Soccer

Rakuten, Barcelona hail official start of partnership, lucrative sponsorship

by Andrew McKirdy

Staff Writer

Rakuten Inc. will be splashing its name across “the most important shirt in the world,” according to Barcelona defender Gerard Pique, after the e-commerce giant celebrated the start of its four-year, $235 million sponsorship with the iconic Spanish soccer club on Thursday.

“I think they have the same philosophy as us,” Pique told The Japan Times in an exclusive interview. “They like to attack. Basically I think that we are family now and with our partnership we can create something long term.”

Rakuten completed one of the biggest sponsorship deals in sports history in November when it reached an agreement to emblazon its logo across the shirts of Barcelona, which has won the Champions League five times and Spain’s La Liga 24 times.

Barcelona will earn around $59 million a year from the deal, with Rakuten having an option to extend for a fifth year.

The deal took effect on July 1 but hundreds gathered at the firm’s Rakuten Crimson House headquarters in Tokyo on Thursday to greet a Barcelona delegation that included five-time world player of the year Lionel Messi and Brazilian superstar Neymar.

“I’m excited to be able to start this partnership and we want to take the two titles — La Liga and the Champions League,” said Rakuten CEO Hiroshi Mikitani. “This is a very special team and a special opportunity.”

The sponsorship deal came about as a result of the friendship between Mikitani and Pique, a 30-year-old defender who joined Barcelona as a boy and whose grandfather is a former club vice president.

Negotiations began when Pique and his pop star wife Shakira, who is also sponsored by Rakuten, organized a dinner with Mikitani in San Jose, California, during a club tour in 2015.

“I have a really good relationship with the owner, Mikitani-san,” said Pique, who also won the World Cup with Spain in 2010. “He was interested in entering sports and he wanted to invest in the sponsorship of a big brand. I suggested to him to do it with the Barcelona shirt, which I think is the most important shirt in the world. It worked.

“When I knew Mikitani-san’s interest, I contacted the president and we started to talk,” said Pique. “Barcelona is always open to new proposals and I think this one was a really interesting one so they listened.”

Rakuten becomes only the second commercial sponsor ever to feature on the front of Barcelona’s shirt. The club refused to allow brand names on its uniforms until signing a deal with the state of Qatar in 2011, following five years of unpaid sponsorship where it displayed the UNICEF logo.

“It’s impossible to compete with the best teams in the world, with the money that is involved, if you don’t have a sponsor on the shirt,” said Pique.

“It’s as clear as this. Barcelona always wanted to be different and not have any sponsorship. But with the numbers right now we are talking about, if you want to sign the new Neymar, if you want to sign the new Messi, obviously you need to have revenue and money coming from sponsors.”

Rakuten has been trying to raise its profile outside of Japan in recent years, and replaces Qatar Airways as Barcelona’s shirt sponsor.

Barcelona’s vice chairman of marketing and communication, Manel Arroyo, believes the e-commerce firm is the perfect fit for his club.

“We were in contact with other corporations but finally our choice was Rakuten,” he said. “Especially because of the DNA of the company. Rakuten has global ambition, the same as we have and we need around us.

“Also, being a very innovative company is something that for us is key, because we are the No. 1 club in the world in terms of social media. What we need is a company whose core business is around that, to manage big data and be very innovative in technology. It was easy to make the deal with Rakuten because it was clearly the profile that we were looking for.”

The deal will earn Barcelona roughly as much as Manchester United has from its agreement with U.S. automaker General Motors, which has advertised its Chevrolet brand on the club’s shirts since 2014.

“This is the biggest one because we are talking about the biggest club in the numbers we are delivering,” said Arroyo. “The numbers of fans that we have, the members and the sporting success of FC Barcelona. The club has been winning more and more titles in the last 10 years.”

Barcelona has been one of the world’s most dominant teams in recent years but failed to win either the Spanish League or Champions League title last season. The team will go into next season with a new manager, Ernesto Valverde, after previous incumbent Luis Enrique stepped down.