The NHL is Growing in China
Updated: May 29, 2019
It’s been a very busy 12 months for ice hockey in China and shows no sign of slowing. The 2022 Winter Olympics have stimulated a huge increase in focus on developing winter sports in China, none more so than hockey.
Hockey is Hot
Last year’s Stanley Cup Finals capped the NHL’s consistently growing TV ratings in China. 6 million fans that watched game 4 alone, more than the peak viewership in the US across the entire series. Following this, NHL signed a more comprehensive broadcasting deal for the 2016/17 season, with 4 games broadcast on CCTV-5 and 10-12 through Tencent’s digital sports platform each week. Once again, every game of the Finals series is being shown, in full, on CCTV-5.
Participation has also seen recent improvement, and whilst numbers remain low relative to China’s population, exponential growth will be supported by the continued construction of hundreds of new indoor rinks. Both the government and private firms are investing heavily in the game, particularly Beijing-based OSG Packaging, lead by the hockey-mad billionaire, Zhou Yunjie.
Professional Hockey in China
China also welcomed its first major professional league team with the formation of Kunlun Red Star (KRS), who made it to the KHL playoffs in their first season. Although they competed with an almost entirely foreign roster this season, they have recently agreed to terms with Stanley Cup-winning coach Mike Keenan.
The contract includes a pledge to give regular ice time to at least 5 Chinese players through the season. He will also oversee both the Men’s and Women’s National Teams as they build towards 2022. This appointment could well prove to be an important one as it brings top level coaching to both the team and the country for the first time.
The Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) has also recently expanded from 24 to 30 teams, one of which will be based in the southern city of Shenzhen as an extension of Beijing-based KRS. China’s women’s team has been much more successful on a national stage than their male counterparts and are likely to have high hopes for 2022.
Building on the Legacy
NHL teams have long recognised the importance of participation in cultivating a community. They have been coming out in increasing numbers to hold training camps and events since the Islanders began doing so in 2006. However, now the league has now turned their focus on the Chinese market in earnest. The headlining evidence being the announcement of the 2 preseason games between the Kings and Canucks this September. If a success, they will pave the way to regular season games to be contested in China, potentially even as soon as 2018.
The NHL has also recently launched an official Weibo account to improve communication with their fans in China and grow a greater following by providing themselves with an official voice. They are providing live coverage of all of the Stanley Cup Finals games, educating and engaging fans in the last serious action before the two franchises touchdown in China in 4 months.
Whilst there remains a long way to go before hockey can reasonably be called a popular sport in China, the wheels are certainly in motion and the signs so far are positive. What will be interesting to see is whether, should targets are not met by 2022, the government will continue to support the sport or simply allow it to fall by the wayside.
Mailman is a China sports digital marketing agency. We help global rights holders, athletes, and leagues build a successful business in China.