NHL makes play for lucrative China market

Source:AFP Published: 2017/9/15 23:43:39

Hockey League eyeing interest in Winter Games to kick-start sport

The NHL wants to jump on a surge in interest in winter sports in China ahead of the 2022 Beijing Olympic Winter Games and perhaps one day rival the huge popularity of the NBA in the country.

Los Angeles Kings play the Vancouver Canucks next week in Shanghai and Beijing in preseason games, the first NHL matches to take place in China.

The National Hockey League is making a play to ramp up the number of fans outside North America, and China, where rising incomes mean more spare money to discover new sports and hobbies, is central to that drive.

"There's no question that we're not as popular as for example soccer and basketball [in China]," said David Proper, executive vice president of media and international strategy for the NHL.

"But we're seeing a lot of growth, particularly since the 2022 Winter Olympics were awarded to Beijing, and the government has pressed for 300 million people to be involved in the Winter Olympics, and we've seen the growth of hockey as a result."

The number of NHL fans in China is hard to gauge accurately, but anecdotally very few Chinese have an interest in or knowledge of the sport.

For many, their first taste of ice hockey comes when they visit North America.

Proper and the NHL are under no illusions, but they are ambitious and believe that promotional events such as the games on Thursday in Shanghai and two days later in Beijing will be the start of something big.

"What the NBA has done is a really great display of growing a game in China," he said.

"We talk to them quite a bit and we've gotten the benefit of their expertise in terms of some of their strategies.

"If we can one day emulate the NBA's popularity, that would be a wonderful thing for us."

However, unlike basketball, where just a ball and a hoop are required, hockey needs more extensive - and expensive - equipment.

Proper says that China's economic growth - it has the second-biggest economy after the US - is key if the NHL is to gain a foothold in the world's most populous country.

"The economic development in China is probably uniquely beneficial to hockey, because one of the things that we need more in China is an infrastructure built for hockey," he said.

"Rinks, equipment, things of that nature - those are investments that any country needs to make.

"When you're trying to grow the game, that's one of the key barriers you need to overcome, and having the economic development that's going on in China - and frankly the incredible growth of the sports economy - has given us an opportunity to grow that we wouldn't normally have without that kind of infrastructure built."

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