Why the NHL will make it in China - and why it won't

By Mark Dreyer
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China.org.cn, May 1, 2017
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NHL, China partner to grow game.

A large contingent of NHL executives made the trip out to China at the end of March to announce the league's first initiatives in the country: preseason games between the LA Kings and the Vancouver Canucks in Shanghai and Beijing this September, kicking off an eight-year slate of games, which could be upgraded to regular season match-ups as early as 2018. Many foreign sports leagues and clubs have attempted to crack the China market in the past, but it's easier said than done. Let's take a look at some of the factors that might help the NHL in China, as well as the obstacles that lie ahead.

Why hockey will make it in China

1) The timing is right. With less than five years to go to the 2022 Olympics, the government is making a serious push to develop winter sports, and it's no accident that Chinese President Xi Jinping has been featured in very lengthy segments on the national nightly news touring Olympic venues on more than one occasion this year. There are actually a lot of indications that the government is moving away from soccer at the moment, and making winter sports its No. 1 priority within the sports industry. The window of opportunity for hockey is now.

2) Changing demographics coupled with maturing social trends in China are seeing more and more parents choosing to push their kids into sport, rather than force them to study after hours. In partnership with the government-led push to develop sport (see above), it's a potentially explosive combination. Granted, these social changes are not specific to hockey, but hockey can certainly ride the wave as long as it lasts.

3) Hockey is an expensive sport - it requires far more equipment than most others, plus there are rink costs and travel fees - but money is not something that the Chinese middle class lacks. For the early adopters, it also opens up a potential new route to a prized college education in the U.S., with universities keen, perhaps, to give places - or even scholarships - to a new breed of sporty Chinese students.

4) The league's top management does seem to grasp the magnitude of the challenge ahead for the NHL in China. All the right things were said at the press conference to announce the league's initiative about this being a long-term project with grassroots projects becoming an essential part of supporting the professional game, and youth team players from Beijing put on an impressive clinic following the ceremony. But to announce an eight-year commitment to playing games goes much further than simply dipping a toe in the water and there's no other way to win over Chinese fans without a concerted effort over a number of years.

5) It's a great game! I have to admit at this point, I'm half-Canadian so although I didn't grow up in the U.K. playing the sport, it's definitely in my blood (somewhere). Of course, it's never really been able to compete with the Big 3 sports south of the Canadian border, but in China those rivals could actually become allies. For example, the Kings used messages from David Beckham and Kobe Bryant in their promotional video at the press conferences, and whereas U.S. sports fans tend to be tribal about their preferences, there's no reason why basketball/soccer/football fans in China can't also embrace hockey as another U.S./Western sport. In other words, the NHL is also selling itself as another part of "Western culture," and from Hollywood to fashion and everything in between, that's something that has sold pretty well in China in the past.

And why it won't

1) Arguably, the Olympics are coming too soon for China, at least as far as hockey is concerned. China's most competitive age groups are around the U14 level, after which the talent and player numbers fall off a cliff. That means that China's best players will be U19 in 2022, which isn't nearly old enough to hold your own against some of the best professional players in the world. Former NHL coach Mike Keenan, who is now in charge of China's Olympic program, says he is looking to recruit foreign national who have some sort of link to China, but that's not something China has ever embraced in the past, so it's unclear why they would do so now. In addition, those players are unlikely to be world beaters, and wearing a Chinese jersey won't change that. Either way, China has a very successful Olympic pedigree, at least at the Summer Games, and Chinese fans may not be so understanding about why their hockey players can't compete.

2) Shortly after the China games were announced, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said the league won't let its players go to Korea next year for the 2018 Games. Some think this yet another bargaining play by Bettman, but the man has overseen three labor stoppages during his tenure. In other words, he never backs down. Even though the league has said it still wants to return to Olympic action in 2022, skipping Korea is a massive missed opportunity that won't play at all well with a Chinese audience. The Olympics are always popular here, and with the push towards 2022 now in full flow, Chinese broadcasters will be giving Pyeongchang - just one hour ahead of Beijing - the amount of coverage usually reserved for a Summer Olympics. It's a golden chance to try to showcase the game's stars in an untapped market, but, barring a miracle, it won't happen.

3) On the whole, the NHL said all the right things about the future plans for the sport in China. But the league's official press release did still trot out the mythical number about how "China is committed to expanding its participation in winter sports to upwards of 300 million people over the next five years." That's simply not true. The 300 million was originally intended to refer to the population of northeastern China, the country's winter sports hub, but was conveniently allowed to be misinterpreted as China sought to convince the IOC to hand them the Games. The official number of registered hockey players in China is just over 1,000, so the league may need to drastically readjust its expectations about the potential of China's market.

4) What happens after the Olympics is anyone's guess, but the NHL in China will be hoping that it doesn't see a repeat of Nagano in 1998, before which it also organized several NHL games in Japan, in the words of Bettman, "they ripped the ice plant out of the building the day after the Olympic tournament was over." China's team will not have starred in the Olympics (see above), and may not even have qualified, so there is a real danger that the momentum dies before any legitimate, homegrown Chinese players are able to mature.

5) It's 2017 and the NHL is only just arriving. The Washington Bullets first came to China way back in 1979, but the NBA has played preseason games here since 2004. Meanwhile, the NFL first landed in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, and while its initial plans to conquer China didn't go according to plan, it has had a constant presence here in China for a long time. Plenty of other sports and leagues have established themselves in China, or are trying to do so, and they all have the same goal: persuading China's youth that their product is better than all the others. As stated before, this is easier said than done.

So which one is it?

It's a crowded market with some very strong and established competition and the NHL is late to the game. But those first two reasons listed above - namely, the government-led winter sports drive and the more organic shift towards playing sports - are pretty compelling factors. As long as the league is willing to commit some serious dollars to the project over the long haul and doesn't expect to even start thinking about making money until well after the Olympics have finished, then there's a chance to carve out a niche for the NHL in China. The payoff, of course, is that the league could have a significant part of its global fan base here in years to come.

A lot can change in the future, but the fact that the league is coming in with an eight-year time frame as its initial term is a good sign. It may be a new game to many here, but the league seems to have made a good, professional first impression. Like a boyfriend trying to impress a girl's father, it's a start, but there's still a long, long way to go before he walks her down the aisle.

Mark Dreyer is the editor of China Sports Insider. A former reporter at Sky Sports and Fox Sports, he regularly comments on China's sports industry in global media.

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors only, not necessarily those of China.org.cn.


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