rakutenJapan’s online retail giant Rakuten has sealed a shirt sponsorship deal with Spanish football giants Barcelona worth at least 220 million euros ($205 million) over four years. 

Here are some key facts about the nation’s biggest e-commerce company, its founder and other Japanese firms’ foray into football sponsorship.

– What is Rakuten?

The Tokyo-based firm — the name of which is Japanese for optimism — is primarily an online shopping mall founded by former banker Hiroshi Mikitani in 1997 in the early days of the e-commerce boom. 

However, it also operates other businesses including travel and financial services and owns professional sportsteams.

Rakuten made waves in Japan in 2010 when Mikitani announced the company was making English its “corporate lingua franca” to both foster internal change and entice “the best of global talent”.

– How big is it?

It has 13,000 employees and competes with US titans Amazon and Yahoo in Japan’s e-commerce market, racking up sales last year of 714 billion  yen ($6.5 billion), more than double from 346 billion yen in 2010.

After concentrating on Japan, it has been expanding overseas in recent years, which partly explains its huge shirt sponsorship deal, and scooping up companies from e-reader firm Kobo to messaging app provider Viber. 

But Rakuten has hit some bumps in its ambitious international expansion, saying earlier this year it would cut back in Asia and close its online shopping malls and logistics facilities in Britain, Spain and Austria.

– Who is Mikitani?

Born in 1965, the company chairman and CEO got his start at Industrial Bank of Japan, one of the country’s major banks, before being transferred to the US where he studied and graduated from Harvard Business School with an MBA.

But in 1995 he struck out on his own as an entrepreneur and with the establishment of Rakuten he soon became a billionaire — he is worth $6.4 billion, according to Forbes.

The Barcelona deal even has its origins in Mikitani’s personal ties with one of the club’s star defenders, Gerard Pique.

“It all started with a dinner organised by Gerard Pique at Mikitani’s house in San Francisco,” club president Josep Maria Bartomeu said Wednesday, according to Barcelona’s website.

– What are its other sporting links?

Besides the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles pro baseball franchise, Rakuten also owns J-League football club Vissel Kobe.

But the deal with Barcelona is Rakuten’s first major step in gaining a foothold in the global sports business and it is aimed at boosting its profile where it has struggled.

– Why football sponsorship?

At about $51 million a year, the huge investment by Rakuten into Barcelona is not even the biggest. That award goes to US car giant Chevrolet’s near $70 million sponsorship of Premier League giants Manchester United.

However, while the numbers are large, so is the potential windfall of being involved in one of the richest leagues in the biggest sport in the world, which is watched by fans in more than 100 countries. For instance, the 2013 European Cup final was the most watched in history, with 360 million people tuning in globally.

Barcelona are considered one of the best teams in the world, containing some of the top players on the planet, including Lionel Messi, and the prospect of Rakuten’s name being seen on TV by millions on a weekly basis will be music to the marketing department’s ears. – Agence France-Presse

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