Ryoichi Fukaya, head of business development and innovation at Rakuten Europe and the person in charge of the FC Barcelona sponsorship, talks about the benefits of this relationship, which has positioned Rakuten as the most recognized sport sponsorship brand in Spain
Rakuten is a relatively young brand, created in 1997 in post-millennial Japan, in a digital consumer society, with technological DNA and the desire to conquer the world. Sport sponsorship has played a key role in its strategic expansion plan, to the point of its becoming the brand most recognized and associated with sport sponsorship in Spain. FC Barcelona has had a lot to do with that. “We are a Japanese company, but we do not define ourselves as a Japanese company. We are global,” says Ryoichi Fukaya, head of business development and innovation at Rakuten Europe.
Ryo, as he likes to be called, has lived in Barcelona for two and a half years and is in charge of the FC Barcelona sponsorship, an alliance initiated in the 2017-18 season that was announced with great fanfare in November 2016. “To be honest, before the association with FC Barcelona, few people had heard of Rakuten and the services we offer,” says Ryo. The Japanese manager recently gave the students of the Master in Football Business in partnership with FC Barcelona an interesting talk on the brand’s expansion policy and the benefits of the FC Barcelona sponsorship. After the session, he was kind enough to sit in front of our camera to talk about this relationship.
Rakuten means ‘optimism’ in Japanese and it is a company that is defined by its philosophy of empowering people, companies and societies through innovation and technology. The company has nearly 1.3 billion users worldwide spread across more than 70 businesses, spanning e-commerce, digital content, communications, and fintech (financial services that use technology to create innovative products).
Rakuten entered the world of sport sponsorship in 2004 through the top Japanese baseball team, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, thereby managing to position its brand throughout the country. In 2009, the company moved into the world of tennis, sponsoring the Japan Open, an ATP 500. And in 2015, it acquired Vissel Kobe, the club with which it entered the Japan professional football league, the J-League. Having achieved recognition at home, it was time to cross borders and open up to the world. In 2017, coinciding with the 20th anniversary of its founding, Rakuten chose three top-level partners to set about conquering the world: it closed its sponsorship deal with FC Barcelona for an initial period of four years; it became the main sponsor of the Golden State Warriors, who retained their title as NBA champions; and it became the official e-commerce partner of the J-League. To these great investments, it would add the sponsorship of the Spartan Race, the largest resistance and obstacle course on the planet, in 2018, and the Davis Cup, in 2019.
Rakuten‘s international sponsorship is very strategic and goes beyond just putting a logo on the shirt. The Golden State Warriors is the team from San Francisco, the city that gave birth to the powerful Silicon Valley, the heart that pumps technology and innovation around the world. Parallel to the agreement with the Warriors, they closed a deal with the NBA to broadcast live games in Japan. Rakuten Vissel Kobe ‘rescued’ Andrés Iniesta when he decided that his best days at Barça had come to an end, and invited him to Japan to make him the greatest idol in the Japanese league and, in turn, “introduce a new football philosophy,” explains Ryo. It is no coincidence either that Rakuten made its mark on the new Davis Cup when it changed its format to call itself the World Cup of Tennis. The values that Rakuten shares with all its partners are clear: innovation and internationalization. FC Barcelona reflects, even more so if possible, those same values about which Ryo Fukaya speaks in this interview for Johan Cruyff Institute.
What reasons led Rakuten to enter football sponsorship and choose FC Barcelona as a partner?
Firstly, we are very honored to be a partner of FC Barcelona. We have a huge passion for football, and we are also sponsoring Vissel Kobe, a professional football team in Japan. So, why Barça? Obviously, Barça is one of the top football clubs in the world; they have a great philosophy ‘més que un club’; they are not just thinking about football itself, and they are trying to contribute to society and the football industry as a global leader. We have the same concept in our business and the technology industry. We believe we can make a great partnership and innovation for business, football and society.
In this commercial relationship, what does FC Barcelona bring to Rakuten and vice versa?
Everyone wears the Rakuten logo on Barça shirts and we can communicate we are Rakuten and Rakuten is the main sponsor of Barça in the world. That has an enormous impact on our global market presence, credibility building and the possibility to reach out to the global audience. What does Rakuten bring to Barça? Obviously, we have digital business knowledge and technology and also a global network and audience membership. So, we are more than happy to provide these, our capability knowledge and technology, for Barça to innovate and implement digital transformation, a business transformation beyond the typical football club.
“Our partnership with FC Barcelona has an enormous impact on our global market presence”
According to sport marketing experts, a sponsorship activation can require a budget 3 or 4 times the sponsorship fee for a brand. How does Rakuten activate its sponsorship with Barça?
Obviously, it’s not a small number. It’s an enormous number because Barça is the number one club in the world. We are trying to capture those Barça global fans and introduce our core value proposition and also encourage Barça fans to enjoy football matches and Barça games with Rakuten services.
According to a study by SPSG Consulting, Rakuten is the brand most associated with sport sponsorship in Spain, followed by Bwin and Santander. To what do you attribute that great brand recognition after just a few years in the Spanish market?
Before the FC Barcelona partnership, to be honest, there was hardly any brand recognition in Spain.Only a few people knew about Rakuten and Rakuten services. After the partnership, thanks to the team and FC Barcelona, we were able to gain significant growth and improvement in our brand awareness globally and especially in Spain.
In your opinion, which technological innovations will have the biggest influence on sport sponsorship in the upcoming years?
One is the business transformation: the typical sports team has a huge dependence on the typical revenue sources, such as broadcasting rights, sponsorship and venue revenues, which is ticket sales, food and beverage and merchandising. Technology can bring another revenue source; it has a huge potential to generate a new revenue stream and value proposition for the fans, sponsors and other ecosystems around football clubs and sports clubs. Second is the sports performance: applying data science and the AI machine learning technologies. We can apply science to sports performance to improve the team’s performance, but it’s also going to be applicable for the education perspective, not only for professional players but also for kids and football fans in general. And third, is obviously entertainment and fan engagement: via technology the fans can explore new angles of the football and sports experience. We can apply VR, AI, video streaming, digital fan communities we can create many different new kinds of fan engagement and experience. I believe we can create these together with Barça and also with other sports clubs.
“Technological innovation will impact on business transformation, sports performance and fan engagement in the coming years ”
Do you think football business programs like this are important for those who want to work within the sport?
Sure. It is a great concept and a great activity to develop the next generation of leaders in the sports industry. I believe that after doing the Johan Cruyff Institute master’s program many students will go on to be global leaders in the sports sector, in sport management or probably on the brand side of things to leverage and work together with the sports industry and sports teams to make other new innovations.
Football Business in partnership with FC Barcelona
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