Ten years ago, the NBA was struggling to fill its arenas. Nowadays, the league is filling arenas 6,000 miles away.
Friday, at Metropolitan Gymnasium, the Jazz open the NBA season against the Phoenix Suns in a precedent-setting matchup. The game (Friday at 9 p.m. MDT on Channel 13), is sold out. So is Game 2 the next day.If things go according to plan, the league will take Japan like Sony took America. There will be as many T-shirts that say "NBA action. It's faaaaantastic!" as there are Mazda's in the U.S.
The Jazz-Suns game in Japan is no marketing accident, but part of a master plan to do what Dave Checketts, NBA V.P. for development, hopes will make the league the world leader in popularity and merchandising.
"By the end of the decade we want to be the No. 1 global sport," said Checketts, the former Utah Jazz president.
Right now, there's considerable work to be done in Japan. Checketts said a recent study showed basketball ranks 10th in terms of interest among the Japanese. "This is all new to them," he said.
Apparently so. At a Thursday press conference, a Japanese journalist asked Karl Malone about what he called "dunk-shooting."
"We call those slam-dunks in the states," said the Mailman.
Ignorance of the game, however, hasn't stopped the league from jumping into Tokyo in a big way. Within 72-hours after the Suns-Jazz games were announced, the 10,000-seat Metropolitan Gymnasium was sold out - at an average price of $80 per ticket.
"This is a very wealthy country," said Checketts. "Also, this is an American event, so they'll come."
The NBA's theory is that what the Japanese don't know, they'll teach them. Promoters plastered 10-foot posters of Karl Malone going in for a hammer dunk all over the city. Julius Erving was in town this week for a coaching clinic and a session with Japanese youth. Jazz players John Stockton, Mark Eaton and Darrell Griffith appeared at a downtown department store, where the league had set up a huge display that included a place on the roof with miniature baskets where fans could practice shooting. The store, Ise-tan, draws about 300,000 people on an average weekend.
"Nobody will know who the players are, but they're all going to line up for autographs," said Checketts.
NBA games are already shown on a delayed basis in Tokyo.
Still, Checketts says there is much to teach the Japanese about the American game. Facilities are practically non-existent. Building new gyms doesn't look promising, at least not in Tokyo. For a prime one-third acre lot, the land can cost as much as $3 million.
What few basketball facilities the country has aren't good. The NBA had to ship over a playing court and basketball standards for the game after learning that the existing hardwood floor was placed directly over concrete.
"If we were smart, we'd ship about a million backboards over here," said Checketts.
Poor facilities notwithstanding, the NBA is going all out in its efforts to blitz the Land of the Rising Sun with visions of monster dunks and three-pointers. In past years, a Japanese black market entrepeneur could come to the U.S., buy an NBA jacket for $75, and sell it for maybe $225 in Japan. That kind of business should come to a quick end. Checketts said very soon there will be official NBA outlets selling goods.
The league ordered up $400,000 worth of merchandise for this week's event.
"Here they do respond to the law, once it's a law," said Checketts.
But this weekend's games aren't all about Japan. The league hopes to one day have a worldwide merchandising system. Other plans include televising games in more countries, and having affiliate teams in Europe, South America and the Orient. If this experience works well, expect two other NBA teams to open the season in a foreign country next year. In fact, Commissioner David Stern was in China last week, working on possibilities there.
"At some point we could maybe have every team opening the season in a different country," said Checketts. From there, it could get even bigger.
Within five years NBA officials hope that a return to Japan would mean selling out the 54,000-seat Egg Dome, where football games are played. They envision prime time NBA on television, NBA shops everywhere.
"We're the most exportable sport in the world," said Checketts. "All we need to send are a few players and a ball."