) and Google (GOOG
), hoping to take social networking to a new realm, have quietly launched the first invitation-only Web site for soccer-mad fans around the world. Joga.com went live late last week and will soon be running in 140 countries and 14 languages.
The two companies have been working on the site for the past eight months and are expected to publicly unveil it this week, BusinessWeek has learned. Nike is supplying the content, and Google is the technical partner. But the site looks similar to other social-networking outlets such as News Corp.'s (NWS
ONE GOAL. Joga.com is a free network where members will be able to create Web sites and send e-mail, photos, and video clips, as well as access Nike content related to its sponsored athletes such as Brazilian superstar Ronaldino or U.S. soccer prodigy Freddy Adu, according to Nike officials who confirmed the new initiative. Google officials did not return calls.
Following the raging popularity of such sites as MySpace.com and Orkut.com in Brazil, Nike executives approached Google with the idea of creating a social-networking site revolving around the world's most popular sport: soccer.
Unlike MySpace.com, however, Joga.com will be a community that focuses on one topic and one passion: soccer, or "football," as it is known outside the U.S. "As we saw the social networks grow in the U.S. and elsewhere, we asked, 'What if this was around sports, a specific sport?'" says Trevor Edwards, Nike's vice president for global brand management. "We are really excited about it."
BOOTING IT UP. Joga is a members-only portal community that will require an invitation to join. There is very little content right now, but Nike officials believe that will change shortly as word of the site spreads. So far, it is filled with profiles from Nike-sponsored soccer players and Nike employees who have created their own pages to get the network rolling. Based on how well Joga.com does, Nike and Google will likely create social-networking sites for basketball, baseball, skateboarding, and other sports, Nike officials say.
But for Joga.com to carry the kind of social cachet of MySpace, users will have to be convinced that the site is open and authentic -- not merely an extended marketing arm of the shoe company. Nike execs are aware of the delicate balancing act. "It has to be of the people and authentic and credible," Edwards says. "It's a self-governing community. Our job is to feed it, help it start, but then they'll fuel it. It's a long-term way of connecting with consumers."
The new site is Google's latest effort in the social-networking space where the search giant has struggled. It owns Orkut, but outside of Brazil the site has been considered a flop. Building an interactive community has been one of Google's glaring weaknesses.
"STAY CONNECTED." Nike will control the home page's content, says Stefan Olander, the outfit's global director of digital media. "You create the environment for the community where your presence as a brand is not intrusive, but it is absolutely clear who is behind this," he says. "There is no way you can go in and hijack the community."
For Nike, Joga.com is the latest example of how it is keeping in touch with its core consumers: young males who increasingly get their information from digital sources. As evidenced by sites such as MySpace, young teenagers and college students connect online, communicate through instant messaging, and spend hours surfing the Web. Nike's new soccer-marketing campaign, "Joga Bonito" (play beautifully), is mostly aimed at reaching young soccer consumers through various forms of digital media.
Nike has been releasing video clips of its soccer stars virally onto the Web, as well as posting long documentary videos on its Web site. It also offers soccer video games and other forms of digital information. "Our job is to reinvent the way that we connect with consumers," Edwards says. "We have to make sure we stay in their world, stay connected, stay relevant, and, more importantly, we allow them to do what they want. It's their world, their lives. We give them the tools."