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Business deals

Mercari to buy Asian soccer champs Kashima

Purchase from Nippon Steel expands internet business presence in J.League

Kashima Antlers players celebrate after winning last season's Asian Champions League final in Tehran.   © Kyodo

TOKYO -- Online flee market operator Mercari will acquire the Kashima Antlers soccer team, winner of last season's Asian Champions League, from Nippon Steel in a deal symbolizing internet companies' growing presence in a sport once dominated by heavy industry.

Mercari will buy a roughly 60% stake in Kashima Antlers FC for 1.6 billion yen ($14.7 million) under an agreement signed Tuesday. The change in ownership has been approved by the Japan Football Association board of directors and is slated to take place Aug. 30.

The Kashima Antlers were established in 1991 under the auspices of Sumitomo Metal Industries, which has since merged with Nippon Steel. The team has participated in the J.League since its inception in 1993 and has won 19 of the league's three big titles, more than any other club. Mercari has been a sponsor of the Antlers since 2017.

The team won its first Asian Champions League title last season, defeating Iran's Persepolis.

Mercari is not the first upstart enterprise to take over a soccer team as companies in traditional industries, suffering from sluggish growth, step back from ventures that do not contribute directly to profits in their core operations.

Rakuten runs Vissel Kobe, which was formally owned by Kawasaki Steel, now part of JFE Holdings. Online entertainment company CyberAgent bought second-tier team FC Machida Zelvia last year.

"It's better for [the Antlers] to be run by a technology company with growth based on consumer-to-consumer business, rather than a business-to-business company like us," a Nippon Steel executive said.

Mercari -- which has been bleeding red ink due to heavy promotional spending, particularly in the U.S. -- sees the deal as a way to expand the fan bases of both the Antlers and its own app.

Noting that flea market apps tend to be used by women in their 20s and 30s, Chief Operating Officer Fumiaki Koizumi said the acquisition will be "big for helping us approach men."

Mercari will consider offering events and match-related services that use augmented reality. It also looks to upgrade the Antlers' home venue, the 40,000-seat Kashima Soccer Stadium.

The company plans to change the seating arrangement to reduce capacity to the upper-20,000 range while "adding value," Koizumi said.

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