For many hockey fans, the ever-constant presence of rink board advertising tends to blend into the background. But those watching the match-up between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday night may take a longer look at those advertisers' signs.
That's because many of the boards framing the ice at Toronto's Air Canada Centre will be written in Chinese.
It's an attempt on the part of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. to take advantage of a new television deal the National Hockey League has secured. This year, 87 NHL games are being broadcast on China's CCTV network, 12 of them Leafs games.
MLSE does not receive any of the TV rights fees for national and international broadcast deals, but the company recognized that the NHL's efforts to grow its presence in China could be a valuable opportunity for its advertisers.
"I've said, 'Do you realize your ads are being seen by nearly one million Chinese people?' They can't believe it," Dave Hopkinson, MLSE's chief commercial officer, said.
For Saturday's game, 11 advertisers agreed to place Chinese-language rink boards, including Purolator Inc., BlackBerry Ltd., Bank of Nova Scotia and Avis Budget Group Inc., among others.
CCTV measures its TV audiences in households, not in individuals, which makes it difficult to compare the ratings with those in Canada. But according to Mr. Hopkinson, the broadcasts there are already attracting roughly 300,000 households, on average. One million viewers may be a generous estimate, but that's still significant viewership. Even very small viewership in China, relative to its population, yields numbers that approach a big ratings night in hockey-mad Canada. Last Saturday's Hockey Night in Canada broadcast on CBC, for example, brought in a Canadian audience of nearly 1.5 million.
"Effectively, you've doubled your audience," said Mary De Paoli, chief marketing officer at Sun Life Financial Inc., which sponsors the Maple Leafs. The company will be advertising its Chinese business, a joint venture with China Everbright Group, called Sun Life Everbright.
CCTV shows the games, with its own play-by-play, live on television and online. The timing is not ideal: A 7 p.m. ET game here is 7 a.m. in Beijing. So the network re-airs the games in prime time.
The opportunity to speak to an audience here at home is also part of the appeal for advertisers. "It helps us to stand out in the Canadian Chinese community, which is already a large market, but a quickly growing one, here in Canada," Ms. De Paoli said.
New Canadians are an important target for the NHL as it seeks out new fans. The CBC cancelled its Punjabi-language Hockey Night in Canada broadcasts in 2011 because of a lack of sponsorship, but a deal with Chevrolet Canada resurrected the show.
For the NHL, the broadcast deal in China is part of an effort to grow the game internationally. Professional basketball is already wildly popular there. If pro hockey can cultivate a fan base, it is a huge growth opportunity – not just for the league, but for advertisers and team owners. If Chinese fans begin pushing for more game broadcasts in that country, it means that team sponsorships could become more valuable international marketing opportunities.
"How many more people can hockey get in Canada? ... We haven't got a whole lot of head room here," Mr. Hopkinson said. "If we're going to dramatically grow the game, we need to look internationally."
It is not the first time the NHL has sought a global audience: In 2008, the league signed a broadcast agreement with the Hong Kong-based All Sports Network to televise hockey games in Asian countries including India and China. But individual teams and their advertisers have rarely focused on audiences abroad.
"It's brand new for the Maple Leafs," Mr. Hopkinson said.
Purolator's sign will have the brand name in English, and the slogan, "Canada's Leading Express Carrier," in Chinese.
"It's an attention-getter, I think," Ramsey Mansour, Purolator's vice-president of marketing, said. "It seemed like a natural fit for us. This is a great way for us to connect with a multicultural, global audience."
MLSE itself is also working to speak to that audience. Its Raptors basketball team, for example, signed China-based Peak Sports as a sponsor in 2012. Mr. Hopkinson will be in China on Saturday, and through next week, speaking to potential sponsors there about opportunities with both the Maple Leafs and the Raptors. He will also be meeting with CCTV to discuss partnerships.
"China is really waking up to pro sport, in a way that the prior generation of Chinese did not," Mr. Hopkinson said. "And one of the sports that has attracted their attention is hockey."
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled the name of Purolator's vice-president of marketing, Ramsey Mansour. This online version has been corrected.