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China Daily Global / 2020-08 / 10 / Page016

NHL putting fans to fore with latest China initiative

By Sun Xiaochen | China Daily Global | Updated: 2020-08-10 00:00

Growing up in a country where hockey was once better known for its field version, Hu Yuan had never imagined that a 2009 trip to Canada would turn her into an avid fan of the sport's tougher incarnation on the ice.

"I was fascinated by it right away. I was like, 'Wow! They look so cool', and immediately I wanted to learn more about it," Hu recalled of a giant poster of NHL stars for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics that sparked her interest in the sport when she arrived in Toronto.

Now Hu's hardcore hockey devotion has been officially recognized by the league through its new Fan Leaders Program.

The initiative, launched last week, is recruiting the most diehard fans in China to act as ambassadors for the North America-based league by creating and sharing hockey-related content on their own social media platforms.

Hu and three others were selected as the first batch of fan leaders after they impressed the NHL with their enthusiasm for the sport, loyalty to the league, unique understanding of Chinese hockey and influence on social media and involvement in offline promotions.

Fan leaders will enjoy benefits such as their own customized NHL jersey, free NHL.TV access for a year, tickets to future NHL China Games, and opportunities to participate in VIP activities.

"It's really important to unite everybody who loves hockey in China. I think this program helps us strengthen our identity as hockey fans and expand the influence of the hockey community in China," said Hu, a high-school biology teacher based in Hangzhou.

The activation of the program ties in neatly with the return of NHL action this month following the league's five-month coronavirus-enforced hiatus.

"Our ultimate goal is to increase our individualized engagement with both avid fans directly and casual fans through our avid fans," David Proper, the NHL's executive vice-president of media and international strategy, told China Daily via email on Friday.

"This program provides an 'official' outlet for our most passionate fans to share their excitement which will in turn help the growth of the league in China."

The NHL's Return to Play features an expanded 24-team postseason, with games being played behind closed doors in Edmonton and Toronto and being aired on CCTV-5+ and Tencent Sports, the league's broadcasting partners in China.

In addition to maintaining its media exposure, the NHL has brought four preseason games to China since 2017, as well as grassroots promotions and fan activities, including opportunities to meet players and coaches in the flesh.

During the league's debut China Games tour in 2017, the Los Angeles Kings beat the Vancouver Canucks back to back in Shanghai and Beijing, before the Boston Bruins pulled off two straight wins against the Calgary Flames in Shenzhen and Beijing the next year.

"We believe that in order to grow our fan base in China, we need to find ways to connect with this wider audience, and social media provides the most effective platform for making this connection," said Proper.

The NHL currently has a combined 1.5 million followers on major Chinese social media platforms, such as Weibo, WeChat and Douyin.

With hockey gaining more attention in China leading up to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, the NHL's newly appointed fan leaders reckon that greater accessibility can help it enter the sports mainstream here.

"It's really important at the moment to change the stereotype in China that hockey is only for the rich families," said Zhong Yanchen, another NHL fan leader.

"That might have been the case in the beginning a decade ago, but now it's not as expensive or difficult skill-wise as people thought," added Zhong, a junior student at Boston College who started to follow the NHL seriously in 2014 after enrolling in a prep school in Wyoming, Pennsylvania.

As part of a national plan, China aims to build 650 ice rinks and 800 ski resorts by 2022, up from 334 and 770 respectively by the end of last year, laying the foundation for an ultimate target of involving 300 million people in winter sports and related activities in the buildup to the Beijing Winter Olympics.

The NHL is hoping to take advantage of that push to gain an edge in a crowded marketplace.

"China is a competitive market with all the biggest sports leagues investing, and there are inherent challenges of doing business in China," said Proper.

"In such a unique marketplace with a dynamic fan base, we shall treat them as such and speak to them specifically.

"It is also imperative to diversify engagement strategies across multiple communication platforms including traditional media, social media, events and grassroots development of hockey in China."


Hu Yuan, pictured cheering on the Boston Bruins in 2018, has been selected as an ambassador for the NHL as part of its Chinafocused Fan Leaders Program. CHINA DAILY





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