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Ice cream and Kimekomi dolls | Developing a licensing programme for the Rugby World Cup in Japan

IMG Licensing says it has secured contracts with 25 Japanese licensees and 21 global licensees to design, produce and distribute merchandise for this year’s Rugby World Cup in Japan.

World Rugby appointed the agency as its global master licensee in 2017, in a deal that included this years’ event, the 2023 World Cup in France, as well as the Women’s Rugby World Cup, World Rugby U20 Championship and the World Rugby brand.

With a month to go to the start of the tournament, Mickael Andreo, vice-president, licensing, IMG, says the 2019 programme has surpassed the licensing revenues generated by the 2015 World Cup in England, when Elite Sports Properties was the master licensee. IMG’s target is to exceed the 2015 figure by 30 per cent. SportBusiness estimates this part of the 2015 commercial programme generated around £10m (€11m/$12m) in revenues. IMG refused to comment on or confirm the £10m figure.

Although Japan has a strong character licensing market, Andreo says the lack of major sports events in the country meant there was less of a culture for sports licensing when IMG first began approaching prospective licensees.

“The challenge and the success we had, was really to engage with licensees that are not used to do those events because rugby was never in Japan before,” he says. “The last major event was the football World Cup in 2002.”

Business plan

Before working with a licensee, IMG asks the prospective partner to write a detailed business plan for the category in question. If the business plan meets its requirements, the agency asks the licensee for a minimum guarantee calculated as roughly 60-70 per cent of the revenues predicted in the business plan. This serves to keep the licensee engaged in bringing the licensed products to store. IMG and World Rugby then take a royalty on sales that exceed the minimum guarantee.

Because of the idiosyncrasies of the market, Andreo says some of the Japanese licensees differ from the companies World Rugby’s works with globally. “I would even say that we have two programs to manage here, the one in Japan and the one in the rest of the world,” he explains.

Globally 60-70 per cent of World Rugby’s licensees are in apparel categories. Traditional licensed products such as keyrings, magnets, footwear and glass wear make up most of the remainder of its licensed product offering. But in Japan, IMG has also engaged with food licensees, including an ice cream brand, a confectionery company and a dumpling brand in addition to the more customary apparel licensees.

IMG engaged with a range of food licensees in Japan, including a dumpling brand.

The dual approach is also reflected in its e-commerce strategy where local company and Official Sponsor, Hito, runs the Rugby World Cup online store in Japan and Sportfolio runs the global online store.

On-site retail

IMG appointed US agency Legends, to operate on-site retail stores in 12 of the tournament venues and selected fan zones. The company will also operate 73 official merchandise stores across Japan, the centrepiece of which is a 1,0000-sq. m megastore in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo, which sells the entire licensed product range.

In addition to the licensed product range, the megastore and the online stores will also sell most of the jerseys of the 20 competing unions. In some cases, IMG has agreed deals with the union to produce a whole range of apparel and accessories which bear the Rugby World Cup logo and the union logo. Sales revenues for these products are divided equally between World Rugby and the union in question.

Next to this, World Rugby has an unbranded apparel offer which only carries the 2019 World Cup logos. World Rugby’s official apparel provider Canterbury also has a strong online presence in Japan and all of the big rugby markets and is also licensed to sell the co-branded products.

Outside of the core apparel products and the food categories, there are additional lines based on local Japanese products such as traditional Jimbaori coats and Kimekomi dolls. “We try to make sure the local customers can engage with the programme and also that fans that travel to Japan could come back with a product that they wouldn’t find in Europe,” says Andreo.

Ribbon cutting at the Rugby World Cup megastore, Tokyo.

Although the licensing programme does not account for a significant share of Rugby World Cup revenues, Andreo thinks it has an important role to play in marketing rugby to a wider audience. IMG is working with the governing body to build a customer database and create more continuity in its marketing efforts from one tournament to the next.

“It’s more about how you spread the message. How do you control your brand?” says Andreo. “How do you make sure you can speak to a target audience that is not core fans and go a bit further to make sure we can gather more for the sport of rugby in general?

“You have core fans that are spread over the world and you need to be able to address them. How do you do that with the licensing program? It’s clearly through the online store and the real strategy behind that.”

IMG has had an office in Japan for 25 years and has worked in various capacities with the Rugby World Cup since the early 1990’s. The agency has developed licensing programmes for Pepsi, Fortnite, Pink Panther, Aston Martin, NFL, Juventus, Uefa Euro 2020, Tetris, Li Na, The Simpsons, Sesame Street and National Geographic in Japan and the wider Asia region.

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