Google "China" and "Los Angeles Kings" together now, and this is what you get:
Li Longmou, CCTV's director of hockey programming, aspires to change that.
Hockey Is Growing Up in China
China is on the cusp of a hockey boom.
Already, there are plans to build over 400 more full-sized rinks in China by 2020. Some of these playing surfaces will accommodate the 1,700 children who currently participate in minor hockey in Beijing; five years ago, only 100 kids were involved.
State channel CCTV, which has broadcast live NHL games since 2013, doubled its ratings from 2013-14 to 2014-15. And while 400K viewers to 800K—in a land of 1.3 billion—isn't terribly impressive, that's still an intriguing number of fanatics and potential supporters tuning in at 7 AM or so. In comparison, about 30K catch the Los Angeles Kings locally on any given night, while a national audience of 750K enjoyed the LA/San Jose Stadium Series tilt.
Li attributes the spike in CCTV's ratings to a single event: "The ratings for North America may not be going up. But in Asia, they're going up very quickly for the NHL. Even in China...after 2014's Winter Olympics, our ratings were way better than before." Reportedly, 120 million Chinese watched Canada-Sweden (as opposed to 15 million Canadians).
There will be even more eyes trained on the ice as Beijing ramps up for the 2022 Winter Games. Most significantly, the Chinese government will be watching, and they possess both the capital and political will to stimulate interest and development in any sport.
They'll be plenty motivated to do so in this case. For China, strength in sports is also a flexing of political muscle. They'll want their automatic bid in the Winter Olympics' most prestigious team sport to boast a respectable showing.
And for what it's worth, President Xi Jinping says hockey is his favorite winter sport.
Kings of China?
A few franchises have already staked their claim in the coming gold rush.
The New York Islanders opened an office in Harbin over a decade ago, and they just drafted Andong Song, the first Chinese national to be selected in the NHL Draft. Recently, both the Toronto Maple Leafs and Vancouver Canucks have run youth hockey camps in Beijing and Shanghai. In addition, Maple Leaf Sports Entertainment has sold advertising on the boards at the Air Canada Centre to Chinese companies to the tune of $2.5 million last year, while "looking at about 10 times that much revenue in 10 years time."
That's just three teams ahead of the NHL, which doesn't appear to have a business plan for China yet.
Li thinks that the Kings can establish a privileged position in this burgeoning market.
"Kings games do well in China. Because everybody knows [the city of] Los Angeles. And the Kings win.
"I believe in the last two seasons, we played LA games the most."
Beyond grassroots, he suggests that Los Angeles can help shore up Chinese hockey infrastructure in advance of the 2022 Games. "Right now, it's building the system. Bridging the gap for 12-18 year olds. That's what the [Chinese] government wants to do.
"They need management. They need coaches. They need scouts. They need agents. Those coaches and management need to go to universities and schools to help them grow...these are just some of the things the Kings can do."
So whatever LA's prospective target: The 800K already getting up for NHL games? The 120 million who checked in on Canada-Sweden? The 300 million purported to have a "growing appetite" for winter sports? Or the 1.3 billion who make up the most populous country in the world?
Dave Hopkinson, MLSE's chief commercial officer, sums it up: "This is such an untapped market."
According to Li, a deep investment from the NHL or its franchises will be repaid in full and more: "If [the NHL] can help China build a powerful men's team, they're going to make more money. If they can help Team China [become an IIHF-level team] between 10th to 16th (currently 38th), the marketing will be huge.
"The next seven years will be the golden age of Chinese hockey marketing. Any team that comes in earlier will make lots of money in the future. If they don't do that, they're going to lose their best chance."
While it generally hasn't been advisable to follow the path of the Toronto Maple Leafs in recent seasons, if they're good at anything, it's making money. Hopkinson points the way again for us: "How many more people can hockey get in Canada? We haven’t got a whole lot of head room here. If we’re going to dramatically grow the game, we need to look internationally."
Where better to try than the richest, biggest country in the world?