Written by: Paul McGaughey
The Los Angeles Kings decided to trade in their kale salads for vegemite sandwiches.
Instead of palm trees and the beach, it was koala bears and wombats for the Kings, who played two exhibition games in Australia in late September.
The NHL has been staging games outside of North America as far back as 1938, but ventured to the southern hemisphere for the first time when the Kings and Arizona Coyotes landed in Melbourne for the NHL Global Series.
For almost a decade, NHL executives monitored the viability of taking their brand to Melbourne, which has a population of approximately five million and is often referred to as the sporting capital of the world.
Melbourne plays host to massive global events, including the Australian Open and the Australian Grand Prix and is the home of the Melbourne Cricket Club – a venue with a capacity of 100,000 spectators.
Australian Rules Football is also popular in Melbourne with hockey on the radar to a larger extent than one might expect. The Melbourne Mustangs hoisted the Goodall Cup as champions of the Australian Ice Hockey League for the 2023 season.
David Proper, the NHL’s senior executive vice president of media and international strategy, was quoted in Forbes.com, saying the league has taken notice of the growing demand for hockey in Australia.
“I would say for the last, at least, eight years, we’ve kind of kept an eye on it,” said Proper. “The numbers just continue to increase. We’re starting to significantly over-index in Australia across most or all of our metrics and it just feels like it’s the right opportunity.”
A world away
The journey to Melbourne was a huge undertaking for the NHL.
According to NHL.com, three 40-foot shipping containers were loaded onto a cargo ship in Philadelphia on June 21 and began a five-week trek packed full with all the materials, tools, and equipment necessary to transform Rod Laver Arena – which is primarily a tennis venue – into a space capable of hosting professional hockey.
Furthermore, getting the teams to buy into the idea of travelling around the globe took some convincing as detailed by Kings head coach Todd McLellan.
“When we heard, ‘Hey, guess what? You're going to Melbourne, Australia. You're going to travel 17 hours. We're [saying] no way’”, McLellan told reporters on the ground in Melbourne, where the teams each earned a win in front of a sold-out crowd of 13,188.
“But the deeper that we began to dive into it and talk about it, it began to really make sense for our team and our group. And then once we got on the plane and realized that it wasn't as bad as we all thought it could be, then we arrived here and found out how great the city is and how good the people are here and everything else has gone smoothly. So, the experience itself has been really good.”
The place to be
Dr. Olan Scott – an associate professor in Sport Management at Brock University – lived in Melbourne for 18 years and says the NHL’s entry to the Australian market is not as crazy as it sounds.
“They know through their analytics that there is some fandom down there,” Dr. Scott told BNN Bloomberg.
“When you are in Australia, it's a very multicultural country. There are a lot of people from the U.S., from Canada, from say Sweden and Finland, etc., who have moved to Australia. Now they get their childhood sport back for one game or two games in this instance.
“Australia calls itself a sport-mad country. They really like these kinds of things and that's why you see them getting on board with NHL games in Melbourne or baseball games in Sydney or whatever it is.”
Dr. Scott also sees the opportunity for teams and players to increase brand awareness on a global scale.
“As you're moving outwards, as you're trying to do these pre-season tours … they have an opportunity to really be the team that the locals like,” says Dr. Scott.
“I would imagine that the Los Angeles Kings now have a greater fan base in Australia than they did before because they showed up and played some exhibition games. Then perhaps when people are traveling to Los Angeles, they go to a Kings game.”
Touching down in Europe
The NFL has already held two games in London this month, with one more to follow between the Baltimore Ravens and Tennessee Titans on October 15. There are also a pair of games on the docket in Frankfurt, Germany, in November, highlighted by a clash on Nov.5 between the upstart Miami Dolphins and the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs, who feature star quarterback Patrick Mahomes and the now wildly popular Travis Kelce. The attendance of Kelce’s girlfriend Taylor Swift is not yet known.
The NFL has a long history of taking its brand overseas, first with the World League of American Football and later with the NFL Europe League.
The WLAF was a transatlantic endeavor in the early 1990s that consisted of seven teams in the United States and three in Europe (London, Barcelona, and Frankfurt) and served as a developmental league for the NFL.
While the product was a hit among fans overseas, the WLAF did not capture the attention of fans in its American markets.
The NFL adjusted its international strategy, and from 1995 to 2007 operated a league with six teams all based in Europe.
However, from 2007 onward, the NFL realized there was more value in simply sending its own teams overseas to play in front of fans.
It is no coincidence that the NFL brings those games to European cities where a presence and fandom had already been established.
The bottom line
While major North American leagues might be just fine staying in their local markets, Dr. Scott says the prospect of increasing revenues and growing in popularity is too good to turn down.
“If I'm as cynical as humanly possible - billionaires just sometimes always want to have more billions. They want to be the sport everyone likes. They want to have a team that everyone likes.
“The local market, say Toronto or Ontario - once you have tapped out that market, there's nothing there anymore. Whereas if you go to Melbourne or Shanghai or Beijing or something, your potential fan base is massive.”
But Dr. Scott also points out that this approach is no different than any other major corporation.
“Thinking about these leagues and teams as businesses, you know, Tesla wants to sell cars all over the world, not just in the United States or somewhere else.
“If we call sports part of the entertainment package rather than as an industry of itself, everyone wants to have the whole world paying attention now.”