The Yomiuri ShimbunThis is the fourth installment of a series.
Since the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, athletes in sports generally considered for amateurs have been turning pro, and more and more companies are supporting this trend. Athletes are in search of better surroundings as they aim to compete in the 2020 Tokyo Games, while companies are attempting to improve their corporate images. As the aims of both parties are symbiotic, this is beginning to generate a huge movement.
Last year, Yoshihide Kiryu set the national record for the men’s 100 meters with 9.98 seconds at a collegiate meet, becoming the first Japanese to run the distance in under 10 seconds.
In that race, the sprinter wore a navy Toyo University uniform, but this spring he changed his outfit to a red and white one bearing the words “Nippon Life” on the chest. The 22-year-old runner has taken another step toward the Tokyo Olympics by signing with Nippon Life Insurance Co., a major life insurer.
Table tennis player Miu Hirano also competes with the Nippon Life logo.
The 18-year-old completed the Japanese Olympic Committee’s Elite Academy program in March, one year earlier than scheduled. She began her life as a professional the following month wearing the logo of Nippon Life, with which she had signed a sponsorship contract in 2016.
While professional athletes can set their own training schedules and compete overseas as they choose, they also have to pay their coaches and trainers and cover the costs of overseas trips, using the revenue they generate from sources such as sponsorship fees and tournament winnings.
On the other hand, they can manage their own image rights and can anticipate hundreds of millions of yen in earnings through multiple sponsorship deals.
Professional athletes take on a lot of risk compared to those who are employed by a company, as the latter’s status is often guaranteed in that they will continue to be employed even after they wrap up their sports careers. However, going pro is very attractive as a way to make a quick buck.
Kiryu and Hirano have signed multiyear contracts with Nippon Life, providing them with adequate annual payments to mainly cover the costs of overseas travel for competitions and other activities. If they can achieve the targets set for each competition, they are also paid bonuses.
The advantages for companies that sponsor popular pro athletes include publicity via media exposure when these athletes compete, in addition to improving their brand image by featuring the athletes in their advertisements.
Nippon Life has always been heavily involved in sports, managing corporate powerhouses in baseball and women’s table tennis. The insurer has concluded that more investment in sports that are gaining attention ahead of the Olympics will generate further added value for the company.
In line with this, Nippon Life is an Olympic Gold Partner for the 2020 Games. By making financial contributions to the organizing committee, the company obtains the right to use the Games’ logo and emblems.
“Our market research indicates that by supporting the Games, consumers who do not have insurance policies take a favorable view of us, thinking, ‘If I take out insurance, I’ll choose Nippon Life,’” said Tadashi Mitsumoto, head of the company’s Olympic and Paralympic Games Promoting Department. “It’s economically rational if [this strategy] helps us acquire future customers at a time when we’re facing a shrinking population.”
As an example of some other companies that are strategically sponsoring athletes, Kinoshita Group, which has housing construction companies under its umbrella, targets sports that other companies do not support. The company mainly supports medal hopefuls such as male table tennis player Jun Mizutani, 29, and Kanoa Igarashi, 20, in men’s surfing, a sport that will make its Olympic debut in 2020.
“These days, sports are a profitable business, so companies don’t have to feel hesitant about investing in them,” said Prof. Munehiko Harada at Waseda University, an expert on the sports industry.
“I don’t believe that the value of sports will drop after the 2020 Games. Instead it will rise further. I believe that a virtuous circle will continue in which the number of athletes who can make a living through sports will increase.”
Employers found for 224 athletes
Among those considered to be amateurs, only a handful can achieve a high level of success and enough recognition to gain powerful sponsors and devote themselves to competition as professionals. Most athletes in minor sports compete as company employees or contracted workers, receiving support from their employers. Ahead of the Tokyo Games, more and more efforts have been made to introduce athletes to prospective employers.
A good example of this is the JOC’s employment support system, called Athnavi, or Athlete Navigation System. This is a service that highlights the traits athletes have cultivated through sport — such as motivation to improve — and promotes them as useful for business scenarios, then pairs up athletes with companies that are willing to support them. The initiative was launched in fiscal 2010 and has helped 224 athletes find employers as of July 2.
The JOC signed an agreement with the Japanese Paralympic Committee in 2014, and the number of athletes who are able to find employment with Athnavi continues to rise among those aiming to compete in the Olympics and Paralympics.
While Athnavi aims to help athletes find employment, one company has started a service to connect student athletes, who usually do not have significant financial resources, with smaller sponsorship deals of around ¥100,000.
K Produce Inc., a web consultancy company in Yokohama, has been running a site named Find-FC since last year. It does not charge a user registration fee and creates promotional pages for free on behalf of athletes, and in exchange it takes a portion of their contract fees.
On Find-FC, athletes call for support by showing how much money they require for expenses every month and what the merits of sponsoring them would be.
Most users are university students who play in relatively minor sports and wish to keep playing even after they graduate. Many companies have certain requirements for sponsorship, such as requiring an athlete to have more than 500 followers on Twitter. It seems to be a business model made possible by today’s social media era.