As Alex Ovechkin’s flight arrived at the airport early this month, there were already scores of kids wearing his #8 Washington Capitals jersey just waiting to catch a glimpse of one of the NHL’s top goal scorers of all time.
But the airport wasn’t Washington Dulles or Reagan National Airport; rather it was Beijing Capital International Airport, where Ovechkin was traveling to serve as an ambassador for the league in China, the first time that an active NHL player has taken such a trip.
The NBA has long been the leader among North American sports leagues in China thanks to its outreach and as well as the success of Yao Ming. The NBA, which first played in China in 2004, will play its 28th and 29th games in October. The league estimates of the more than 1.3 billion people who live in China, 640 million of them watched some sort of NBA programming during the 2017-2018 season, and more than 300 million play the sport.
However, the country has quickly emerged as one of the most exciting growth opportunities for the NHL. While the penetration of the sport is still low in China for some of the same reasons as in the U.S. – lack of available rinks and ice time as well as the cost of playing – both the Chinese government and investors are looking to grow the sport quickly ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics, which will be held in Beijing. An ambitious plan previously laid out by President Xi Jingping stated that it wanted to have 300 million ‘winter sports enthusiasts’ in the country by the time the games began.
The NHL has been happy to play a role in that. The league first brought two exhibition games to the country in 2017, repeating that in 2018 and with a deal with the NHLPA to host games in the country in six of eight years. The NHL has broadcasting and streaming deals with CCTV and Tencent.
This year, efforts to play exhibition games ahead of the 2019-2020 season were postponed due to scheduling conflicts that arose with the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
However – exhibition games or not – the NHL is pushing forward into the country, with Ovechkin’s trip the latest step.
“Within our plan to grow hockey in China, engaging with our players and bringing them over to promote the sport is a logical next step,” said David Proper, NHL executive vice president of media and international strategy. “Ovechkin was a player that was always high on our list to be the first one.”
On the ground in Beijing, Ovechkin was accompanied by a fleet of NHL and Washington Capitals content creators who chronicled his every move, as well as David Abrutyn, a partner at Bruin Sports Capital and who personally oversees Ovechkin’s off-ice marketing interests.
Across the week, Ovechkin made a stop at the Great Wall of China, participated in on-ice and ball hockey clinics and dropped the puck at a local tournament. He also participated in business development meetings and toured some of the new hockey facilities being built in the city, as well as met with local press.
“This was not intended to be a commercial activation trip – we wanted Alex to be able to connect with the hockey community and help to further the growth of the sport,” Proper said, adding that he and Abrutyn worked closely on a schedule that, “fit well with what Alex expressed interest in doing, and things that would not be burdensome but effective.”
Ovechkin also took in some cultural sights, such as the Forbidden City and was treated to a traditional Peking duck dinner – “some of the things that frankly anyone should experience in Beijing,” Proper said.
The visit was a boon for the NHL’s visibility in the country ahead of the start of next season. Coverage of Ovechkin prompted a spike in the number of followers across the NHL’s social channels in China, with the league now approaching one million followers.
To date, the NHL’s video of Ovechkin’s trip to China has had more than 8.7 million video views.
Ovechkin’s visit was also beneficial for the Washington Capitals as well, a team that is trying to use its location in a multicultural city to further broaden its fanbase internationally as well, according to Jim Van Stone, president of business operations and chief commercial officer for parent company Monumental Sports & Entertainment.
The team added more than 11,000 Weibo followers to its newly launched account during Ovechkin’s trip, and it is now the third-most followed NHL club on the platform behind the Boston Bruins and Los Angeles Kings – teams that have played games in China.
The Capitals posted 51 times across its Chinese language social media accounts during the trip, which generated 792,351 impressions.
“We know Alex is a global superstar and that he is so engaging, especially when you get a chance to see what he does first-hand on the ice,” Van Stone said. “Collectively we all feel like we’ve got a responsibility to grow hockey.”
Monumental Sports has two corporate partners that are based in China: Alibaba Group and O.R.G. Packaging, the latter which is also an NHL league-level partner.
“To have our brand go over there and be represented in a tour like this is a great opportunity on multiple fronts,” Van Stone said.
While Ovechkin’s trip is now long over, efforts to grow hockey in China are expected to continue on all fronts this season.
For the NHL, exhibition games are scheduled to return again in 2020. Proper said that the league will be engaging in more activities over the course of the upcoming season than it has ever had before, which could include other player visits – likely alumni as to not disrupt the playing season – further investments in grassroots and youth hockey and other events.
“Players going abroad during the season is obviously tough, but we think there is an opportunity engage through social media so that we can continue to grow and build on the things we’ve done so far,” Proper said.
Van Stone said the Capitals will continue to share content across its Weibo account not only to engage the audience in China, but also the Chinese-language speaking audience that travels or lives in the Washington D.C. area.
“D.C. is a global place – one in five residents are foreign born and there are 190 embassies in our marketplace – our arena is also in the heart of D.C.’s Chinatown,” he said. “This is a unique opportunity for us a team that we feel really excited about.”
For Ovechkin, he will look to further cement his position as the NHL’s most popular player globally, and is in the process of launching his own Weibo account, Abrutyn said, with the goal of capturing content during the season specifically for that audience. There has already been interest from both China-based brands and companies to work with Ovechkin, as well as from local personalities who want to create content with him, Abrutyn said.
“We’ve seen the ‘Ovi Effect’ in Washington and it’s real – just look at the increase in the number of rinks and players since he arrived in the city,” Abrutyn said. “There is still a lot of work to do, but there’s no reason that can’t be done in China with continued investment into the sport.”
Even as all parties acknowledge it’s still early days for the sport of hockey and the NHL in China, Ovechkin’s trip and that scene at the airport is picture proof that progress is being made.
“I can’t tell you whether or not if Alex went to China three or four years ago if there would have been the same reaction, but I tend to think it wouldn’t have been,” Proper said. “Between the games, the clinics, the meetings, the TV broadcasts and all of the things we’ve tried to do as part of our strategy and plan in China, we think it shows that there is a certain base of knowledge around the NHL – and if you know the NHL, you know Alex Ovechkin, no matter where you live.”