Team Mexico after winning the 2018 IIHF U18 world championship (Fatih Aktas/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
PLAYERS & TEAM EARNINGS

Is Mexico the Key to the NHL’s Future?

As the league looks for creative ways to invest in fan development, Mexico is positioning itself as hockey’s next frontier.

The puck has officially dropped for the 2021-22 NHL season, and with an eye toward a future not entirely free from COVID-19, league administrators are openly discussing various opportunities to take the sport south of the border.

No, not the border of Canada and the United States. The other one.

Recent years have seen an increase of players who proudly proclaim their Mexican heritage, including the Sharks’ Matt Nieto and the Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews, and serve as unofficial spokesmen for the country’s fledgling hockey culture. The league also celebrated its first Mexico CEO, the Coyotes’ Xavier Gutierrez, last summer.

With a population of nearly 130 million marked by their fanatic love of sport, Mexico offers a serious pool of potential fans, making it a clear opportunity as the NHL looks to enhance the sport’s reach.

While logistical questions remain — including identifying a suitable host for any future events — the possibilities are numerous.

NHL Eyes Fan Expansion

The NHL has made a number of deals over the last year, laying the groundwork to extend its reach. From the debut of the expansion Seattle Kraken to a new broadcast deal that shifts games from NBC Sports to a two-way media rights split between ESPN and Turner Sports worth a combined $4 billion, the boundaries of the league are actively expanding.

For ESPN, this season marks a homecoming of sorts after a 17-year separation. The Disney-owned company has major plans for engaging hockey fans both new and old, from sensor-tracked pucks to on-ice cameras in an attempt to replicate the in-person glory of the game.

Additionally, ESPN’s deal includes rights in Latin America and the Caribbean. Paired with the added reach enabled by social media channels and digital outlets, this signals a major opportunity for the league to acquire new types of audiences.

Viva México

To this point, the majority of the NHL’s expanded targeting efforts have focused on various populations across the US, but savvy league officials have observed the success that other major sports have had south of the border.

Over the years, every other major sport in America has danced with Mexico, and recently, several leagues are beefing up their investments there:

  • The NFL has confirmed that their International Series will head back to Mexico City in 2022.
  • Major League Baseball has hosted several games in Mexico over the years, most recently a double-header between the Astros and Angels in May 2019.
  • NBA launched a G-League team in Mexico City, though they announced announced that the Capitanes will compete in the US this season due to COVID-19 restrictions.
  • MLS is teaming up with Liga MX to revamp the The Leagues Cup as a 47-team World Cup-style tournament.

And this list doesn’t even include the deep history of other professional sports such as golf and wrestling. From the NFL’s International Series to the MLB’s routine runs below the border, these pop-up events draw major crowds, which means big business.

This is essential, as the league hopes to draw $5 billion in revenue for the 2021-22 campaign.

More Ice Means More Ice Time

The NHL has already begun to build the foundation that would facilitate growth and activations across the border.

In order to realize the greatest long-term success, they are making moves in parallel with a number of key stakeholders to develop the infrastructure to engage fans in Mexico and throughout Latin America.

  • The NHL officially celebrated Hispanic Heritage Month for the first time in 2020
  • Chicago, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas each produce regular Spanish-language broadcasts, which incorporate soccer-style flare
  • Several teams run youth development programs in communities with predominantly Latino populations
  • The Los Angeles Kings expanded their Junior Kings development program, which was previously established in China, another emerging market
  • The Arizona Coyotes and the Dallas Stars played a preseason game earlier this month in the border city of El Paso, Texas, the winner of Kraft’s annual “Hockeyville” competition, put on in combination with the NHL and NHLPA

What ideally comes next will require extensive logistical wrangling, including identifying arenas suitable for professional games. But in the meantime, you can expect the NHL to continue its current efforts to stoke the passion for the sport in emerging markets by bringing the sport of hockey directly to them.

And there’s every reason to believe that Mexico is the crown jewel in this effort.