The U.S. National Hockey League (NHL) has become the latest major sports league to attempt to tap into the lucrative Chinese market.
The NHL announced it will hold two pre-season games in China, September 21 and 23 in Shanghai and Beijing, between the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks.
"This is an historic moment for the National Hockey League," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in Beijing. "We look forward to our first games in China and to a variety of initiatives that will inspire generations of Chinese players and fans to enjoy our sport. We recognize the importance of helping China build a strong national hockey program and are committed to supporting that priority in every way possible."
Beijing is set to host the 2022 Winter Olympics. China's interest in ice hockey is small, but growing. Canadian-based Andong Song was drafted by the New York Islanders in 2015 as the first Chinese-born player in the NHL.
"While we fully understand the importance the government has placed on sports teams representing China in the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, our partnership will extend well beyond the couple of weeks of the 2022 Olympic Games," said Bettman.
Gregory Smyth is director and co-founder of the China Ice Hockey League. Speaking from Bangkok to VOA, he said the exhibition games being planned are a very important part of introducing the sport to China.
"The interest in hockey is growing at an exponential rate in China," he said.
Smyth also said China, as an Olympic host, will have to develop a competitive ice hockey team. He added that development of the sport is far more advanced today in Japan and South Korea.
The National Basketball Association already has made headway in China, which also has its own basketball league. Several Chinese players have made the jump to the NBA, including Yao Ming, the first overall pick in the 2002 draft. Yao played for the Houston Rocket until 2011.
In 2004, the NBA became the first American sports league to play games in China.
In addition, the National Football League is looking to gain entry into the Chinese market. In December, the NFL announced an agreement with Chinese social media platform Sina Weibo to stream NFL games in China.
"We are glad to launch this strategic partnership with the NFL," said Zhang Zhe, head of Sina Weibo Sports. "We look forward to helping the NFL grow their Chinese market and explore more commercial opportunities, while also providing our Weibo users with a better opportunity to watch and quickly share LIVE games and highlights.
The NFL said it has more than 1.5 million online viewers across China each week.