H. Mickey Mikitani, Chairman and CEO, Rakuten, Inc.
@hmikitani_e

Rakuten has finalized an agreement to become the Main Global Partner of the world-famous Spanish soccer team FC Barcelona (a.k.a. Barca). The partnership kicks off with the 2017-2018 season and continues for four years.

The agreement is unique. Rakuten will not just be a sponsor of the club, but its Main Global Partner and its first Global Innovation and Entertainment Partner. It’s a true partnership that is about much more than having our logo on the team shirts. For example, Viber, a mobile messaging app from Rakuten with over 800 million registered users around the globe, will be used by FC Barcelona in new and exciting ways – to deepen communications with fans and to share the Barca story with even more people around the world.

Barca is a special club – and that’s why we chose to partner with them.

They are one of the world’s most esteemed clubs, of course, but what really sets them apart is their exceptional cantera or youth league system. Young players on the lower rungs of the organization are carefully nurtured and raised up, ultimately producing world-class talent. Messi, Pique and Iniesta are just some of the players who have come out of the Barcelona cantera.

Supporting Barca are its 143,000-plus members, or “socios.” True to their historic slogan, FC Barcelona is “more than a club.” They are also a sporting symbol of their home region of Catalonia.

Twenty years ago, Rakuten created Rakuten Ichiba with the aim of using the internet to empower small and medium-sized businesses in regional areas of Japan. Rakuten Ichiba is not like an internet-based “vending machine,” but more like a vibrant shopping street, where each store owner has their own goals and dreams.

Working together with local communities and small business owners has been at the heart of Rakuten’s philosophy since the beginning, and that approach is very similar to how FC Barcelona has worked hand in hand with the people of its own community. This could even be described as the biggest reason why we decided to enter into this agreement.

We also see this partnership as a first step in powering increased global awareness of Rakuten. By increasing Rakuten’s global brand recognition, we intend to further expand our business. Considering over one billion people around the world are going to gain greater awareness of the Rakuten brand through Barca, we believe this is a tremendous opportunity.

Some of you may remember that in 2004, when Rakuten founded a professional baseball team in Japan, we received a considerable amount of criticism. “A startup firm can’t manage a baseball team,” we were told. “They’re going to drag down the Pacific League.”

But, in the ninth year of their existence, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles won the league and the Japanese pro baseball championship. No team in history had achieved this feat so soon after being formed.

When Rakuten entered Japanese pro baseball in 2004, a survey put its brand recognition ranking in Japan at 167. Our entrance into the world of pro baseball helped raise that ranking to 19, and we’ve maintained that high level of brand recognition to this day. With our new partnership with the very special brand that is Barca, Rakuten will now achieve much more than that, and this time in the global arena.

In December last year, I saw the El Clasico, the name given to matches between historic rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid that are viewed by over 600 million people worldwide. At Camp Nou, Barca’s home stadium and one of football’s most hallowed grounds, I saw 100,000 fans go crazy. It was enough to give me goosebumps.

And from next season, players known to every football fan, such as Messi, Suarez, Neymar, Pique and Iniesta, will be wearing the Rakuten name when they compete. Our hope is that people will see this as a symbol of how Japan’s regional communities and small and medium-sized business owners can also compete on the world stage.

Moreover, as part of our partnership, Barca will come to Japan to play friendlies, and we are considering a variety of related events. We hope you are as excited as we are!