Rahul Kadavakolu, vice president of Rakuten’s Sports Business, director of Global Marketing and Branding, Rakuten Group
The Davis Cup by Rakuten dates back to 1900. Born as a contest between Great Britain and the United States, the Cup now counts 135 teams. In an individual sport, it has become the preeminent national team event – “the World Cup of Tennis” – inciting some of the game’s most passionate contests, with players propelled by enthusiastic home crowds to pull off patriotic upsets.
Yet all institutions, even those steeped in history, must evolve. Our goal in partnering with the Cup is to retain its essential values while refreshing and refining the core elements that bring these values to life.
Prior to 2019, the Cup lasted more than six months and top players often faced scheduling challenges. The new format introduced in 2019 featured a one-week tournament with 18 teams. Since revamping the tournament, we’ve hosted top stars including Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Daniil Medvedev, Felix Auger-Aliassime, Matteo Berrettini and more.
“The key to evolution is to remain agile. Evolution is not a one-off project — it’s a continuous cycle.”Rahul Kadavakolu, Sports Business vice president, director of Global Marketing and Branding, Rakuten Group
One year later (the 2020 Finals were canceled due to COVID) we’re already evolving again. The revamped Cup Finals bring together 18 teams for a concentrated 11-day stretch, from November 25 to December 5. Instead of one host city, there are now three located across Europe: Turin, Innsbruck, and Madrid. By going to new cities, we give more fans the chance to experience the excitement in person.
Both Turin and Innsbruck are close to Madrid and located at similar altitudes and weather, factors that are important for the players. For fans and players, this strategic relocation of venues means all teams now play in prime time.
The Davis Cup is not alone among sports to change with the times. Consider my personal passion, cricket. It long revolved around five-day test cricket and one-day cricket. Test cricket is still my personal favorite, and I consider it the most challenging version of the sport. But few spectators, even the most fervent, could take time off during their busy work week to watch their favorite format. Today, with the introduction of pink ball tests where games are held in the evenings under lights, fans can still enjoy their favorite format after finishing a busy day at home or the office.
“Fans, teams, players are always talking. How much we listen changes everything.”
Over a decade ago, they shook the fundamentals of the sport and launched the Twenty20 (T20) format, which is much shorter in duration — contests last a few hours, a little over the duration of a Bollywood film. These changes ushered in new interest, new talent, new tech and new fans — all of which revolutionized cricket, catapulting the sport to the next level worldwide.
Technology is crucial to evolution in sports. Even the most die-hard traditionalists accept Wimbledon’s introduction of baseline technology to end disputes over line calls. The ways we watch sports are evolving. Spectators choose the camera angle they want while chatting with fellow fans and purchasing team merch in real time – all from the comfort of their living room.
Sports have global fandoms. Many soccer teams count 100 or 200 million fans, almost all of whom follow outside of the stadium on TV or online. The pandemic – although temporarily – has further reduced the number of in-person spectators, accelerating the need to reach audiences remotely, placing a new immediacy on the 99% of fans who won’t make it to the stadium to catch a match in person.
Technology is bridging the real and virtual worlds. The pandemic has kickstarted VR/AR experiences, NFTs and digital trading cards — even online fantasy leagues. Typically, these products are tested for years before being brought to market. Since the pandemic, the time from drawing board to reality has accelerated to mere months — if not weeks.
For this year’s Davis Cup, Rakuten is leveraging its 70+ businesses to bring unique experiences to fans to interact and engage with. At the stadiums, spectators earn Rakuten Points to spend on our marketplaces, and Rakuten Pay is available on-site, providing fans with a convenient way of making safe cashless purchases of souvenirs and concessions.
Fans around the globe can participate, too. A dedicated community channel on the free call and messaging service Rakuten Viber allows them to connect. Rakuten TV’s 2020 documentary BreakPoint: a Davis Cup Story is available on our AVOD service.
“All institutions, even those steeped in history, must evolve. Our goal in partnering with the Cup is to retain its essential values while refreshing and refining the core elements that bring these values to life.”
Last month we launched the Davis Cup Fan World Cup Presented by Rakuten, an innovative initiative that connects fans with their favorite teams through a unique way to cheer them on from any part of the world. Fan-submitted messages are being printed on tennis balls and canvas to create 19 unique art installations, one for each team, spread across the Madrid Arena in Madrid, Olympiahalle in Innsbruck, and Pala Alpitour in Turin. The 19th installation in Madrid is a tribute to the fans and tennis community around the world for keeping sport alive during such difficult times.
The key to evolution is to remain agile. Evolution is not a one-off project — it’s a continuous cycle. Fans, teams, players are always talking. How much we listen changes everything. We must have an appetite for agility — pandemic or not. Those who do will stand the test of time. For others, it’s just more testing times.
We can always improve. What will next year’s tournament look like? One thing’s for sure: The Davis Cup will continue to evolve.
About the author: Rahul Kadavakolu is vice president of Rakuten’s Sports Business and director of global marketing and branding at Rakuten Group, Inc. He joined Rakuten in 2016 to help lead and drive Rakuten’s global brand and marketing function, including all sports and entertainment partnerships.
He has been instrumental in Rakuten signing global sports and entertainment partnerships with FC Barcelona, Golden State Warriors, NBA and Davis Cup, including a multi-continental sponsorship of Messi10, a global show by Cirque du Soleil. He has also built Rakuten’s global brand associations with brand ambassadors including Lukas Podolski and Stephen Curry in his Underrated Tour.
Rahul has 20 years of global marketing and branding experience across various industries with a focus on the IT, internet services and technology sectors. Prior to Rakuten, he held leadership roles at Wipro, Ogilvy and Hakuhodo. He received a Bachelor’s in Commerce from Loyola College, Chennai, India and is an avid cricket fan.