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NBA finds feet in Japan and India just as it stumbles in China

Highflying rookie Hachimura helps offset Hong Kong tweet controversy

TOKYO -- The National Basketball Association is winning and losing in Asia at the same time.

The U.S. pro league has spent decades cultivating the Chinese market, attracting hundreds of millions of fans with some help from a towering native son -- the 2.25-meter tall former Houston Rockets center Yao Ming. The future of the game in China, however, has been thrown into doubt after the general manager of those same Rockets tweeted in support of the protesters in Hong Kong.

The controversy has threatened to overshadow gains for the league elsewhere, particularly Japan, where Japanese superstar-in-the-making Rui Hachimura is drawing legions of new viewers.

This should be the NBA's moment to shine in Asia. The 2020 Tokyo Olympics are fast approaching, with some of the sport's biggest names set to represent their nations. Three Asian countries -- the Philippines, Indonesia, and Japan -- will also co-host the 2023 basketball World Cup, after China hosted this year's tournament.

But the league's uneven performance in the region -- there are also signs of trouble in the Philippines -- is creating headaches for Commissioner Adam Silver.

Silver was all smiles on Oct. 7, the eve of the first NBA games in Japan in 16 years. The commissioner, players and business partners marked the occasion with a reception at a Tokyo hotel. Among those on hand was one of the game's biggest Japanese promoters, Rakuten CEO Hiroshi Mikitani, whose e-commerce group became the league's exclusive broadcasting and streaming partner in 2017.

Rakuten CEO Hiroshi Mikitani, shown on an overhead screen, speaks to NBA fans at Saitama Super Arena on Oct. 8. The Toronto Raptors and Houston Rockets played two preseason games there. (Photo by Yujin Yanaseko)

"Our story began when I talked to Adam at a meeting," Mikitani said. "The NBA will find big opportunities in Japan."

It already has.

The Rockets and last season's champion Toronto Raptors played two preseason games on the outskirts of Tokyo on Oct. 8 and 10. Even though the games did not count, each one attracted more than 20,000 spectators.

Now that the season is underway in the U.S., Rakuten's streaming service is apparently thriving. The company does not disclose the number of subscriptions, but one estimate suggests it has increased by a factor of seven, compared with previous years.

Rakuten's new smartphone streaming app and increased NBA content have helped drum up interest. But the rookie Hachimura may be the biggest driving force. The first Japanese player ever selected in the first round of the NBA Draft has fit right in, averaging around 14 points and 6 rebounds per game through mid-December and providing a steady stream of highlight-reel dunks.

India, meanwhile, is another promising market. The country of over 1.3 billion may not have a player like Hachimura to rally behind, but it does have a link to a team in the form of Indian-born Vivek Ranadive, founder of Tibco Software and co-owner of the Sacramento Kings.

The NBA's Asian outreach has extended to India, where the league held preseason games this year between the Sacramento Kings and the Indiana Pacers. The Kings' co-owner was born in Mumbai.   © Reuters

The NBA has marched into the cricket-crazy country with a series of promotions. It opened an office in Mumbai. In 2017, Kevin Durant, widely regarded as one of the league's best players, came for a visit. And this year, days before the games in Japan, the Kings played the Indiana Pacers in Mumbai.

All of this is the culmination of years of effort to reach a global audience -- ever since the Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz played in Japan in 1990. That game was not only a first for the NBA but also the first regular-season game of any U.S. professional league outside North America. That same year, the NBA opened a Hong Kong office and began developing the Asian market in earnest.

Few Asian players have made the leap to the big show, but basketball has certainly become more of an international game. The world's playing population is estimated to exceed 450 million, surpassing even soccer, which is played by more than 260 million.

A huge portion of basketball players -- as many as 300 million -- are in China alone.

Untold numbers of them were inspired by Ming, who was picked first overall in the 2002 NBA draft. His stellar play over nearly a decade, until his career was cut short by injuries, is certainly one reason the Chinese market is now worth $4 billion for the NBA, according to Forbes magazine. Roughly 800 million Chinese are fans.

Or at least they were before politics entered the equation.

Rockets general manager Daryl Morey's tweet on Oct. 4 -- "Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong." -- unleashed a firestorm of criticism from the mainland.

Hong Kong protesters gather in October in support of Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, whose tweet backing the pro-democracy movement angered mainland Chinese fans.   © Reuters

Although a Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets game in Shanghai went ahead that month, at least 20 Chinese companies decided to stop selling NBA-related projects or pull their advertisements. Tencent, which has a five-year $1.5 billion contract to stream NBA games in China, temporarily suspended its streaming. State broadcaster CCTV also refused to show the games.

Silver found himself facing an awkward choice between supporting free expression and human rights, and defending multibillion-dollar business interests. The NBA is not alone in this: More recently, a tweet by Premier League soccer player Mesut Ozil against repression of Uighurs in China prompted similar outrage and even led to his removal from the Chinese version of a video game.

The NBA commissioner, for his part, quickly issued a statement saying his league "will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say." He later lamented the "dramatic" financial consequences and expressed regret that much of the NBA's progress in China had been "lost," though he continued to defend Morey's right to speak his mind.

It has been less-than-smooth sailing for the NBA in the Philippines as well -- a country The New York Times described earlier this year as a "hoops haven" where the sport is akin to "a religion."

In August 2018, the league announced on its Philippines Facebook page that it would close its merchandise stores in the country, which had been its largest outside the U.S. The NBA Cafe in Manila, which opened in 2014, also shut down.

As the NBA stumbles in two markets that have been central to its Asian strategy, the league can only hope its new fans in Japan and India pick up the slack.

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