Tokyo - Japan's
online retail giant Rakuten has sealed a shirt sponsorship deal with
Spanish football giants Barcelona worth at least $205
million over four years.
Here are some key facts about the nation's biggest e-commerce
company, its founder and other Japanese firms' foray into football
What is Rakuten?
The Tokyo-based firm - the name of
which is Japanese for optimism - is primarily an online shopping mall
founded by former banker Hiroshi Mikitani in 1997 in the early days of
the e-commerce boom.
However, it also operates other businesses including travel and financial services and owns professional sports teams.
Rakuten made waves in Japan in 2010 when Mikitani announced the
company was making English its "corporate lingua franca" to both foster
internal change and entice "the best of global talent".
How big is it?
It has 13 000 employees and competes
with US titans Amazon and Yahoo in Japan's e-commerce market, racking up
sales last year of 714 billion yen ($6.5 billion), more than double
from 346 billion yen in 2010.
After concentrating on Japan, it has been expanding overseas in
recent years, which partly explains its huge shirt sponsorship deal, and
scooping up companies from e-reader firm Kobo to messaging app provider
But Rakuten has hit some bumps in its ambitious international
expansion, saying earlier this year it would cut back in Asia and close
its online shopping malls and logistics facilities in Britain, Spain and
Who is Mikitani?
Born in 1965, the company chairperson
and CEO got his start at Industrial Bank of Japan, one of the country's
major banks, before being transferred to the US where he studied and
graduated from Harvard Business School with an MBA.
But in 1995 he struck out on his own as an entrepreneur and with the
establishment of Rakuten he soon became a billionaire - he is worth
$6.4 billion, according to Forbes.
The Barcelona deal even has its origins in Mikitani's personal ties with one of the club's star defenders, Gerard Pique.
"It all started with a dinner organised by Gerard Pique at Mikitani's
house in San Francisco," club president Josep Maria Bartomeu said
Wednesday, according to Barcelona's website.
What are its other sporting links?
Besides the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles pro baseball franchise, Rakuten also owns J-League football club Vissel Kobe.
But the deal with Barcelona is Rakuten's first major step in gaining a
foothold in the global sports business and it is aimed at boosting its
profile where it has struggled.
Why football sponsorship?
At about $51 million a
year, the huge investment by Rakuten into Barcelona is not even the
biggest. That award goes to US car giant Chevrolet's near $70 million
sponsorship of Premier League giants Manchester United.
However, while the numbers are large, so is the potential windfall of
being involved in one of the richest leagues in the biggest sport in
the world, which is watched by fans in more than 100 countries. For
instance, the 2013 European Cup final was the most watched in history,
with 360 million people tuning in globally.
Barcelona are considered one of the best teams in the world,
containing some of the top players on the planet, including Lionel
Messi, and the prospect of Rakuten's name being seen on TV by millions
on a weekly basis will be music to the marketing department's ears.