display was decent, there was a lack of bite in the final third.

That failure to score ultimately cost Tunisia their dream as it meant that their destiny was in the hands of others.

The effort was certainly there against France. After the disappointment of Saturday’s defeat, it was a revitalized version of Tunisia that tore at Les Bleus from the start.

A free-kick in the eighth minute was swung in by Khazri and guided home acrobatically by Nader Ghandri, only for the player to be correctly judged offside.

It was nevertheless encouraging for the North Africans and a warning for the French who, already through, made nine changes from their 2-1 win over Denmark.

Tunisia continued to make most of the running at Education City Stadium, even in the second half. The North Africans had won just two previous games at the World Cup but never stopped working hard in trying to make it three.

The goal duly arrived just before the hour thanks to Khazri, who ran at a static French defense before striking the ball past stand-in goalkeeper Steve Mandanda.

It was the last act of the game for the exhausted star, who was then taken off, but he had given his team something to defend.

And yet, within moments, the news came through that Australia had taken the lead against Denmark and retaken second place in the group.

If that was not enough, Kylian Mbappe entered the fray for France and started running at the tiring Tunisian defense.

Tunisia held on despite a late strike from Antoine Greizmann, which was ruled out by VAR.

But by time it was chalked off, Australia had advanced and Tunisia denied.

The wait for the knockout stages will continue until 2026 at least, but if a goalscorer can be found in the meantime, the country may then finally make the promised land.


Pulisic ‘day-to-day’ after Iran World Cup injury: US Soccer

Updated 30 November 2022

Pulisic ‘day-to-day’ after Iran World Cup injury: US Soccer

  • The Chelsea forward, who was injured while scoring the only goal in the 1-0 win over Iran, was regarded as "day-to-day" fitness-wise
  • Pulisic was taken to hospital as a precaution following the incident that led to his injury

DOHA: Christian Pulisic suffered a “pelvic contusion” during the USA’s World Cup victory over Iran but has vowed to be fit for his team’s last 16 clash with the Netherlands.
A US Soccer spokesperson said in a statement on Wednesday that the Chelsea forward, who was injured while scoring the only goal in the 1-0 win over Iran, was regarded as “day-to-day” fitness-wise.
“USMNT forward Christian Pulisic has been diagnosed with a pelvic contusion and his status is day-to-day,” US Soccer said.
Pulisic was taken to hospital as a precaution following the incident that led to his injury but was back at the US team hotel to greet his team-mates following the Group B win on Tuesday.
In a photo posted on social media on Tuesday, Pulisic said he expected to play against the Netherlands on Saturday, when the Americans will attempt to reach the quarter-finals.
“I’ll be ready for Saturday, don’t worry,” a jubilant Pulisic wrote.
US midfielder Weston McKennie said on Tuesday that Pulisic had indicated he would be fit to start against the Dutch.
“I sent him a text and checked on him, and he said, ‘Best believe I’ll be ready’,” said McKennie.
Pulisic’s winner against the Iranians came as he threw his body into a tangle of defenders to jab home Sergino Dest’s headed cross.
“Obviously we’re very thankful that he threw his body there,” McKennie said.
“It was a heart-drop sinking moment, but we got it done and we’re excited to still be here.”


Iran World Cup loss sparks despair — and joy from regime critics

Updated 30 November 2022

Iran World Cup loss sparks despair — and joy from regime critics

  • Iranian gaming journalist Saeed Zafarany: ‘Who would’ve ever thought I’d jump three meters and celebrate America’s goal!’
  • Danish journalist Rasmus Tantholdt said that he was briefly detained by Qatari security forces after filming pro-regime fans attacking supporters of the Iranian protest movement

NICOSIA: For Iranians, their football team’s World Cup loss against the United States was cause for either sadness or exuberant joy, depending on where they stand on a two-month-old protest movement.
Caught between the clerical regime and calls to show solidarity with protesters, the national team pressed near-relentlessly in the second half on Tuesday night but were unable to cancel out a 38th minute opener by the US, resulting in an early exit.
That prompted the extraordinary spectacle of Iranians cheering a defeat inflicted by the Islamic republic’s arch-enemy often labelled the “Great Satan.”
“Who would’ve ever thought I’d jump three meters and celebrate America’s goal!” tweeted Iranian gaming journalist Saeed Zafarany.
Inside Iran, celebrations were especially marked in western Kurdistan province, the cradle of a movement sparked by the death of young Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini in morality police custody after her arrest for allegedly infringing the nation’s strict dress code for women.
A video shared online by Kurdish activist Kaveh Ghoreishi showed a Sanandaj city neighborhood at night with sounds of cheering and horns blaring after the United States scored.
That goal also prompted joy in Amini’s hometown of Saqez, according to the London-based news website Iran Wire, which published images showing fireworks and sounds of people cheering.
Protesters also set off fireworks in Mahabad, Kurdistan, following Iran’s loss, according to videos shared online, while Norway-based Hengaw human rights group also reported celebrations there and in the city of Marivan.
The scenes of joy were not confined to Kurdistan province, reflecting the nationwide nature of the protest movement.
Videos on social media showed citizens celebrating in the capital Tehran and Ardabil, Mashhad, Kerman and Zahedan — many with people dancing and cheering in the streets amid long traffic jams.
It was a very different story in a hall in Tehran, where hundreds gathered to unreservedly cheer on their team — including women, in a country where they often have difficulty accessing stadiums.
“I’m so sad that Iran couldn’t defeat the USA but anyway we are proud of our national team and its players,” said Ali, a retiree. “They did their best and we are not angry with them.”
In Qatar itself, supporters of the US and Iran mingled cordially before the crunch game.
Crowds with the Stars and Stripes and the red, green and white colors of Iran’s flag talked largely freely as they entered Al Thumama Stadium.
Inside the ground, female Iranian fans sat — and often stood — proudly cheering their team without headscarves, some with the national flag daubed on their faces.
Iran’s players, after refusing to sing the national anthem for their opening game against England in a gesture of solidarity with the protests, reversed that stance for their second game with Wales, resulting in opprobrium in some quarters.
Players again voiced the anthem, albeit with little enthusiasm, for what turned out to be Iran’s final game.
They now go home to a country that remains on edge, as authorities crack down on the mainly peaceful protests that have become the biggest challenge to the regime since its birth in 1979.
After Iran’s victory over Wales, the judiciary announced the release of more than 1,100 detainees, including protesters, among them former national goalkeeper Parviz Boroumand.
Emblematic of the divisions, an AFP video showed scuffles breaking out among pro- and anti-regime Iranians outside the stadium after the US match.
The footage showed a woman wearing a T-shirt with the protest slogan “Woman, life, freedom” being harassed by Iranian men as she gave a televised interview.
A Danish journalist said he was briefly detained after filming pro-regime fans attacking supporters of the Iranian protest movement.
Rasmus Tantholdt of TV2 Denmark tweeted that Qatari security forces had instructed him to erase the footage but he refused to do so.
Iranian supporters have had run-ins with security for sporting clothing bearing images of Amini or the words “Woman, life, freedom” in Qatar which, unlike most other Gulf states, maintains cordial relations with Tehran.
Iran says more than 300 people have been killed since the protests erupted, but Oslo-based group Iran Human Rights says at least 448 people have been killed by the security forces in the ongoing protest crackdown.


John Herdman wants to remain as Canada coach through 2026

Updated 30 November 2022

John Herdman wants to remain as Canada coach through 2026

  • "You'll not find one as passionate who wants to take the country to that next level,” Herdman said
  • In the World Cup for the first time since 1986, Canada lost their opening match 1-0 despite outplaying Belgium

DOHA: John Herdman wants to remain as Canada’s coach through the 2026 World Cup in North America after leading the nation to their return to soccer’s top tournament.
“Eleven years of work in this country and I’ve been pioneering for a long period of time, and you’ll not find anyone as passionate as I am about this program or about these players or about this staff,” Herdman said Wednesday.
“You’ll not find one as passionate who wants to take the country to that next level. And you’ll not meet anyone that’s experienced this moment with this team — and the learning that I’ll take from this to take into the next one.”
In the World Cup for the first time since 1986, Canada lost their opening match 1-0 despite outplaying Belgium, then took a second-minute lead against Croatia before losing 4-1 and getting eliminated. The Canadians close against Morocco on Thursday.
Herdman, a 47-year-old from Britain, coached New Zealand’s women’s team from 2006-11 and Canada’s women from 2011-18, winning Olympic bronze medals in 2012 and 2016.
He took over the Canadian men in 2018 and led them to first place in qualifying in North and Central America and the Caribbean.
Herdman was especially proud of the way Canada played against Belgium.
“Thierry Henry told me this team played them off the park,” Herdman said of the former French star, now an assistant to Belgium coach Roberto Martinez. “I’ll take that, because if that’s our foundation, we got a great four years ahead, and I can’t wait to get after it.”
Herdman sees part of the team’s mission as increasing the sport’s prominence in Canada. Alphonso Davies’ goal was Canada’s first in five World Cup games, and Herdman hopes the nation will get their first win against Morocco, which are contending for a spot in the knockout stage.
Canada will co-host the 2026 World Cup with the United States and Mexico, staging games in Toronto and Vancouver, British Columbia. Canadian soccer officials hope this year’s World Cup and the build-up to the next spark increased youth interest in the sport.
“It’s those kids and those schools that will keep believing that Canada is a football country,” Herdman said, “because they’ve seen that Belgium game, they’ve seen Davies score against Croatia and they know we are — I nearly said it, yeah, we’re a football country. We’re there. And you can’t deny that. No one can.”