• Kyodo


Japan’s professional sports clubs are attracting a wave of investment, as a fitness club, clothing chain operators and entrepreneurs look to cash in on the sports world’s potential ahead of the 2020 Games.

At the training camp of J. League first division soccer side Shonan Bellmare, trainers from fast-growing fitness club chain Rizap Group Inc. were seen instructing the team’s players on how to strengthen their bodies, in a similar way to how they coach members of their gyms.

Rizap, famous for its TV commercials touting dramatic before-and-after images of customers’ bodies, including celebrities, acquired the management rights of Shonan Bellmare in April.

“The synergistic effect of operating a sports (club) and a fitness gym is enormous,” said Rizap Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Takeshi Seto in a recent interview.

“To strengthen the team, I intend to make full use of data, just as we do at Rizap gyms,” Seto said. At the gyms, Rizap’s personal trainers motivate members to get in shape through rigorous monitoring of their diet.

“We will install sensors and cameras on the soccer field to analyze players’ movements and find a winning (strategy) from the data we collect,” he said. “We will then try to reproduce (that strategy) with even more accuracy. We have also established an in-house research center so that we (can) undertake scientific assessments.”

Seto hopes to encourage clients of Rizap gyms, who tend to have strong interest in sports, to watch Shonan Bellmare’s matches.

Under Rizap’s management, the club, which is based in Hiratsuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, has raised its profile, winning the team’s first Levain Cup — one of the three major titles in Japanese professional soccer — on Oct. 27.

“To increase the number of fans, it is important to get more people to connect with the team,” Seto said. “By using our affiliate publishing companies, we will strengthen ways to deliver information about the team, such as player profiles.”

“I am also thinking of organizing events for fans to interact with players,” he said.

Looking ahead, Seto said, “I’m considering acquiring teams in other sports. My company has purchased and rebuilt a number of struggling companies. If we utilize this experience, improving the management of a sports club would not be difficult.”

In the past, parent companies have often incurred heavy debts due to the massive expenses required to operate professional sports clubs.

But since the 2000s, telecommunication giant SoftBank Group Corp. and online retail operator Rakuten Inc. have been successful in managing professional baseball clubs, demonstrating their marketing savvy through the use of information technology to improve club operations.

As the financial situation of baseball and soccer clubs has improved, the bar to enter the sports industry has been lowered. The number of newcomers getting involved is expected to grow further as sports gain in popularity ahead of the Tokyo Games, analysts said.

As recent examples, internet shopping operator Japanet Holdings Co. last year acquired J. League first division club V-Varen Nagasaki, while social media operator Mixi Inc. also decided to invest in J. League club FC Tokyo in April.

Network advertising agency CyberAgent Inc. bought FC Machida Zelvia this year, and mobile software company DeNA Co., which already owns a baseball club, assumed ownership of the Kawasaki Brave Thunders basketball team from the 2018-2019 season.

Fashion magnate Yusaku Maezawa, who runs major online clothing store Zozotown, also recently expressed his desire to operate a baseball club.

“A full-fledged investment boom has arrived in Japan’s professional sports world,” said Yuta Namiki, CEO of consulting firm Field Management, which specializes in sports management.

Nobuo Motozawa, CEO of DeNA Kawasaki Brave Thunders, said that increased investment from companies would help improve players and popularize different sports, but stressed the need to train personnel who can lead the sports industry.

“There still aren’t enough human resources that can support sports club management,” Motozawa said.

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