The second installment of the O.R.G. NHL China Games is officially in the books and it looks as though the NHL faces something of an uphill battle in its attempts to grow hockey in the world’s biggest and most untapped market.
In the two games between the Boston Bruins and Calgary Flames – one in Shenzhen in the weekend and the other in Beijing on Wednesday – drew a total of 22,151 fans, which is almost as many as the Montreal Canadiens and Chicago Blackhawks attract in one regular-season game. All told, there were almost 15,000 empty seats between the two rinks. The numbers this year were almost identical to 2017 when the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks played in China, prompting Hall of Famer and Chinese hockey ambassador Phil Esposito to opine that the league “blew it” when it came to promoting the games.
But those kinds of numbers are actually fairly encouraging for the NHL. Apparently the NBA didn’t do much better when it started playing games in China almost 30 years ago and look where it is in that country now. And, really, all it might mean is that Chinese hockey fans are just as savvy as those in North America, who are well aware that pre-season games are essentially a cash grab featuring equal numbers of players who will never play in the NHL and others whose main goal is to avoid getting injured.
The NHL is saying all the right things and appears to be committed to see this through, but if it wants any type of sustained success, it’s going to have to play the long game here. The very long game. And that’s not exactly a strong suit when it comes to this league. The NHL has a long history of pulling the chute on initiatives if the owners don’t see an immediate and tangible return on their investment. No need to look any further than its myopic, short-sighted decision to pull out of the Olympics in 2018, something it won’t do in 2022 when the Games are held in Beijing.
The league has a very rare opportunity here. The Chinese government has made a real financial commitment to grow winter sports in that country. It has pledged to build hundreds of arenas and the International Ice Hockey Federation, which said there were only about 1,000 people playing hockey in the country in 2017, now reports a figure of 12,060. State broadcaster CCTV televises a handful of games and covers the Stanley Cup final. Kids with rich parents are attending hockey academies in Canada and Kunlun has a team in the KHL. But most importantly the NHL has a unicorn-like figure in the form of billionaire Zhou Yunjie, the chairman of O.R.G. Packaging who plays goal in a men’s league and is a huge hockey fan. And then there are the 2022 Olympics.
So there is some momentum there. But the NHL is going to have to give this thing more than just cursory treatment. Some regular-season games need to be moved here. The league is in the process of setting up an office in China, something it has never done in Europe, where the game is far more popular. The league has tried and bailed on initiatives like this before. Prior to the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, there were pre-season games in Japan, but the NHL did nothing to sustain it. Games are played in Europe, but there doesn’t seem to be any pattern to them and there is almost no follow-up. And of course it doesn’t help that the league is at complete loggerheads with its own players’ association over an international strategy. Playing a meaningless World Cash Grab of Hockey™ in North American rinks is going to do nothing to grow the game on a global level.
It’s great that kids are playing hockey in China, but that doesn’t always translate to eyeballs on TVs and bums in seats. And if it’s a sport that is the exclusive domain of rich kids and their parents, that won’t do much to create mass appeal. The NBA didn’t simply walk into China and take the country by storm. It took a long time and a lot of effort. The NHL doesn’t have much of a history of doing that. But if it wants to open up a huge revenue stream after basically exploiting all the other ones, that’s exactly what it’s going to have to do.