NHL focusing on European growth
Like many European players, New Jersey Devils forward Nico Hischier is a star in his native country. Never was that more obvious than during the team’s eight-day training camp jaunt this fall to Switzerland, where Hischier was a staple of media coverage, and a sellout crowd welcomed the 19-year-old back home for an exhibition game against his former team, SC Bern.
That kind of affection in Europe is not unique to Hischier, the first Swiss-born player ever taken with the No. 1 overall pick. European players now make up roughly 30 percent of the league, but the difficulty in watching games live on that continent has lessened the league’s growth abroad; for instance, a Devils game that starts at 7 p.m. in Newark would start at 1 a.m. in Zurich. But the NHL has begun countering that by playing a trio of regular-season games in Europe this season and by shifting the start time of nearly 50 Saturday and Sunday games, putting them in prime time in 24 countries and territories across Europe.
The three regular-season games played in Europe this season include the Devils vs. the Edmonton Oilers in Sweden on Oct. 6, and the Florida Panthers vs. the Winnipeg Jets this Thursday and Friday in Finland.
Domestically, the European game of the week — as it will be marketed overseas — began with two games on Oct. 13, with the Rangers hosting the Oilers and the Flyers hosting the Golden Knights. Those games, and the weekly ones to follow, were timed to hit hockey-loving markets abroad in prime time in an effort to further build the brands of those players and teams in Europe, as well as the league overall.
“One of the problems that any North American league faces in Europe is that you come, play your game and leave; there’s not a real year-round presence during your season,” said David Proper, NHL executive vice president of media strategy and international strategy. “It’s nearly impossible to tell a team that we’re going to take you on a trip to Europe in February or March as you’re trying to make the playoffs, so we started to look at other ways we could have a really strong year-round presence there.”
The NHL relaunched its European global game series last year after it was shelved in 2011 due to uncertainty around the CBA discussions. The Senators played the Avalanche in Sweden on Nov. 10 and 11, 2017. This year, in addition to the season-opening game in Sweden and this week’s games in Finland, there have been exhibition games in Germany and Switzerland. Each of these games is accompanied by a fan tour that visited many of the larger cities in those countries, as well as coaching clinics and other events. The NHL will return to Europe next year, but it has not yet determined its specific plans.
The Devils will have 12 of their home games played in prime time in Europe, the most of any NHL club. “We see our team and brand being able to go into the outlying markets as a huge opportunity,” said New Jersey’s team president, Hugh Weber. He also noted that on the Devils’ social media accounts, Swiss followers make up the largest portion outside of those from the U.S. and Canada. The team is planning to launch different language-specific social media platforms for European languages, as well as other pieces of content.
Proper said the league will produce interviews with players in their native languages and give them to the different networks. There are also discussions with the broadcasters to hold larger viewing parties in Europe for some of the matchups. The league already has country- and language-specific NHL digital platforms.
NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said that the league “has constantly heard in the international marketplace that broadcasters need prime-time exposure for NHL content if you want to grow the rights fees.”
“The short-term, medium-term and long-term goal is all about making us bigger and more popular in Europe,” Daly said.