Rakuten, Inc. is active in expanding its brand on a global scale, partnering with some of the world’s most famous sports teams like soccer powerhouse FC Barcelona and the reigning NBA champion Golden State Warriors this year.
Now, it has struck another big deal.
The NBA and the Japanese e-commerce and internet company announced on Tuesday a new partnership, making Rakuten the official broadcasting distributor of NBA games in Japan. The move could also hasten the return of NBA regular-season games to the country.
The length of the contract and financial figures of the deal were not disclosed.
Speaking at a news conference at Rakuten headquarters in Tokyo on Tuesday, NBA commissioner Adam Silver said that the league and company quickly established a partnership.
“Mickey (Rakuten founder and CEO Hiroshi Mikitani) and I first met in July, just this past summer at a (Allen & Company) conference in Sun Valley, Idaho,” said Silver, who flew in from Shanghai where he attended Sunday’s preseason game between the Warriors and Minnesota Timberwolves. “And we hit it off immediately, we became instant friends, and I think this must be an all-time record from the first meeting to concluding a business arrangement.”
With its exclusive domestic broadcasting deal, Rakuten will provide fans live coverage of games on its video-on-demand service (Rakuten TV), and NBA League Pass, the league’s live game subscription service.
To subscribe to either Rakuten TV or NBA League Pass, fans need a Rakuten ID this season, which tips off next Tuesday. Rakuten TV will provide nine games per week (one game each weekday and two apiece on Saturdays and Sundays with Japanese announcers)through its subscription package, while subscribers to NBA League Pass will have access to all games. Domestic fans must subscribe to NBA League Pass via NBA.com, the NBA App or Rakuten TV.
Television networks like NHK and WOWOW have aired NBA games in Japan for a few decades. Rakuten, which was founded in 1997, is negotiating with those entities to sublicense its broadcasting rights.
The global partnership also enables Rakuten, which was ranked No. 26 on Forbes’ annual World’s Most Innovative Companies list this year, to operate its own NBA online stores to sell select NBA merchandise, domestically and globally.
As part of the tie-up, Rakuten Viber, the company’s instant messaging platform, became an official platform for the league and its 30 clubs, providing league and team content to its more than 900 million users around the world.
“This relationship is very special for us because it would be the most comprehensive coverage of the NBA ever in Japan,” said Silver, who became commissioner when David Stern retired in 2014.
The 55-year-old added: “I think the vision Mickey laid out for us was so compelling, really from when we first met, and we believe that this could significantly change the course of our business in Japan and really create enormous energy and growth of basketball throughout this country.”
Mikitani, 52, said that Rakuten is not just looking at its own business growth through the partnership deal, but it also believes that sports have an intangible power that binds people together.
“Sports make people happier, and have the power to overcome the boundaries of countries,” said Mikitani, whose company owns the NPB’s Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles and the J. League’s Vissel Kobe. “It moves people and has unexplainable power. Whether you are an athlete or a fan, you get special emotions and bonds through sports. So we are not just looking at the business aspect but think that we can contribute to creating better societies.”
The partnership with Rakuten could also help bring NBA games back to Japan, Silver said.
Japan was the first country that hosted an NBA regular-season game outside North America, when the Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz opened the 1990-91 season in Tokyo, and was a regular site for games throughout the 1990s. The nation has hosted 12 NBA games, including in Yokohama, but none since 2003, when the Seattle SuperSonics (now called the Oklahoma City Thunder) and the Los Angeles Clippers opened their season at Saitama Super Arena.
Silver said that the league is “in the process of planning” to have an NBA game in Japan, though it would take a fair amount of planning. But he understands the impact of bringing NBA games back to Japan and playing games on Japanese soil is a “true priority” for the league and Rakuten.
“I think it’s important that people here have an opportunity to experience real live, actual NBA basketball,” Silver said. “And I think it’s also important for our teams that they have the opportunity to travel as well, because there’s a lot more to sports than just playing the game. It brings cultures together and I think even in terms of the U.S. and Japan relationship, it’s very important for goodwill.”
Moreover, Silver said, “first and foremost, Mickey’s passion for basketball and the NBA” made the partnership viable.
Bill Koenig, the NBA’s president of global content and media distribution, and Scott Levy, senior vice president and managing director of NBA Asia, joined Silver in Tokyo for the announcement.
Staff writer Ed Odeven contributed to this report.
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