With big, enthusiastic crowds greeting the Warriors in China last week, the Bay Area’s once-lowly NBA team is starting to rival the sports world’s best-known franchises. Basketball’s worldwide popularity is rising toward soccer-like heights. If the Warriors can maintain their upbeat, multicultural brand — oh, and keep winning — they will tap into a global pool of loyal fans.
This season, the team will sport the name of a corporate sponsor of FC Barcelona — Japanese technology giant Rakuten — on their uniforms. It’s a stamp of credibility because Barça is the only other team Rakuten is sponsoring outside of Japan, and it puts Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant in a league with superstars Lionel Messi and Neymar.
“It’s amazing how the Warriors have come so far so quickly,” said Daniel Rascher, a sports management professor at the University of San Francisco, who said the Rakuten deal reflected the team’s rapid rise.
The Warriors returned Sunday night from a weeklong trip to China, where they’ve become the most popular NBA team. But the star power of Curry, Durant and Klay Thompson, plus two NBA championships in the three dominating years, has also attracted passionate fans in other countries.
The Warriors have “become a part of my life,” said Lee Hyun Min, 29, one of about 100 members of a Warriors fan club in Seoul. Club members don team gear and gather at a local pub to watch games on TV, even with the 16-hour time difference.
“Even my mom likes to watch Warriors games,” Lee said in an email. “Korean fans get energy from Warriors games.”
The Warriors are also huge in the Philippines, home to Asia’s oldest pro basketball league, the Philippine Basketball Association. About 44 percent of Golden State’s 11 million Facebook followers are in the Philippines, the most from any one country, according to Chip Bowers, Warriors chief marketing officer, who said the team would announce a partnership with the Philippines in a couple of months.
Warriors players have fanned out across the world in the off season. In July, Durant traveled to India and helped set a Guinness World Record by treating 3,459 children to the largest basketball lesson ever, although some participated by satellite feed. (In a subsequent faux pas, Durant had to apologize for calling India “20 years behind in terms of knowledge and experience.”)
The team’s courting of international fans is part of a larger strategy to transform the franchise from a regional basketball team into an entertainment and media juggernaut as it builds a $1 billion arena in San Francisco.
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That strategy has worked for FC Barcelona, a multiple-sport business that uses digital and social media to market itself worldwide. The Spanish club’s revenue totaled $770 million in 12 months, the highest in pro-sports history, according to a Forbes magazine report in July.
So far, Bowers said, the Warriors’ number of digital engagements — a measure of online interactions with fans through websites, social media and other technologies — doubled in the past year, putting the team just behind FC Barcelona and fellow soccer powerhouses Real Madrid and Manchester United.
“We are a solid fourth, if not close to third in the world now,” Bowers said. “There isn’t another NBA team that’s even close.” He also said the Warriors rank fifth in digital engagement behind North American sports media companies like ESPN, Bleacher Report, the NBA and the NFL.
That reach caught the eye of Rakuten, a 20-year-old e-commerce firm often compared with Amazon. The company, which runs the digital coupon site Ebates, Kobo e-books, an online bank and messaging app Viber, isn’t well-known in the U.S. but is working to become a household name around the world. It opened a North American headquarters in San Mateo three years ago and also has offices in San Francisco.
On Sept. 12, Rakuten announced a three-year, $20 million-per-year deal to add a small badge with the company’s logo on the upper left of Warriors jerseys starting this season. The deal, which included renaming the team’s Oakland practice facility the Rakuten Performance Center, was worth twice as much as the second-biggest uniform patch deal in the NBA, which began allowing such ads this season.
“The most expensive real estate in the Bay Area is a 2-by-2-inch square,” said Rascher of USF.
Still, it’s modest compared with Rakuten’s four-year, $235 million deal to replace Qatar Airways across FC Barcelona’s uniforms.
“We have a history of using sports as a way to extend the brand and deliver a message,” said Ebates CEO Amit Patel, who represents Rakuten in the U.S. “We’re very mindful of who we align ourselves with. In Barcelona and in the Warriors, you see a similar interest in terms of … how they play the game.”
The Warriors can’t claim a place at the ultra-elite level just yet. Golden State ranks only 20th on Forbes’ annual list of most valuable sports franchises, although its $2.6 billion value is a 37 percent increase from last year. The Dallas Cowboys topped the list at $4.2 billion, followed by the New York Yankees, Manchester United, Barcelona and Real Madrid. The San Francisco 49ers and the San Francisco Giants are also ahead of the Warriors, as are the rival Los Angeles Lakers.
To truly become a global franchise, of course, the Warriors must keep winning. If they don’t, they risk replaying the fate of the Chicago Bulls, one of the great dynasties of the 1990s with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, but which posted a .500 record last season.
The Warriors may have won two NBA championships in three years, but they are still fairly new as a powerhouse. Teams like Barcelona and the Yankees “have been on legacy status for decades,” said Whitney Wagoner, director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon.
Sustaining a dynasty takes more than a bigger revenue stream, said Joris Drayer, an associate professor of sports and recreation management at Temple University. The NBA’s salary cap and player draft system are created to maintain competitive balance, which could eventually bring the Warriors back to Earth. European soccer clubs such as FC Barcelona and Manchester United do not have a salary cap or a draft that allows the weaker teams to choose players first.
“At some point, this Warriors team will either split up or simply get old,” Drayer said in an email.
If the team does stay on top, it will benefit from the growing popularity of basketball around the world. Like soccer, the sport is becoming embedded in the cultures of other countries.
“If you walk around the streets of Shanghai, you will see pickup street basketball games and you’ll feel like you are in Brooklyn, New York,” Wagoner said. “It is street ball, it is pickup games, it is swagger, with music, with fashion, with self expression.” Some kids wear NBA jerseys and shoes, embracing the “baller lifestyle.”
The Warriors themselves are international: Zaza Pachulia went home to Republic of Georgia capital Tbilisi to meet the country’s president, who awarded the center an Order of Honor as the first native Georgian to win an NBA title.
The Bay Area’s multiculturalism and the team’s obvious joy in being together also play well.
Lee, in South Korea, began following the NBA 15 years ago and became an Allen Iverson fan. But he loves the Curry-led Warriors, who have that “something special that’s different from other NBA teams.”
“Players on this team respect teammates,” he said. “I love the team atmosphere and altruistic mind.”
Chronicle staff writer Connor Letourneau contributed to this report.
Benny Evangelista is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @ChronicleBenny