• Kyodo


The J. League and Rakuten announced on Monday a 2½-year electronic commerce deal that will see the Japanese Internet giant relaunch the league’s online store, with the eventual aim of rivaling Nippon Professional Baseball in merchandise sales.

Financial terms of the deal, which follows in the footsteps of the J. League’s record ¥210 billion online broadcasting contract with British-based Perform Group, were not released.

The J. League’s online store — modeled after league-run online shops in the United States like Major League Baseball or Major League Soccer — will be rebooted in mid-July, when merchandise for all 54 clubs in the three divisions will begin selling.

Rakuten CEO and Chairman Hiroshi Mikitani has made splashes in the soccer world of late, having inked a four-year shirt deal with Barcelona at a reported $60 million per season and signed World Cup winner Lukas Podolski of Germany for his J. League team, Vissel Kobe.

Mikitani said he believes his latest investment in soccer has enormous upside.

“The J. League is increasingly using the Internet, highlighted by their platform with DAZN,” Mikitani said. “We offer a platform in online shopping, and can offer products of every single club, making the J. League even more attractive and engaging. We’re excited by this deal, and we hope to lend the league a hand in every way possible.

“I love sports. Under Mr. (Mitsuru) Murai’s leadership, I hope the J. League becomes the best league in Asia, one that we can be proud of to the rest of the world. There are leagues in Korea and China, but in terms of transparency, fairness and the setup, we must ensure the J. League remains the top league in Asia.”

“At the core of Rakuten’s corporate philosophy is boosting local economies, which matches the J. League’s founding principles,” Mikitani continued. “Since Mr. Murai took over as chairman, he’s made some revolutionary changes and that’s something we want to be in on.”

Last year, the Central League champion Hiroshima Carp generated 16 times more in merchandise sales than that of the J. League champions’ did on average from 2012 to 2016.

Murai said Rakuten’s appeal was in its experience and knowhow that have led to 100 million registered members shopping through their website, according to Mikitani.

Currently, online merchandising is down to the individual effort of each club. Rakuten will streamline sales, packaging and delivery through the new store, with the aim of increasing not only the league’s sales but also to gain a better gauge of the fans.

The partnership will really look to cash in during the weeks leading up to the start of the 2018 season, when merchandise sales generally peak.

“They have an outstanding client base in the Japanese market. Mr. Mikitani is a big sports fan to begin with, not just soccer but baseball and tennis. He likes live entertainment as well, like the Tokyo philharmonic orchestra. He has a wide range of interests,” Murai said.

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