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The NHL Is Headed to China

The National Hockey League is drafting big plans to expand hockey’s popularity in China.

League officials are putting the finishing touches on a pair of exhibition games between the Vancouver Canucks and Los Angeles Kings for this September, just as local Chinese officials and businessmen discuss investing in an NHL franchise in hopes of leveraging a team’s branding back in China, the Globe and Mail reports.

“Our understanding is, they’re looking at building hundreds of rinks and arenas and looking for ways to introduce the game to people throughout the country—and that’s something we’ve been interested in exploring at all levels in the game,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, who’s traveling to Beijing next week for a press conference likely to unveil the exhibition schedule, told the Toronto newspaper.

Spending on all Chinese sports, both recreational and professional, adds up to 0.6% of China’s GDP, compared to the U.S. rate of 2.6%, according to brand consultancy Millward Brown China. China’s central government is pushing to boost participation, predicting the country’s sports industry should grow five-fold to $780 billion by 2025.

Hockey is one of the beneficiaries of the government push as the country gears up to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, for which it wants a decent national hockey team. In the past year, there’s been a flood of money to support youth hockey facilities around Beijing and other large cities.

A NHL-China relationship could be a boon for both sides in the mold of the NBA’s expansion there. Two years ago, the NBA signed a five-year online streaming deal in China worth up to $700 million

In the short term, however, the NHL primarily views China as an untapped investor with cash to spend. As recent economic problems at franchises like the Phoenix Coyotes attest, NHL teams could use the money.“There’s no doubt there have been a number of expressions of interest from Chinese business entrepreneurs who are interested in investing in the league,” the NHL’s deputy commissioner Bill Daly said.

China, meanwhile, likely views the NHL as it does European soccer leagues: as the sport’s premier associations worth investing in and learning from.

The mutual need might be enough to draw the NHL and China closer.