Branching out: How Rakuten roped in Barcelona and the Golden State Warriors

Rahul Kadavakolu, Rakuten’s director of global marketing and branding, discusses the Japanese ecommerce firm’s partnerships with two of sport’s biggest brands, and explains what its distribution deal with the NBA means for the company going forward.

Branching out: How Rakuten roped in Barcelona and the Golden State Warriors

Spanish soccer giants Barcelona and reigning National Basketball Association (NBA) champions the Golden State Warriors have plenty in common.

Both are global juggernauts with a rich history of winning, while in Lionel Messi and Steph Curry, they boast two of the most recognisable athletes in the world of sport. Even more pertinently from a sponsor’s perspective, is that their fanbases transcend borders and provide an unprecedented platform for brands to engage with new markets.

Just ask Rakuten. The Tokyo-based ecommerce firm was relatively unknown outside of its native Japan until this year, when its partnerships with Barcelona and the Warriors announced the company to the world in a way that only sports sponsorship can.

Even the numbers cited were eye-watering enough to catch the attention of the most casual fan. The front-of-shirt sponsorship agreement with Barcelona is worth a reported €55 million (US$58 million) a year, while the annual US$20 million Rakuten is paying for the Warriors’ jersey patch nearly doubled the second-highest deal then signed by the Cleveland Cavaliers. 

Rakuten also recently finalised a reported US$225 million multi-year deal with the NBA to become the league’s exclusive distribution partner in Japan for all live NBA games, while the agreement also designates the firm as a global marketing partner of the world’s pre-eminent basketball league. 

Rakuten’s decision to introduce itself to a wider audience coincides with a decision to bring its various streaming, shopping and messaging services under one umbrella, but while it might come as a surprise to some, its partnerships with Barcelona and the Golden State Warriors aren’t the brand’s first ventures into sports.

In 2004 the company set up Rakuten Baseball Inc to manage its professional sports businesses as Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), the highest level of baseball in Japan, approved the entry of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles into the league. Just over ten years later, in 2015, Rakuten purchased top-flight Japanese soccer side Vissel Kobe, while it has also been the title sponsor of the Japan Open tennis tournament for nine consecutive years.

Sport, then, has clearly been part of the brand’s growth strategy for some time now, and while other companies might err on the side of caution when picking their first partners outside of their home market, Rakuten’s intentions seem clear: to be associated with the biggest and the best.

With that in mind, SportsPro spoke with Rahul Kadavakolu, Rakuten’s director of global marketing and branding, to find out how the company’s commercial agreements with Barcelona and the Warriors came about, how it plans on using those partnerships to become recognised around the world, and what its distribution deal with the NBA means for the company’s strategy going forward.  

SportsPro: How has Rakuten’s approach to sports marketing evolved?

Rahul Kadavakolu: We are a household name in Japan but, unfortunately, in global markets we were not very well known - and there’s a reason for that.

For the past few years, most of our expansion into global markets has been through acquisitions and this year we are undertaking a huge brand transformation project to unify our businesses around the world under the single Rakuten brand.

We honed in on the optimism at the core of our brand and decided to express that with a new concept built around ‘believe in the future’. In order to support this brand transformation project, we needed very strong brand levers to partner with us on this journey and we decided that sports-led partnerships would be something that would be the best way forward.

Sport is not new to us. We own a soccer club and a baseball team in Japan, so using sports as a platform to build our brand is something that we’ve been very used to. Our bold moves this year launching global partnerships with FC Barcelona, the NBA and the Golden State Warriors will ensure our brand will be seen by billions of people every month, with partners that share common values of teamwork and community.

Rakuten's front-of-shirt sponsorship deal with Barcelona is worth a reported €55 million a year

How did Rakuten’s partnerships with Barcelona and the Golden State Warriors come about?

For us, the philosophy of the partner is critical, and it played a huge role in us identifying and partnering with FC Barcelona and the Golden State Warriors.

We were very clear about the teams we wanted to pick. It wasn’t an exercise where we had 100 or 150 teams listed down and we looked at all the values of the teams and what benefits would come from partnering with them. Benefits and rights are obviously very important, but we very clearly went after these specific teams. If, for example, the deal with Barcelona had fallen through, we wouldn’t have gone to the next best team that was on the list.

Our partners need to share common values of teamwork and community, and if you look at the two partnerships with Barcelona and the Golden State Warriors, one of the most important things is the philosophy behind these teams.

What opportunities will both of those partnerships provide?

We obviously get unmatched value when it comes to exposure of our brand, but the partnerships also reflect our passion for teamwork, and one of the elements that unite us is our mission to empower individuals and society through innovation and entrepreneurship.

Teamwork plays a very important role in these two teams - it’s not like there are just two superstars that are the only ones leading the teams on the playing field. These two teams reflect the idea of teamwork, so it’s all the associations that come with that which are extremely critical and which we want to share both internally with our employee base and externally to the consumer world.

Our passion to enrich society applies no matter what business or region of the world we operate in, and these are the kind of opportunities we’d be pursuing - building relationships with our members around the world through celebrating a shared passion for sports.

What are the advantages of being linked to two teams that are associated with winning, and do you think that brand association is something that still resonates with fans?  

I think FC Barcelona’s slogan puts this best: ‘More than a club’. It’s more than just winning; it’s about a shared passion for teamwork, no matter the outcome. It is about the dedication, training and commitment to be better than yesterday.

Winning is the outcome when you are working hard, playing as a team and following a unified vision and goal. That’s what makes FC Barcelona and the Golden State Warriors extremely special to partner with.

Rahul Kadavakolu, Rakuten’s director of global marketing and branding

Lionel Messi and Steph Curry are two of the most recognisable faces in their respective sports. How much did having access to global superstars inform your thought process when identifying Barcelona and GSW as potential partners?

Our whole approach is to be a partner of the teams, and through the teams we connect to the individual players. Messi and Curry are obviously big names in the world of sport, but these teams also have core anchors that bring them together - Gerard Pique for example plays a very crucial role for Barcelona. That’s what we like about these teams, because it’s not just one person who dominates. They are about winning as a team, and each player holds the same values and goals at an individual level.

It goes back to what I mentioned before, because they’re both known to work as a team to achieve a collective goal. This very closely resonates with our brand, because we are a single service company with around 70 businesses and more than one billion members around the world, and part of the challenge for us is how we can bring these businesses together to empower the customer, the merchant and the community.

Are Rakuten’s international partnerships focused solely on growing brand awareness globally or are they also geared towards changing perceptions within Japan?

It’s actually a combination. In international markets our main aim is to use these partnerships to start building the brand and build an emotional connection with consumers, which is where I think sport plays a very important role.

Sports and entertainment channels create a unique emotional connection with fans who might be potential customers, or maybe even existing customers that you already have. That’s something very special that sports and entertainment can bring.

We have partnered with two very community-driven teams, so it’s important for us to become a part of this community seamlessly without forcing ourselves on it - we need to be accepted first.

As well as building our brand and growing our business, we want to use international partnerships to see how we can contribute to the community. Both Barcelona and the Warriors are very community-driven brands, and everything they do on a daily basis is a great example of how they support the community.

In Japan, we obviously have a very strong brand and a great association, so our goal is to build that association further, and find more opportunities to take our brand directly to our consumers in a seamless way.

What are the challenges involved in building an affiliation with a fanbase that isn’t within your home market?  

Our most important goal during the first phase of the partnership is to get people familiar with our brand so they can understand our philosophy and what we stand for.

We want people to understand that we are not in this for the short term; we are here for the long run. We have partnered with two very community-driven teams, so it’s important for us to become a part of this community seamlessly without forcing ourselves on it - we need to be accepted first.

If you look at our launch initiatives, it is very clear that we’re trying to explain to consumers who we are, what our brand values are, what our purpose is, and then show glimpses of the Rakuten ‘optimism’ brand core and ‘believe in the future’ concept.

So I don’t think the challenges are anything out of the ordinary, but I think having the right strategy and the right mix is what will make the difference at the end of the day. 

You also recently signed an exclusive online distribution deal with the NBA. What was the thought process behind that partnership?

The NBA broadcasting conversation was a logical extension of our discussions with the Warriors. We knew the opportunity was there, and we wanted to bring something extremely special to the audience in Japan. The Rakuten TV brand has been growing for a number of years, and we had two goals with this partnership.

One is to bring this beautiful sport to Japanese fans, and the other is to help our TV business. We don’t see it in isolation, because we are an ecosystem company and it benefits all of our businesses, because we are giving consumers several ways in which they can watch the game in Japan. 

Rakuten followed up its jersey patch deal with the Golden State Warriors with an exlusive online distribution deal with the NBA

Can we expect that to be the first of a number of similar deals for Rakuten, or is it more of a one-off to tap into the league’s popularity in Japan?

All I can say is that we are always looking to grow in Japan and in global markets. We are looking at opportunities to amplify and propel what we’ve already done, so watch this space.

What are Rakuten’s plans within sports for the future?

In terms of our plans, we have a three-way strategy as far as all our investments in sports are concerned. First is to build the brand, second is to see how we could seamlessly deliver some of our services to fans around the world, and third is to see if we can build innovative business models using sports platforms.

We have very exciting plans, and these are called partnerships rather than sponsorships for a reason, because they are fundamentally a two-way street. If you look at how sports teams or leagues operate today, it’s like two brands talking to each other.

Sports are going to be an important part of our strategy. We see the value that sports as a platform brings to the Rakuten brand and how it provides the perfect platform to engage with consumers, merchants and community through the various services we offer.