What excitement! What passion! As Rakuten’s director of sports sponsorships, I was privileged to spend last week in Madrid watching the new Davis Cup by Rakuten Finals come to life and witnessing world number one Rafael Nadal lead Spain to victory in remarkable fashion.
The Davis Cup, which was first held in 1900, is the oldest and most prestigious team event in tennis, full of memorable moments and enthusiastic crowds. Even with its storied history, Davis Cup organizers have never been afraid to embrace change, altering the format several times over its 119 years of existence. So when we saw the idea for a new one-week World Cup of Tennis, we were keen to sign on as the Global Innovation & Entertainment Partner and Global Presenting Partner.
The power of sports
From Rakuten’s early days as a startup internet marketplace, sports have proved a key driver of the company’s forward-looking, optimistic spirit. Starting in the early 2000s, Rakuten has launched new professional baseball and soccer teams and turned them into successful concerns — while turning ourselves into a household name in Japan.
Outside of our home market, we took the same athletic approach, working with sports as a key driver for brand unification and recognition. As we acquired and re-branded different companies such as e-commerce site PriceMinister in France, e-reading service Kobo in Canada, cashback rewards company Ebates in the U.S. and global messaging app Viber, sports sponsorships became a key driver for our solidarity and expansion.
Sports have become a highly visible platform that supports our brand transformation journey — one aimed at raising awareness, sharing our brand values and educating consumers about our services — ultimately making Rakuten a household name in countries around the world, just as we did in Japan with our first foray into baseball.
In addition to brand recognition, we see the digitization of sports as a great business opportunity. Television was a tremendous driver of professional sports that helped transform them into the “Big Leagues.” The internet will be similarly transformative. Our stadiums are already delivering a cashless experience for fans in Japan. Our FC Barcelona documentary series Matchday launches later this week and will be streamed on the Rakuten TV platform in Europe and Japan. Digital content is changing the way we experience sports.
Driving innovation on and off the court
The Davis Cup by Rakuten Finals last week represented another significant step in our branding and business mission. In Madrid, I was thrilled to see many of the world’s best players, including Nadal, world number two Novak Djokovic and emerging talents such as Aussie Alex de Minaur, American Taylor Fritz and Canadian Denis Shapovalov, who put up a valiant effort against Spain in the finals.
Throughout the event, the on-court action was suspenseful and spectacular, producing what tennis specialists dubbed some of the best tennis of the year. The energy in the stands was equally as impressive: Hearing 13,000 enthusiastic Spaniards cheering “ole, ole,” as Nadal and his teammates overcame Great Britain in a deciding doubles tiebreaker and then emerged victorious over Canada in the finals was a sight I won’t soon forget. And personally, it was a thrill to see our CEO Mickey Mikitani hand the Rakuten Optimism Award for Most Valuable Player to Rafael Nadal.
This year, the Davis Cup also introduced a new entertainment angle to the event. Interactive booths from Rakuten featuring many of its global services lined the fan zone, giving visitors a chance to enjoy special VR experiences, experience the zen of Japanese calligraphy, or sit back and catch a movie on Rakuten TV between matches. High energy opening and closing ceremony performances from top-tier artists such as Norwegian DJ Alan Walker and Latin pop superstar Shakira helped transform the Davis Cup into a very special sports and entertainment experience.
While there is much to celebrate about our first collaboration with the Davis Cup, we are already thinking about ways to make next year’s event even better. Change, especially within such a venerable institution, is never something to be taken lightly, but we are confident that together with the Davis Cup, we can continue to grow and transform the event, creating an even more powerful platform for the “World Cup of Tennis.”
About the author: Rahul Kadavakolu is Vice President of Sports Business and Director of the Global Marketing 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 built Rakuten’s global brand associations with the company’s brand ambassadors, including Lukas Podolski and Stephen Curry in his ‘Underrated Tour’ bringing to life the key propositions of ‘optimism’ and ‘believein the future’.
Rahul has over 19 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.