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Business deals

Rakuten to buy Taiwan baseball champs in global sports offensive

Japanese e-commerce group will enter league with Lamigo Monkeys in 2020

Despite winning the Taiwan Series in 2017 and 2018, the Lamigo Monkeys have been losing money. (Photo from team Facebook account)

TOKYO/TAIPEI -- Japanese e-commerce group Rakuten has reached an agreement to buy the popular Taiwanese pro baseball team Lamigo Monkeys, the company said Thursday, with an eye toward entering the league in time for next season.

The team's management will be "rooted in Taiwan," Takashi Watanabe, the CEO of Rakuten's subsidiary covering Asian markets outside Japan, told reporters in Taipei. Rakuten is set to buy all shares in the Monkeys for an undisclosed sum, which Taiwanese media reported to be about 1.1 billion yen ($10.2 million).

With online shopping and credit card businesses in Taiwan, the company sees the purchase fitting its global pursuit of sports partnerships to boost brand recognition and spur growth in overseas markets.

The Lamigo Monkeys, one of five teams that will take part in Taiwan's Chinese Professional Baseball League from 2020, are expected to be renamed. The deal will be finalized pending league approval.

The Monkeys are Taiwan's "number-one" most popular team, said Yoshinori Kawada, head of stadium operations for a Rakuten-owned Japanese team, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. He added that Rakuten plans to keep the team's strengths intact while bringing its own experience to bear.

Despite winning the Taiwan Series in 2017 and 2018, the Monkeys have been losing money, leading management to put the team up for sale in July.

Monkeys general manager Liu Jie-Ting said he was confident Rakuten's network of internet services would help further the team's development.

Rakuten entered the Japanese pro baseball world in 2005 through the then newly formed Golden Eagles. A decade later, it dove into the Japan Professional Football League, or J-League, with the purchase of the Vissel Kobe club. In 2018, Vissel Kobe set an all-time J-League record with an operating revenue -- equivalent to sales -- of 9.6 billion yen, raising confidence in Rakuten's skill as an operator.

Visssel Kobe, in crimson, hosts FC Barcelona in a friendly soccer match in July.   © AP

Rakuten is hoping its sports and e-commerce activities feed each other's successes. The company launched full-scale Taiwanese operations in 2008. It partnered with Taiwanese online shopping company PChome Online this March and received approval in July to start banking operations there.

Rakuten counts about 6 million registered users for its Taiwanese online shopping services, or roughly 25% of the island's population. People there are also adopting its peripheral services including credit cards and rewards points in increasing numbers, helping make Taiwan a core overseas market as crucial to Rakuten as the U.S.

The company has sought to draw attention to its brand globally through forays in sports. In 2016, it sealed a partnership with Spain's wildly popular FC Barcelona and followed that up the next year by partnering with the NBA's Golden State Warriors.

Overseas markets account for only about a fifth of Rakuten's total sales. The company hopes the sports offensive will help it take root abroad, broadening its economic sphere further beyond Japan's shores.

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