The next 18 months or so are shaping up to be a lucrative and high-profile period for sports entity Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Inc. and its two flagship properties.
The Toronto Raptors will be heading to Britain for a game next month, before hosting the first National Basketball Association All-Star Game to be held outside the United States in mid-February. Meanwhile, the Toronto Maple Leafs of the National Hockey League will be gearing up for the franchise's centennial season in 2016-17, with the possibility of stage the league's own All-Star Game, the annual NHL draft and maybe the wildly popular New Year's Day outdoor game as well.
But while those should all do wonders to build the brands, both domestically and abroad, MLSE has set its sights on Asia, and China in particular, as an untapped market. Last month the company held the inaugural Canada-China sports business summit at Beijing's National Stadium, the so-called "Bird's Nest" that was the main venue for the 2008 Summer Olympics and will also be a part of the 2022 Winter Games.
The summit was an opportunity for Canada's largest sports and entertainment company, worth about $2.25-billion (U.S.) according to Forbes, to share its expertise and experience with 150 Chinese firms.
The Chinese government has set a target of getting 300 million participants involved in winter sports by the 2022 Winter Olympics and has built 400 ski resorts over the past 10 years to help facilitate this. In addition, it wants to build its sports industry to the equivalent of more than $1-trillion by 2025 from the $170-billion it was estimated to be worth two years ago.
It is those kinds of numbers that have MLSE sitting up and taking notice.
"When the Chinese government comes out and says we want to introduce 300 million new participants into winter sports, those are numbers that as Canadians are staggering, that's the entire population of the United States," says David Hopkinson, MLSE's chief commercial officer.
"Canada's role as leaders in winter sports, Canada's role as leaders in hockey and the Maple Leafs as leaders in our game makes us a natural group to be having conversations with."
It helps that both NHL and NBA games are broadcast on China Central Television (CCTV), the country's version of CBC, with NBA games attracting about 10 million viewers, compared with 2.5 million for NHL games. In comparison, average viewership for Raptors games was 320,000 on TSN last season, while CBC's Hockey Night in Canada has averaged 1.78 million viewers in the first six weeks of the current season for the early Eastern time zone game, which habitually features the Maple Leafs.
However, those TV deals are negotiated by the leagues themselves, rather than the individual teams, so while the rising tide floats all ships, TV exposure doesn't directly correlate to swollen coffers at MLSE's Bay Street headquarters. The same goes for merchandising of jerseys and other paraphernalia.
Where MLSE hopes to make a difference is in partnerships with Chinese companies, and so far it has struck global partnerships with such giants asAlcatel OneTouch cellphones, Asus computers, Aeolus Tyre Co. Inc. and telecommunications company, Huawei.
"When we can attract Chinese companies who want to start authenticating themselves in hockey by associating themselves with the Maple Leafs, that's great for our business and that's truly doing global commerce," Mr. Hopkinson says.
It's a strategy that has legs, according to some experts. Vijay Setlur, a sports marketing instructor at Toronto's York University, explains that, given the Chinese emphasis on building sports as a means of boosting consumption domestically and replacing traditional growth drivers such as manufacturing and heavy industry, MLSE making a name for itself in the Chinese market is smart business.
"Given that licensing revenue is shared, given that broadcast rights fees are shared, any team that looks to exploit the Chinese market has to think very creatively and sponsorship obviously is one area where they can claim 100 per cent of the revenue," he says.
To assist in developing that area, five years ago MLSE appointed Bo Hu to oversee its Chinese business ventures. Beijing born and educated at the University of Alberta, Mr. Hu has experience working in both the Chinese and North American sports industries and is fluent in English and Mandarin.
As a regular traveller between Toronto and Beijing, Mr. Hu has helped MLSE build its brands by holding hockey clinics in Beijing, Shenzen and Shanghai featuring one-time Maple Leafs player Peter Ing, a former NHL goaltender of Chinese descent. The Leafs are one of just four NHL teams to have held hockey camps in China.
"Sports sponsorships isn't just about advertising or eyeballs any more, it's really about activations," he says. "You're transferring the passion of fans into the brand through the teams that you love. That's what we're trying to educate our Chinese counterparts about."
MLSE gets its players to do TV spots wishing China well for Chinese New Year, and at one point this season had all the electronic advertising boards at the Air Canada Centre displaying messages in Chinese directed at its partners over there for a game broadcast live in China.
The Leafs in particular have also developed a strong social media following through Weibo, as Facebook and Twitter are blocked in mainland China. The only NHL team with a Weibo account, the Leafs' 50,000-plus following there easily trumps that of the NHL, which has just 2,900 followers. Meanwhile, the Raptors' Weibo account actually has more followers than it does on Twitter.
In early 2017, the Raptors will also follow a recent NBA tradition of having its players wear shirts celebrating the Chinese new year for games broadcast live in China. Mr. Hopkinson hopes this will further entrench the popularity of a team that lacks the superstar cachet of a Kobe Bryant or LeBron James, and as a 20-year-old franchise it lacks the traditions of the Boston Celtics or New York Knicks.
However, he feels the Raptors have other advantages to draw on, such as being the only non-American NBA franchise, which is devoid of the political tensions between China and the United States. As well, the team's uniform is red, which is a lucky colour in China, and the word raptor translates to dragon in Mandarin, which is one of the legendary creatures in Chinese mythology.
"I'd like to tell you we were smart enough to have figured that out when we named the team in 1993, but we weren't, but here we are the beneficiaries of that now," he says.
But the appeal of MLSE in China goes beyond the performance of just its sports teams. The company has been involved in such ventures as the Maple Leaf Square condominium development in downtown Toronto, and the Real Sports Bar and Grill, which was voted North America's best sports bar by sports network ESPN. As such, MLSE has a track record of success across a number of areas. That stretches to its long-standing corporate partnerships with global brands such as Ford, with which it has had a relationship for more than 20 years.
"I think there's an obvious cachet and swagger that would come with MLSE and what they've accomplished over the years," says Sean Claessen, executive vice-president, strategy, and executive creative director for Mississauga's Bond Brand Loyalty Inc.
"I think the key word that's germane to this discussion is trust. Loyalty is built on trust. Knowing that these guys have committed themselves to providing a fan experience that is unparalleled, regardless of the outcome on the court, is likely what is so compelling to onlookers in China."