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Is China Ready for the Toronto Maple Leafs?

Posted: 11/7/2014 5:52 pm

toronto maple leafsThe Toronto Maple Leafs, loved and loathed by Canadians, is the latest western sports team to try and tap into the potential of China’s vast sports market.

Executives with the team’s owner, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE), will join Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Chinese officials in talks aimed at improving the state of Chinese amateur hockey in exchange for being able to promote the Toronto Maple Leaf brand to Chinese consumers. Chinese officials are even hopeful the Leafs could play a game in China as early as next year.

China isn’t known for its ice hockey prowess, but that could change with Beijing bidding for the 2022 Winter Olympics. China’s team is currently ranked 38th in the world. Truth be told, the Toronto Maple Leafs aren’t much better, having failed to win the Stanley Cup since 1967 and perennially missing the playoffs for many years since then.

Despite this record, MLSE is betting the losers will be lovable ones for Chinese sports fans. “This is the most storied and established brand in the game,” said MLSE chief commercial officer Dave Hopkinson. “We were told that if they were going to partner in the NFL, it would be with the Dallas Cowboys. If they were doing a baseball deal, it would be with the New York Yankees. And if there’s a partnership in the NHL, it’s going to be with the Maple Leafs.”

MLSE’s executive in charge of Chinese business Bo Hu compared the Maple Leafs to Manchester United, the most popular soccer team in China. “We want to keep holding camps for kids, building grass roots interest, and eventually take our Maple Leafs players there. This is the Manchester United model,” he said.

toronto maple leafsThe Toronto Maple Leafs are most valuable franchise in the NHL, worth $1.15 billion last year. The previous arena that housed the team, Maple Leaf Gardens, sold out every game from 1946 until 1999. During the 2007-2008 season, the Maple Leafs earned an average of $1.9 million per game thanks to the highest average ticket prices in the NHL. The Maple Leafs were even featured in the Mike Myers comedy, The Love Guru.

The introduction of hockey to China must compete with other sports hoping to develop their markets there. The NFL has announced several plans to promote itself in China, as has the NBA. At the same time, the development of soccer has been mandated by government officials to supplement the numerous soccer schools aimed at developing China’s next soccer star.

There are other obstacles for the NHL. Ice rinks are hard to find, and hockey equipment remains expensive to purchase, even for the Chinese middle-class.

Meanwhile, other sports like basketball have had a long tradition in China that eclipses hockey, even before Yao Ming was crowned an ambassador to the sport. Chinese fans have long looked up to Chinese basketball stars like Mu Tiezhu, a famous player from the 70s and 80s who helped the Chinese national team win several Asian basketball championships.

[h/t @jimmybats22]


Photo: Windsor Star, 680 News

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