Rakuten Has Generated ‘North of $40 Million’ From Sponsoring the Golden State Warriors

June 7, 2019, 9:40 PM UTC
2019 NBA Finals - Toronto Raptors v Golden State Warriors
OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 5: Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors reacts against the Toronto Raptors during Game Three of the NBA Finals on June 5, 2019 at ORACLE Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Chris Elise/NBAE via Getty Images)
Chris Elise NBAE/Getty Images

For a generation of NBA fans, the Golden State Warriors have become synonymous with winning.

On the court, sharp-shooting Stephen Curry and co. are currently vying for their fourth championship in five seasons; off it, Golden State has hit on a number of recent business ventures—chief among them, its jersey sponsorship agreement with Japanese e-commerce giant, Rakuten.

The deal was announced in September 2017 as part of a three-year pilot program instituted by the NBA, wherein each of the league’s 30 teams were permitted to sell 2.5 inch by 2.5 inch logo patches on their in-game jerseys to advertisers. Though the MLS and the WNBA espouse jersey sponsorship and MLB recently tested out sponsorship jersey patches in select international contests, the NBA program is the only one of its ilk in the four major American sports.

“Jersey patches are unique because people are always taking pictures of players, teams are posting highlights of players, and there’s all this focus on the players with the one brand tagged to them,” said Matt Balvanz, Senior Vice President of Analytics at Navigate, a sports and entertainment research firm. Navigate has analyzed five NBA jersey patch deals—not including Warriors-Rakuten—and valued all of them above their annual sponsorship fees, which ranged between $3 – $7 million.

And if you’ve noticed that the patch sponsors seem a little…random? Well, you’re not wrong. Participants include networking site Bumble (Los Angeles Clippers), Blue Diamond Almonds (Sacramento Kings) and even truck stop and convenience store chain Love’s (Oklahoma City Thunder). Regardless, the program has proven successful by all accounts. “[Most] of the badge partners were not spending one dollar with the NBA before [the program], so you didn’t cannibalize any piece of your business—it was all growth,” said Mike Kitts, Vice President of Corporate Partnerships at the Warriors.

Many of the sponsors have some strand of a local connection with their partnering team, but Rakuten is the only internationally-based company to sign on (other than Sun Life Financial, which is based in Toronto and sponsors the Toronto Raptors). So how did the Warriors end up with Rakuten, a Japanese company B2B e-commerce platform and coupon purveyor, in a deal reportedly worth $60 million over three years?

“As an organization, we were really blossoming, we really felt ourselves moving into a global brand,” Kitts said. “Rakuten was very intentional in that this was a long game for them, not just a flash in the pan. It really tied into their long-term initiatives here in North America.” That has translated to more than just jersey patches: Rakuten also became the Official E-Commerce Partner, Official Video-On-Demand Partner and Official Affiliate Marketing Partner of the Warriors, and was awarded naming rights to the Warriors’ Oakland practice facility.

Rahul Kadavakolu, Executive Director of Global & Group Marketing & Branding/Sports Entertainment Partnerships at Rakuten, says the partnership has been “an extremely positive start in terms of awareness and membership,” and, though he didn’t attribute it directly to partnering with the Warriors, Rakuten has recently been flush with new partnership opportunities, as well.

Just one month after announcing the Warriors deal, the NBA announced a multiyear partnership with Rakuten to bring “comprehensive live NBA coverage to Japan” via NBA League Pass, NBA.com, the NBA app and Rakuten TV. In January of this year, Rakuten also announced a partnership with Stephen Curry that named him a Rakuten Brand Ambassador and Rakuten the title sponsor of Curry’s Underrated Tour. Then in March, the NBA and Rakuten combined to announce a pair of preseason games between the Houston Rockets in Toronto Raptors in Saitama City, Japan this October—the first time the NBA has returned to Japan since 2003.

The Warriors, through new rules with the NBA, will also work with Rakuten to soon make the badged jerseys available on the Rakuten website in Japan—to this point, the only badged jersey not sold through a league-operated store. “The NBA and basketball was pretty popular [in Japan] for most of the 1990’s,” Kadavakolu said. “We thought this could be an opportunity for us to bring basketball back as a mainstream sport… And we thought this would be a good opportunity for our streaming and on-demand business.”

As is the case for most exposure-based marketing, the Warriors-Rakuten badge deal—as Kitts and Kadavakolu refer to it—is making its most boisterous waves in new media. “We are putting a big emphasis on our digital footprint,” Kitts said, who went on to highlight promotions that the Warriors have executed through Rakuten with partnering social networks like Weibo and Viber to touch regions that Golden State doesn’t yet have high penetration. “To the extent that we can tie into Rakuten and promote ourselves in Japan, that’s a marketplace that we believe is absolutely ripe for basketball.”

Per GumGum Sports, an artificial intelligence company that comprehensively analyzes the media value of sports sponsorships, the Warriors drove $19 million worth of value to Rakuten in the 2018-19 season from social media value alone (with $3.8 million of that coming from team-operated accounts). Add broadcast television to that calculation, and GumGum reports a generated value “north of $40 million” which would be a healthy return on investment for Rakuten based on the reported $20 million annual sponsorship fee.

Of course, the Warriors dynastic run of dominance in the latter part of the decade is a factor in how lucrative the partnership has been. “It’s significant,” Kadavakolu said. “Obviously, once they get to the Finals, that’s more exposure in every possible form.” Rakuten knows this well from its partnership with one of the premiere football clubs in Europe, FC Barcelona, which reached the Champions League semi-finals this year. “It’s also a chance to be a part of history,” Kadavakolu added.

The 2019-20 season will mark the last of the aforementioned three year trial period on these patch deals, but the returns to this point have silenced any would-be-doubters worried about aesthetics or potential dips in merchandise sales. “We have not seen one level of drop off in an in-store purchase or an in-team purchase because people were ‘trying to avoid the badge’” Kitts said. “In fact, we’re seeing 100 percent great adoption of it… If you want to look at the KPIs, that’s a huge success. And then the economics that far surpassed everybody’s expectations. So I think all of those successes aggregated tell us that this program is here to stay for the long-term.”

Or, put another way, it’s a badge of success.

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