The NHL's upside down powerplay


The NHL took the west coast to the Far East last week staging its first two preseason games between the Vancouver Canucks and the LA Kings in Shanghai first and then Beijing - of all places. As one commentator on LinkedIn said, that's a 1.4 billion man advantage. It certainly appears to be. But is it?

Any expansion into Asia is fraught with the danger of cultural disconnects if unaccompanied by experienced and sober local/cultural counsel. It’s not called the Wild East without reason. India and China are strewn with the carcasses of many a multibillion-dollar mistake made by well-meaning, ill-informed Western clodhopper-corporations seeking conquest. 

I grew up in Asia and the formative years of my career were shaped by my time working in Bombay and Hong Kong, so I am gently skeptical of the western approach. Asians, even without being practitioners of the second oldest profession (advertising) as I am, hail from places that midwifed humanity's oldest cultures, cultures that communicate with degrees of subtlety and nuance rarely practised in the west. Eastern consumers frequently regard clumsy western overtures as one might view an attempted seduction performed by someone without the sense of touch. 

Allow me to explain why I see this particular exercise as, um, unfeeling.

Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore.

Let’s start with the obvious. There are cultural barriers to particular sports and there are cultural affinities for particular sports. Soccer and basketball are "big in China" as the old phrase goes, but table tennis (with 300 million players) and badminton are way bigger as organized sports and are played at a grassroots level. In India, cricket dominates, followed by kabaddi a traditional Indian sport (think rugby meets wrestling), field hockey and soccer. 

There is the climate and the accompanying high cost of ice rinks for countries that are in most parts far warmer than Canada. These are countries where the absence of petrodollar funding usually produces a pragmatic rejection of illusory projects such as one sees in places like Dubai (indoor ski hill anyone?), Doha or Jeddah. The ice rinks that exist in China are largely recreational and used for figure skating, a sport that has a considerable headstart over hockey in China. India has a grand total of six indoor rinks.

Then, there is the matter of income and the access that comes with it.

The average urban Chinese income is about CAD3700/yr (approx. USD3000). This is a huge amount when viewed through an in-China lens because it is a figure that has increased by a factor of 10 compared to what it once was. Yet, in the North American frame of reference, it is shockingly small. 

Here in Canada, hockey is not seen as a sport exclusively for the wealthy because kitting out a minor player costs, at most, CAD1200, and that's well within reach for most Canadians. The average annual income in Canada, after all, is around CAD50,000/yr (or approx. 13.5 times the Chinese annual average). An outlay of CAD1200 for someone earning CAD3700/yr is the financial equivalent of an own goal by a penalty killer. (Surely it must be less for our Chinese Gretzky wannabes because so much hockey gear is made in China? But even if we halve that cost, it is prohibitive.) Hockey may have got a foothold in the thin air of the Indian Himalayas, but as this video shows, there are harsh practical realities. A sport like hockey is simply out of the reach of most urban Chinese or Indian citizens.

Yet, for an audience to love a game, most must harbour deep inside themselves visions of playing it - playing it heroically. Nike knew this many years ago, when it rode the crest of Linsanity, as you can see from this spot.

In short, this is not a North American sporting landscape. 

But that's not all.

Missing the empty net that’s right in front of you

I am gently skeptical of the NHL's ability to get this right when they don't currently get it right, right here in Canada with visible minority immigrant Canadians, especially Chinese and South Asian Canadians. As an evangelist for and practitioner in this space, I would know.  

Unlike the NBA who have managed to break through to immigrant hearts and minds thanks to Jeremy Lin and Yao Ming, the NHL isn't really paying attention.  

For a start, the NHL appears to be forgetting that the sport likely to become its biggest threat here in Canada is a sport played by immigrants. Cricket, once Canada's national sport, is today one of Canada's fastest growing sports - possibly the fastest. This is largely due to grassroots work in Canadian communities by immigrants from across the Commonwealth who are united in their love for the game. 

Immigrants may be behind the growing threat of cricket, but for the NHL they represent a huge opportunity in an otherwise saturated marketplace. In 2017, well over 6 million new Canadian consumers belonged to visible minorities - and South Asian and Chinese Canadians accounted for well over half of that. 

Like most immigrants, they are eager to understand and embrace the culture of their new home without losing their own. Hockey is a central part of that culture and they know that. While the CBC actually built a successful bridge with HNIC in Punjabi first and later in Mandarin (before HNIC moved on to Sportsnet) the NHL in Canada seems unaware of the market growth goldmine they are sitting on, right here. 

Investing in attracting immigrant fans here in North America represents a huge business upside.

Home ice advantage

For organizations like the NHL considering a market play in China or India, there’s a bonus: lessons learned locally from such an investment can be carried to the "away" game. 

Winning with immigrants right here is the equivalent of having home ice advantage in the series. 

Investing in the South Asian and Chinese Canadian segments is a low-cost, high-reward, learning opportunity slapshot. 

What does that sound like? Here’s a taste, first via HNIC's Punjabi play-by-play of a Nick Bonino goal that went viral - in the mainstream - last year:

And this little scene (below) at the Stanley Cup victory rally in Pittsburgh gives you a sense of how completely the Pens embraced Harnarayan Singh's epic broadcast.

It's worth mentioning that Nick Bonino has even suggested his family take it up as a personal ringtone. 

Unfortunately, I think the NHL is tone deaf on this one. 

I see its preseason experiment in China as nothing more than a PR play at best. 

It’s a one-goal wonder that will hog ethnocentric headlines at home in North America and barely appear on the Chinese cultural radar in China. 

Moral of the story: grab the bird in hand. It's a win-win. 

Gavin Barrett is Chief Creative Officer and Ideawallah at Barrett and Welsh, an award-winning multicultural advertising Toronto agency that specializes in the new Canada, a magical place where the cricket is meh, the beer is good and the curry and noodles are shared with all.

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