Can the NHL Help Ice Hockey Grow in China?

Some of my best childhood memories are of going to hockey games in the winter time. My friends and I used to drive up to the local university on Friday nights to catch the game. Sitting in the bleachers, we ate popcorn while we watched big hits, slap shots, and good ol’ fashion hockey fights.

Since moving to China, I didn’t expect to watch many more ice hockey. But just this past week I came upon an advertisement for Boston Bruins vs. Calgary Flames exhibition games in Shenzhen and Beijing this coming September.

I don’t write for ESPN, but I figure growing up in New England and living in China for five years now gives me a unique enough perspective to at least have an opinion. And the truth of the matter is that I believe hockey will have a hard time gaining popularity in China.

First of all, there is the money issue. It takes a a lot money to keep the rinks going during non-winter months and also to pay for player’s equipment. Of course, money is also the reason the NHL is coming to China. However, there is a different between the GDP and GDP per capita. On average, it’s true that the spending power of Chinese is becoming greater, but it’s still much lower than that of places like the US.

Most middle-class Chinese would probably prefer that their children play soccer or basketball, both of which only require a ball and a decent attitude.

Ice hockey, on the other hand, has many barriers to entry. It’s not like you can just give a kid skates and a stick and then expect them to be able to play. They need to learn to skate, have a place to do it, and the necessary league infrastructure.

Maybe you, (probably like the NHL), have stopped now and said to yourself, yes, but “playing hockey is a status symbol. People will still want to play. And isn’t golf already really popular in China?”

Yes. Golf is really popular in certain social circles in China. However, just like in most places around the world, playing golf isn’t cheap. In China it seems that one of the main reasons the sport has grown is because of its association with elite status and privilege. That’s not to say China is unique in this respect to other countries.

I wouldn’t bet on ice hockey being able to attract the same types of fans and players as golf. It has a reputation for being a violent sport and therefore most likely isn’t going to be a “ice hockey country club”.

I don’t think it’s impossible for the NHL to bring ice hockey to China, but I do think their chances of success are very unlikely. They could try partnering with some elite private schools. Certainly the exhibition games, if marketed well, could be a cool, trendy event for those in the city to attend.

However, with only two exhibition games, I really wonder if they are up to amount of investment and planning it would take to be successful here. Coming to China is a major international operation and takes a massive amount of resources.

Article about exhibition games this September in China:

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