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Volume 20 No. 46
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NHL pleased with results of first China visit

As Vancouver Canucks Chief Operating Officer Jeff Stipec walked around the arena in Beijing before the team’s game against the Los Angeles Kings, a group of traveling Canadian fans stopped him to complain.

“They traveled halfway around the world, and now I’m getting criticized because they don’t serve beer in the arena,” Stipec said. “It was a little bit different than the experience we deliver in Vancouver.”

The NHL, much like Stipec, didn’t know what to expect from its first visit to China. While there were differences from the traditional game experience, from booklets explaining rules left at every seat to the drinks of choice in the venue, the NHL views last month’s effort as a success, said David Proper, the league’s executive vice president of media and international strategy.

Two games between the Kings and Canucks, in Beijing and Shanghai, drew more than 23,000 fans combined. The league, in conjunction with the teams and the NHLPA, held a fan fest in Beijing, and youth clinics in both cities. It also held an event with the U.S. Embassy called “Hockey Night,” a 50-minute program featuring hockey activities and demonstrations that was streamed online in China and had more than 4.6 million video starts. A livestreamed practice for the two teams had 2.6 million video starts.

Those numbers may be modest by Chinese streaming viewership standards, but they were well above what the league expected, Proper said. The league’s Chinese-specific social media platforms saw more than 300 percent follower growth during the week of the games, and an additional 100 percent increase since the games were held, he said.

Two games between the Kings and Canucks attracted more than 23,000 fans combined.
The league’s reach in the country still pales in comparison to the NBA. For example, the NBA’s account on Weibo, China’s Twitter equivalent, has more than 33 million followers. The NHL’s has roughly 172,000. But the first meeting between two NBA teams in China was in 2004 (and Yao Ming starred on one of them), so basketball has a considerable head start.

Proper said the league viewed its first step into the country as just that: the first part of a multiyear strategy that will evolve. The events did not generate revenue for the league, but local promoters and organizers took on all cost risks.

The NHL and NHLPA met last week to discuss the league’s international strategy. On the table are potential games in China in the coming years during the preseason, as well as playing more regular-season games outside of North America. The NHL will hold two games in Sweden in November.

The league aims to host at least 15 clinics in the country in the coming year. To educate fans, plans call for viewing parties in major cities aided by the NHL’s Chinese rights holders, CCTV and Tencent.

The Kings and Canucks will follow suit. Through parent company AEG, the Kings have built a two-person social media team in China that runs the team’s WeChat and Weibo channels and spent the China trip with the Kings capturing content. Clinics in China with partner ORG Packaging will continue.

“Continuity is very important, and we have to have plans to go back and work on clinics and connect with kids,” said Los Angeles Kings President Luc Robitaille. “The league needs to be embedded in the youth hockey community, and if we can do that there is huge upside.”

The Canucks, who have supported youth hockey development in China for the past three years, will continue down that path with additional partnerships. They’ll also host a tournament in February in Vancouver that potentially will include eight teams of 9- and 10-year-olds from China. The Canucks also launched their own WeChat and Weibo channels ahead of the trip to China, as well as a Chinese-specific microsite.

Stipec said that during the trip he was able to talk with Chinese companies about opportunities to not only sponsor the team in Vancouver but also partner on efforts in China.

“When you walk into a sporting goods store in China, basketball and the NBA dominate as a result of what the league has done in that market. I think there’s that opportunity for the NHL as well,” he said.