This could arguably become the greatest comeback in the history of sports

Rahul Kadavakolu, Global Sports Business and Global Brand Supervisory Department, Rakuten, Inc.

After World War I, the Spanish flu devastated global sports. Multiple sources recount cancellations of soccer and boxing matches. The hockey Stanley Cup final was called off. While professional baseball struggled on, legendary star Babe Ruth was emerging as one of the world’s greatest players when he fell sick mid-season and sat out for almost two weeks in 1918. 

Yet, as soon as the pandemic subsided, Ruth and athletics returned stronger and more popular than ever, ushering in the 1920s Golden Age of Sports.

A key enabler of this Golden Age was technology ⁠— the arrival of radio. No longer limited to mere neighborhood attractions, live football and baseball games transformed into national obsessions. When television arrived later in the 20th century, it set the stage for teams like FC Barcelona and the Golden State Warriors to turn into the global phenomena they are today.

Great athletes and teams are never too far down to come back — and comebacks are the most exciting moments in sports. While I wasn’t there for the Spanish flu, I expect a similar technology-driven post-COVID-19 comeback for the sports industry.

The internet and the 5G revolution will speed new formats, new tournaments and new leagues. Social media allows fans to connect with stars. Post-pandemic sports will focus on the action not just on the field, but in the players’ homes and with the players’ families. New internet channels will address not just the die-hard fans but the wider, general entertainment-seeking public. Leagues and clubs should stop worrying about cannibalizing existing TV revenues and invest in the new personalized, player-driven digital communications formats.

Admittedly, COVID-19 has caused devastating short-term damage. For three months this spring, live professional sport shut down. Revenues vanished. Today, even as FC Barcelona’s football players return to the pitch and NBA basketball stars shoot three pointers in their Orlando bubble, their stadiums and arenas remain empty. Fans will eventually return and tickets will remain an important revenue stream. But when? It could be months, even years. 

In the interim, leagues, teams and players are building their online fan bases. Instead of focusing on the 99,000 spectators in Barcelona’s Camp Nou or the 18,000 in San Francisco’s Chase Center, Lionel Messi and Stephen Curry are connecting with hundreds of millions of fans around the globe, not just on TV, but on the internet.

At Rakuten, we are working with FC Barcelona to mount a mosaic featuring 46,000 crowdsourced fan pictures from around the world on the facade of FC Barcelona’s iconic stadium, Camp Nou. Fans who are no longer able to travel to see the team play live can still show their support in a tangible way by contributing a photo of themselves cheering on their favorite club. 

When Rakuten first partnered with FC Barcelona, a key WOW moment we were able to offer was an in-person meeting with the team’s iconic stars. FC Barcelona traveled to Asia and the U.S. to play exhibitions and cultivate fans. After a match, a dozen lucky fans could shake their favorite player’s hand. Today, Barca cannot venture abroad and no fans can shake their hero’s hand — but millions can engage with Messi and his teammates as they enjoy a home cookout on a streaming video documentary on Rakuten TV or the Rakuten Sports OTT platform.

Our brand ambassador partnership with Stephen Curry has proved powerful. Curry’s Facebook Live discussion with America’s top health official Anthony Fauci encouraged fans around the globe to stay safe. Star Vissel Kobe midfielder and former Barca standout Andres Iniesta released an hour-long documentary on Rakuten TV about his childhood and battle against depression. It became an instant hit. 

Japan looks set to become a laboratory. Our Rakuten Eagles are back on the baseball field and our Vissel Kobe footballers are back on the pitch. Our stadiums in Sendai and Kobe went fully cashless back in spring 2019 — a move that will become a critical pivot in the post-pandemic world as we seek innovative and safer customer experiences — but as of early September, only up to 5,000 fans are allowed into the stadiums to enjoy yakitori, takoyaki, sausages and waffles with ice cream* while experiencing their favorite sport. The key to fan engagement remains online. We’ve invited season ticket holders to post their pictures in empty seats — and to visit the players online in the locker room. 

The great players and teams welcome adversity: It’s what sets a winner apart. We see it now with FC Barcelona. Though the club is facing shakeups to its roster and transition ahead, it has not been paralyzed with fear. Instead, the team is sitting up and saying, “How can we make our future even greater?” Barca is already planning its next big comeback.

This is the new post-COVID-19 reality. The excitement of professional sport no longer stays just on the field or on our TV screens. It is much more immersive. The action is also off the field and on our Viber, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Rakuten TV streaming feeds.

The current COVID-19 pandemic is not just a “sports industry” problem: It’s a much bigger issue faced by businesses and communities of all kinds. This is why it’s critical that the sports industry does the right thing by taking the necessary steps to play sport in the safest possible way for fans, athletes and staff. Professional sports will help kickstart the global economy. When the games restarted a century ago, after World War I and the Spanish flu, the resumption delivered a strong and crucial boost of consumer confidence. They can do so again if we leverage and balance the lessons of digital technology.

This could arguably become the greatest comeback in the history of sports. 

About the author: Rahul Kadavakolu is vice president of Rakuten’s Sports Business and director of the Global Brand Supervisory Department at Rakuten, 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 the global sports and entertainment partnerships with FC Barcelona, Golden State Warriors, NBA, Spartan 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. 

*Food and beverage offerings subject to change due to COVID-19 countermeasures 

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