Big in Japan: Andrés Iniesta, the J League and Rakuten’s global marketing strategy

Big in Japan: Andrés Iniesta, the J League and Rakuten’s global marketing strategy
With Barcelona icon Andrés Iniesta now in his second season in Japanese soccer's J League, SportsPro finds out how Rakuten, the Japanese technology giant which instigated the transfer, is leveraging the player's brand to capture a global audience.

Unlocking defences is a quality that has long been associated with Andrés Iniesta. Whether in the Blaugrana of Barcelona or the celebrated red of Spain, his ability to unpick backlines has always proved a reliable remedy.   

Now plying his trade in Japan, the FIFA World Cup winner appears to hold the key once again – not only in drawing crowds to the J League, Japanese soccer’s top flight, but also for its entry into international markets, where the name Iniesta is earning victories of a new kind.

In May of last year, Rakuten, the Japanese technology firm currently emblazoned across the Barcelona shirt, manufactured a transfer that uprooted the Nou Camp star and moved him to the company’s own J League outfit, Vissel Kobe. It was a deal that not only represented a coup for the competition, but also heralded a new beginning for the club Rakuten acquired in 2015.

Indeed, Iniesta’s signing was never only going to be about achieving success on the pitch. His storied career was, after all, on the wane, yet the Spaniard’s star power remained, enabling Rakuten to broaden its own horizons.

In September, the technology giant and the player teamed up to create Iniesta TV, a digital series that represented a first step in capturing new audiences around what the J League has to offer. It was later announced that the dedicated platform would be housed on Rakuten Sports, a newly launched pure sports streaming service for the international market.

“Launching Rakuten Sports actually had a lot to do with the transfer of Andrés Iniesta to Vissel Kobe,” explains Masaya Ueno, the head of Rakuten’s global media business group. “In addition to playing for our club, we also have a brand partnership with Andrés, including a team working with him on closing mini sponsorship deals, such as his partnership with Asics last year, having been a long-time Nike ambassador.

“We are also creating off-pitch content around him for Iniesta TV, where his tens of millions of fans can see what he gets up to. The question was then: which platform do would we want to stream it on?”

Launched in June with J League rights in dozens of markets, the soccer-centric Rakuten Sports is not the company’s first over-the-top (OTT) venture, nor is it the first to house live sports. Rakuten TV, its existing video-on-demand (VOD) streaming service, also provides coverage of games from the National Basketball Association (NBA) thanks to a partnership struck in 2017.

“We do have a few of our own video platforms,” Ueno continues. “However, the only ones we have that are capable of reaching a global audience is Rakuten Viki, our video on-demand service, which focuses on Asian dramas and movies and where 80 per cent of the user base are female.

“At that time, we also noticed that the J League streaming rights were open and we came up with an idea to consider a sports OTT platform where we can show Iniesta-related content alongside the matches that he is playing in, while, at the same time, leverage and transfer the community and engagement features that we have learned from Viki into sports.”

When it comes to negotiating partnerships domestically or overseas, Ueno says OTT marks a whole new realm of opportunity for Rakuten, which has been busy in recent years developing its global sports interests through partnerships with the likes of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors and, of course, Barcelona.

That, he continues, represents an attractive proposition for rights owners to partner with technology-driven consumer platforms like Rakuten, which not only has a vested interest in sport’s household names, but are now tooling up their live streaming capabilities.

“We feel that sports really are other forms of entertainment,” Ueno says. “Whether people watch movies or dramas, when it comes to fandom that also relates to sports.

“We now have the knowledge to combine various services - from e-commerce, to travel, to financial services, to entertainment. We have roughly 70 different types of internet services within Japan and around the world – so, in that sense, we do have the knowledge to create that kind of ecosystem, which we are also trying to develop in the Americas and in Europe as well.

“Sports is therefore a big part of the wider Rakuten ecosystem. When we consider sports, we feel that if we have the right balance of content – whether it’s live or off-field content – that, when using our engagement features, keeps the fan on our site, and can create and grow a dedicated user fanbase for our platform.”

Ueno points to rising rights costs as one of the major challenges for direct-to-consumer (DTC) platforms entering the marketplace for premium live sport. He also notes how the emergence of new players means rights owners can compare and contrast tried and tested platforms with fresh ideas when pushing their product in markets that have, in the past, proven hard to reach.

“I think that the overall consensus within the industry is that the rise in rights acquisition costs is something that is becoming more challenging for any OTT platforms,” Ueno continues. “That goes not only for sports, but any form of entertainment content in general. So what we wanted to do was to take a slightly different approach, and one where we are trying to focus on creating communities and fan engagement.”

Set up in partnership with Lagardère Sports, the international media rights agency, Rakuten Sports is now available globally across all connected devices. Its coverage of the 2019 J League season is, however, limited to around 140 markets worldwide and excludes several key markets, including Japan, where rival OTT operator DAZN holds domestic rights.

Interestingly, Iniesta was announced as a brand ambassador for DAZN’s recently launched Spanish operation in March - an agreement that effectively positions him as the face of the J League in his native country.

“We can’t comment on the specifics of the partnership with Lagardère for the J League rights, however, I feel it was a win-win solution for all parties involved,” Ueno explains. “We have had discussions with J League around this, but in that sense, we feel that we have the pieces to support J League’s global strategy.

“We have the DTC platform, where we are able to open up Rakuten Sports globally, and, at the same time, we also have a special partnership with Andrés Iniesta with whom we can also tap into his fanbase. So these factors were very important to our partnership [with the J League] and were seen as beneficial when working with Rakuten, in being able to expose the J League brand much faster.

“Although we may not have the rights for the J League in Japan, there are many examples where we are helping the J League, in terms of our technology and marketing in the country, and also, by inviting FC Barcelona to play Vissel Kobe [in July] - that also has the potential to attract a lot of attention globally, and give a huge lift for the league internationally.”

Whilst Ueno played down interest in a play for domestic J League rights, the company is also working on multiple projects to increase digital engagement around its other sports assets in Japan. Research into the potential benefits of 5G technology and the implementation of virtual reality (VR) for player training programmes of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles baseball franchise indicates a company with broad ambitions in the sector.

“We haven’t discussed the [J League] rights for Japan,” adds Ueno, “but with the presence we have in Japan – around Vissel Kobe, our baseball sponsors, and [the Rakuten Japan Open] ATP tennis tournament on our site in Tokyo – we want to be a relevant player in sports and while, of course, we will consider the J League, at the moment it isn’t really in the plan.”

Still, with rights ownership in the majority of Europe, Oceania and Asia - where interest in Japanese soccer is rising - Ueno says Rakuten has taken an important step towards promoting the league in its target markets.

“In terms of a marketing strategy and our exposure, we are looking at something that is going to be very different from market to market,” he explains. “The J League is growing in popularity in the Asian market, though at the same time Andrés Iniesta has a very large following in Europe and other regions worldwide.

“By capturing the attention of that fanbase, we can help the J League in getting the brand and the games exposed globally. The J League also has a global strategy, so in that sense they are saying that, while they want to focus on growing its popularity in the Asian region first, it can gradually grow in different parts of the world, which is where we can work with them.”

And, if successful in their mission, the brand-athlete model could prove influential in other markets, too. World Cup winner Lucas Podolski, another of Vissel Kobe's recent big-name international signings, currently promotes the Rakuten brand in his native Germany, while in June the company announced a multi-year agreement to become the global innovation and entertainment partner to the Davis Cup tennis tournament. That event is currently being revamped by Kosmos, an investment firm spearheaded by Gerard Piqué, Iniesta’s former Spain and Barcelona teammate, and backed by Rakuten chairman and chief executive Hiroshi Mikitani.

In the US, meanwhile, Rakuten’s collaboration with the Warriors and their marquee player, Stephen Curry, could also provide further opportunities to engage American viewers. For example, SportsPro understands that Curry is in the process of creating video content for the Rakuten Sports platform around his Underrated Tour, a high school basketball camp which forms part of his ambassadorial role with the company.

“People all over the world are starting to recognise our name on the Barcelona jersey and even on the Warriors jerseys,” Ueno continues. “In the US, people didn’t recognise us in the beginning but, when you see us in the NBA, they are now asking more questions about us.

“If you look at how people are viewing sports content, that is not only live sports, they want to know what their favourite athletes are doing off the pitch, so in Japan, while we do have the rights to the NBA [via the NBA League Pass], working with these ambassadors could create different angles and more content for fans in the future.”

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