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NHL leverages Ovechkin’s pulling power to expand footprint in China

(Credit: Emmanuel Wong/NHLI via Getty Images)

  • Washington Capitals captain on one-man ambassadorial trip to Beijing this week
  • Russian’s visit has added importance in absence of any preseason games in country
  • NHL considering playing regular-season games in China in the long term

In the absence of any preseason games in China this year, the National Hockey League is leveraging Alexander Ovechkin’s star power and engaging personality to continue its efforts to grow the game in the country.

The Russian, who led the Washington Capitals to Stanley Cup glory in 2018, is visiting Beijing all this week in his role as an international ambassador for the NHL.

The one-man promotional trip to the host city of the 2022 Winter Olympics has taken on added importance after plans to stage two preseason games in the country were cancelled due to clashes at the planned arenas, which meant it was impossible to get the ice ready in time.

The NHL has made a concerted effort to expand its footprint in China in recent years. In 2017, the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks played preseason games in Shanghai and Beijing, while last year the Boston Bruins and Calgary Flames faced each other in exhibition games in Shenzhen and Beijing.

In addition, the Stanley Cup made its first visit to China in its 127-year history last September when it was showcased around Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Beijing.

 

Expanding on this strategy, the league has decided to bring its star players on promotional tours to China as well in the offseason. With 4.2 million social media followers, by far the most of any NHL player, Ovechkin was the natural choice to kick off the venture.

“We chose Alex for a number of reasons. The first is he is one of the great superstars of all time in our game,” David Proper, NHL executive vice-president of media and international strategy, told SportBusiness.

“He is also a great representative for the NHL and hockey in general. He has a great personality, he works really well with kids in terms of growing the game, and he is a really easy person to work with. And after speaking with Alex, it became clear that he was willing to embrace the trip and embrace the opportunity and was excited about experiencing the Chinese culture. Those are the kinds of things that makes these trips easier and more valuable,” Proper says.

 

Gaining year-round presence in China

The NHL has a number of specific goals in mind for Ovechkin’s promotional tour, which is expected to be repeated by another superstar next summer.

“We’re looking to achieve a number of things. The first is to bring a personable quality, NHL quality athlete to China…to offer an under-the-helmet look at one of our star players,” Proper says. “The second is to expand our activities in China to be more year-round. With our players, during the season, it’s very difficult to get them over but the off-season is a great time to take them over and have a little time in the market.

“The third thing is to reach out in a positive way. We have Alex…demonstrating that both he and we care about growing the game in China. We have a list of various players that we’re interested in taking [to China] over time and we will certainly be approaching them,” he says.

Among the activities that Ovechkin is undertaking this week are: leading youth hockey clinics, touring Shougang Park – the headquarters for the 2022 Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee – as well as visiting the Great Wall of China and sitting in on business development meetings.

The trip is a fan-engagement venture rather than a predominantly commercial initiative, but there are some commercial elements involved. Ovechkin also visited NHL broadcast partner China Central Television (CCTV), digital partner Tencent, and NHL international partner Bloomage International Investment Group.

Leveraging the NHL’s partnership with partnership between ORG Packaging, Ovechkin also dropped the ceremonial first puck in the Renaissance Hockey Cup game between KRS-ORG and Kunlun Red Stars at the ORG Arena.

“We didn’t make this a commercial event for a variety of reasons. We have agreed to host events at certain commercial entities’ locations. That is as much as we are willing to make it a corporate or sponsorship activation, this is really much more about a non-commercial component, getting Alex out there and letting him do his thing,” Proper says.

 

Although it is an NHL-organized trip, the Capitals have been highly involved as well, sending over a group of their own staffers and aiding in the planning and organizing efforts.

The Capitals are also benefiting by being able to leverage their own commercial partnership with ORG Packaging and one between the team’s parent company Monumental Sports and Entertainment and e-commerce conglomerate Alibaba.

The trip’s success will be measured in terms of resonance in China, as opposed to any impact back in the US.

“We have done quite a bit with [Chinese social-media platforms] WeChat, Weibo and Toutiao and so on down the line and we’ve been creating a great deal of content. We have a company out there that is tracking all the content out there and seeing how it works,” says Proper.

Beyond this particular trip with Ovechkin, the NHL remains engaged in a long-term initiative to grow the popularity of ice hockey in China, including working directly with rink manufacturers and teams. The idea there is to help cultivate both local fans and native-born players, and follows a similar international development strategy pursued by the NBA starting in the 1990s.

The NHL currently holds regular-season games in Europe and is considering following suit in China one day. But the much longer travel time from North America remains a sizable obstacle.

“There are a lot of logistical issues that are largely based on the travel. It’s a long trip and a lot of time zones,” Proper says. “If we could figure out a way to manage that and that would mean spreading out the time between the games when when they would return, then I could foresee us putting regular-season games there.

“That is the only thing that I would see standing in the way. There is nothing else that would make it different than Europe in terms of being able to play a regular season game there,” he says.

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