Why the NHL doesn’t need the Olympics to succeed in China

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman (Chris Young/CP)

HNIC. Hockey Night in China.

Yup, you read that correctly. The announcement earlier this week that two pre-season games between Vancouver and Los Angeles will take place this fall in Beijing and Shanghai, constitutes the NHL’s official sojourn into the world’s most populous country. Finding a way to grow the game in a virgin hockey country of more than one billion people would make any owner salivate. Consider the potential of growing your business in a market more than three times the size of the one you currently operate in, and more than double the size of the European market you have aspired to control.

The fact that this China initiative hasn’t happened sooner is truly amazing. Former New York Islanders majority owner Charles Wang tried to invest in China years ago and at one point, sponsored the Chinese women’s national team. San Jose experimented in the market 10 years ago, assisting a China-based team that played in an Asian League. The Maple Leafs have investigated partnerships in China, with some success. I’m told they have seven-figure sponsorship deals with some Chinese corporations and there are 6,000 kids playing Maple Leaf-branded hockey in Beijing and Shanghai on weekly basis.

And while no one will admit it publicly, MLSE is very disappointed not to be playing in China next September. And trust me, a few other NHL teams, from both Canada and the U.S. were vying to be in those games.

What’s different and noteworthy about this venture in China is that the Chinese want the NHL there, and not just because the 2022 Olympics will be in Beijing. Chinese President Xi Jinping has apparently developed a passion for hockey and as a result, 3,000 hockey arenas are to be built in the country. They’ve also started to acquire hockey expertise, with Mike Keenan signing on as a hockey consultant to the Chinese government. That’s why it was important for Gary Bettman to personally make the trip to China. This isn’t a team play, this is a league play. The NHL constitution designates China a responsibility of the league office. Sponsorship, TV rights and merchandise all go to the NHL rather than individual teams, before being divided between the teams and the players.

Another element that makes China such a unique market, other than its sheer size, is the fact that there is currently no competing or existing hockey governing body. While the IIHF is the governing body of the game world-wide, the organizational power in each country resides with the respective federations, such as Hockey Canada. The Russian federation, the Swedish federation have institutional knowledge and regional rights that the NHL must navigate in order to host games and events in those countries. But that isn’t the case in China. That’s what makes China true virgin hockey territory.

The NHL has an opportunity to grow the game under its own terms in China. On the TV side alone, maybe not this season, but in years to come could result in hockey ratings in China that are 40-to-50 times what they are in North America. As an example, NBA ratings in China are in the tens of millions for games that domestically are in the hundreds of thousands. NHL owners hope, with time, hockey can do the same thing. By the way, there is already a TV deal in place with an internet-based sport network that can draw four-to-five million people per game. It may be small potatoes for China, but it’s a very significant number for Canada and the United States.

These two simple pre-season games and the budding relationship between the NHL and the Chinese government could prove to be very lucrative for all involved. “Growing the game” they call it.

And remember, this can all happen without having to participate in the Olympic Winter Games.