LONDON – Japanese e-commerce giant Rakuten Inc. is paying €220 million ($235.4 million) to emblazon its logo on the FC Barcelona soccer team’s jerseys for four years, in one of the biggest sponsorship deals in the sport.
Rakuten, which has been trying to raise its profile outside Japan after billions of dollars worth of investments in U.S. and other internet companies, will replace Qatar Airways Ltd. on one of the most sought-after pieces of marketing real estate in sports as of next year. Until its agreement with the state of Qatar in 2011, Barcelona didn’t allow brands to advertise on the front of its jersey. For five years from 2006 it displayed UNICEF’S logo in an unpaid sponsorship.
“This agreement puts us at the forefront of sports club sponsorships, which has always been an objective for the current board of directors,” Barcelona President Josep Maria Bartomeu said in a statement.
The agreement will help propel Barcelona, winner of five of the last six Spanish titles, in its off-the-field rivalry with the likes of Manchester United and Real Madrid. At about $59 million a year, the agreement is higher than Real’s partnership with Emirates Airline and close to the $80 million per year that General Motors Co.’s Chevrolet car brand pays Manchester United.
Barcelona ranks second in accountant Deloitte’s annual list of soccer club finances, with revenue of €560.8 million for the 2014-15 season. Real topped the table with sales of €577 million.
Under the agreement, Rakuten has the option of a one-year extension. Barcelona, whose roster includes superstar Lionel Messi, is likely to earn millions more because the deal doesn’t cover sponsorship rights for its training outfits.
Rakuten generated annual revenue of $6.9 billion through September 2016. The company’s chairman and largest shareholder, Hiroshi Mikitani, is the world’s 216th richest person, with a personal fortune of $6.2 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. Rakuten’s business spans an array of industries from banking and travel to professional sports.
“This partnership opportunity is set to power our global brand strategy,” Mikitani said in the statement.
Rakuten has expanded aggressively outside Japan in recent years, acquiring mobile messaging application Viber and online coupon service Ebates, as well as investing in ride-hailing company Lyft Inc.
Mikitani said Rakuten would use its range of brands to promote the relationship with Barcelona.
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