With more than 1.4-billion people and a rapidly expanding middle class, China is a potentially massive sports market. While sports like soccer and basketball are played widely across the country, it has just more than 1,000 registered hockey players, according to the International Ice Hockey Federation. But with the Winter Olympics coming to Beijing in 2022, the Chinese government has committed to the development of winter sports across the country. The NHL has viewed this interest as a potential opportunity to grow the sport and expand its brand in China.
Next week, the Vancouver Canucks and Los Angeles Kings will play a pair of exhibition games in Beijing and Shanghai — the first time an NHL game will be contested on Chinese soil. Whether the games will have an impact on developing the NHL brand in the Far East remains to seen. But the league believes the potential is well worth the investment.
Bill Daly, the NHL’s deputy commissioner, spoke with me about the league’s strategy in China, barriers faced in growing the game, and the possibility of international expansion in the future. This is an edited version of our conversation.
Sportsnet: When did the idea for these exhibition games first begin?
Bill Daly: I would say probably a year, to two years ago. In prior years, our international strategy had probably intentionally omitted the Far East, in part because of a lack of hockey interest and infrastructure — and probably a view that we should concentrate on where hockey is popular, where it’s producing players as an initial step of a broader international strategy.
We’ve evolved now to a point where I think that the game is in a really good place and we have an opportunity to invest in a more significant and impactful international strategy that includes investment at the grassroots level to build interest and participation in the sport, and that will be vital to our strategy in China.
SN: Has the success of basketball and the NBA in China had an impact on the decision to move into the market?
BD: I can’t say it has no impact. They’ve done a lot of things right. Their experience certainly is beneficial to us in providing somewhat of a roadmap of what works, what doesn’t work… but I think the situations are a little bit different factually. I think the interest and participation in basketball was a little more prevalent in China than hockey has been. So, we’re working off different basis.
SN: What specific challenges does hockey face in a market like China to grow at a grassroots level?
BD: If you’re willing to invest in youth hockey infrastructure, then I’m not sure there are a whole lot of unique challenges that don’t exist in other sports. One of the drivers of our ability to potentially grow our sport in China is that after Beijing was awarded the 2022 Games, the view of the government was ‘we want to invest in and build infrastructure for winter sports — which traditionally we have not done.’ Their vision for having 300 million Chinese youth participating in winter sports over the next six years — you know, that’s a lot of people — and one of the real assets that China brings to the table is the vast population, and what that vast population can mean from an interest and business standpoint is valuable.
SN: Speaking of the Beijing Olympics, what are the implications this might have for the NHL’s strategy in that regard?
BD: Well, it’s way too premature for any kind of NHL strategy vis-a-vis participation in Beijing. And to tell you the truth, it hasn’t even really come up in our ongoing conversations with the Chinese government in terms of our interest in helping build hockey.
SN: Several NHL teams have invested time and money in developing grassroots hockey in China. What has the reaction been?
BD: The feedback that I’ve gotten from all the clubs who have participated in programs in China has been very positive, and they view (those) opportunities to be very significant. And they have been very encouraging of the league in terms of developing those opportunities.
SN: Chinese state television has shown some NHL regular-season games and the entire Stanley Cup Final. What have the viewership numbers been like?
BD: The ratings system is a little bit different in China — but if you translate what they say their ratings mean, it’s a mind-blowing number. It blows the eyeballs in Canada away, is what I’d say. So you can take that for what it’s worth.
SN: The Chinese market is somewhat opaque. The economy is massive, the middle-class has doubled in a short time, but questions remain about how accessible the market is. Is that something that concerns the NHL?
BD: I think that’s a fair point to raise, and I wouldn’t argue with it. It creates some challenges to know how the market will react. But until you put something there and give the market a chance to react, you’re never really going to know. We’re at the point in our overall evolution as a league that making that investment to see how the market responds is a good investment.
SN: Is hockey further along in its development in countries like Japan and South Korea than it is in China?
BD: No, I wouldn’t say that. I think generally hockey in the Far East is still very much in its nascent stages, so I wouldn’t distinguish between Far Eastern countries in that regard. The unique aspects of the Chinese market is probably causing us to focus more on [it] than perhaps some other markets.
SN: Did the Nagano Olympics (in 1998) have any lasting influence on the popularity of hockey in the area?
BD: Unfortunately, not. I don’t think there was a lasting legacy. We tried to build that interest. In three different years, we played regular season games in Japan, really, in conjunction with the [Olympics] — I think we played two before the Nagano Games and two after, then took a year off and played a third pair of games there. I’m not sure it ever really built the interest we had hoped.
There were other things going on at the time from a financial and business perspective with the league. We ultimately decided not to devote more resources to building something that wasn’t gaining any traction. We obviously think that the circumstances that exist now both internally and externally — in terms of the interest around the league, and the dynamics in China — make this a different opportunity.
SN: What other international markets is the NHL looking at? Is China the largest focus?
BD: I wouldn’t say it’s the largest focus. I would say in conjunction with our focus in China is a renewed interest in developing the European market. Nordic, Western and even Eastern Europe to a certain extent — where hockey is played and there is an infrastructure and interest. So it’s a totally different strategy. But it’s definitely a priority for the league to further its business reach… in established hockey markets in Europe.
SN: Has the KHL’s expansion into Beijing (with the Kunlun Red Star) impacted the NHL’s strategy in China at all? Do you see that as competition?
BD: Uh, no. Not really at this point — and for a variety of reasons. It’s a very big, vast market. To the extent people want to focus resources on building interest in hockey, it ultimately benefits the game. And it ultimately will benefit us. In some respects, I view it to be a furtherance of our efforts.
SN: Does the NHL think about expanding beyond North America physically? Do you envision an NHL Europe, or in other places? Can you envision a future that would involve the product being played elsewhere?
BD: I think we all do. I think all professional sports leagues view that as a possibility. And maybe the NFL is further along in potentially making that happen, with a team in London. But I don’t think there are any insurmountable barriers to pursuing that and ultimately executing that strategy. It’s just not something that’s happening in the near term.