Rakuten’s Swift Departure Raises Questions in Women’s Golf Tour | FRIDAY DIGITAL

Rakuten’s Swift Departure Raises Questions in Women’s Golf Tour

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Rakuten Chairman Mikitani signed Mone Inami in 2022. Mikitani decided to speedily withdraw from the women’s tour In 2023.

The popular New Year’s variety show “Yume Showdown 2024: Tunnels’ King of Sports is Me!” (TV Asahi), featuring popular female golfers Hinako Shibuno and Erika Hara, contributed to the ratings this year as well. In the meantime, the Japan Ladies Professional Golfers’ Association (JLPGA) and the sponsors have been engaged in a heated feud behind the scenes.


On December 19 last year, the JLPGA announced the regular tour schedule for the upcoming season: the Rakuten Super Ladies (Rakuten SL), which had been held in July, will end after only three years, and the number of tournaments will be reduced by one this year to 37. 


Even so, with a total prize money of 4.4 billion yen, it is an exceptionally popular event. However, the JLPGA, led by Chairman Hiromi Kobayashi, is taking a hard-line stance over the hosting rights, and the sponsors are having a hard time getting their heads around it, said a sports newspaper desk reporter.


Rakuten’s speedy withdrawal from the popular women’s tour was immediately reported by the media, revealing the feud between Rakuten Group Chairman Mikitani and the JLPGA. 


The association’s brusque response, saying, “We would like to refrain from commenting on the details of the reasons for our withdrawal,” sparked speculation. At first, it was widely believed that the feud was influenced by the business situation at Rakuten’s headquarters, citing Rakuten’s struggling cell phone business and the unprecedentedly low annual salary of 40 million yen (estimated) for the new manager of the Rakuten Eagles, Imae.


However, apparently not only that, but we began to hear that the termination was due to the lack of merit of the special sponsorship. For example, it seems that there were cases where approval for a new business proposal involving the Rakuten Group’s travel site ‘Rakuten Travel’ was not obtained. Rakuten is likely conveying the message, “We can’t do this if we don’t get any benefits from the huge amount of money we’ve put into it. If there is no benefit to the huge amount of money.”


There is more to this. In fact, Rakuten SL was not sponsored by Rakuten, but by a special sponsor.


The women’s tour in Japan has been organized by sponsors and officially recognized by the association, but the Rakuten SL, which started in 2021, was organized by the association, and the Rakuten Group was a special sponsor. For the JLPGA, which had indicated its intention to have all tournaments sponsored by the association by 2025, the early departure of Rakuten, which was said to be the first special sponsor, must have been a considerable blow (A sports newspaper reporter mentioned above). 


Perhaps for this reason, a meeting was held in Tokyo in mid-December last year to explain the sponsor’s side, and the target was postponed until 2027.


The early withdrawal of Rakuten also caused a backlash from many sponsors who demanded a review of the plan. In addition to the burden of the total prize money, a four-day event would cost approximately 200 million yen in operating expenses, for a total of more than 300 million yen, but even with ‘special sponsorship,’ the expenditure would be almost the same. On the other hand, if various restrictions are placed on the sponsors, we are beginning to fear that they will leave the sponsors (The sports paper desk noted above). 


Depending on the direction taken by Chairman Kobayashi, confusion is likely to ensue.


In the past, there have been criticisms of forceful tactics over “broadcasting rights,” and GMO Internet Group, which insisted on “free” even in internet streaming, distanced itself. It’s not bad that the JLPGA is organizing it, but saying to sponsors who have supported them so far, “Keep giving us the same amount of money. But the rights belong to us,” won’t satisfy anyone.


Looking back at the past where the domestic tours have been mellow and prosperous, the Ai Miyazato fever that saved the tour from extinction, and the golden generation called the Ai-chan generation that has taken the world by storm with one heroine after another emerging, one can hope for the management of “Player First.” (Sports newspaper desk mentioned earlier)


Rakuten has given up on the JLPGA’s money-grubbing ways too soon. Will the women’s tour really be able to continue to thrive in the future?

  • PHOTO Yoshio Tsunoda/Afro

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