Michael Pavitt

I begin with a confession. I have never really held a great interest in "American" sports.

Part of that might be that the sports seem highly unsuited to my own physique. While perfectly fine, my slim frame was unlikely to see me emerge as a great American football or basketball talent. I was also never brought up on a diet of American sport, so I openly admit I am quite poorly educated regarding certain things.

Baseball is like rounders on steroids, right? Sometimes literally so.

However, I am one of many sports fans who is willing to be wooed by sport from overseas. But it comes on the condition that they seek me out. They have to show me why I should be following American football, basketball, baseball or ice hockey.

It seems strange to me that the National Hockey League (NHL) are turning their nose up at competing at next year's Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. Earlier this week, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman claimed there was no chance the world's leading ice hockey league would change their minds and participate in South Korea.

There have been claims their reluctance is down to IOC President Thomas Bach's refusal to continue covering travel and insurance costs of NHL players. The NHL itself has claimed they see no tangible benefit in halting their season to take part in Pyeongchang. They said fans in Canada and the United States, as well as owners, were against a break. If there were a break, it would likely see the end of their season clash with the start of Major League Baseball's (MLB).

These are legitimate concerns. Imagine the reaction of the top European football leagues if FIFA suddenly decided to host the World Cup in the middle of the season in say 2022? Oh, hang on...

The NHL have claimed they will not send their players to the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics ©Getty Images
The NHL have claimed they will not send their players to the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics ©Getty Images

Those European leagues will probably end up relatively well compensated for the Qatar 2022 Winter World Cup. Surely there is also an opportunity for the NHL.

With respect to other winter sports, ice hockey is clearly the most eagerly awaited sport whenever the Olympics comes around. It is the big fish in the pond. Opportunity therefore knocks for the NHL to promote its players worldwide and attempt to expand its fanbase and ultimately cash in commercially.

It is true that appearing at Beijing 2022 - in a key Chinese market - might present a greater opportunity for the NHL to boost its fanbase in Asia than it has at Pyeongchang. The NHL have also had their players at the last five Winter Olympics, meaning there is an argument that one missed Games is hardly going to have an impact.

However, it does feel like the league are missing out on a free hit to attract fans globally. The boom of social media could make the sport almost unavoidable for people like me, who have never previously had a major interest.

It seems strange to be shying away from such a great marketing opportunity, especially at a time when the likes of the National Football League (NFL), National Basketball Association (NBA) and MLB are making a concerted effort to crack into the other markets.

Only this week, MLB has been talking up the prospect of playing one of their regular season matches in Europe during 2019, having already done so in Australia, Japan and Mexico in the past. This particular path is becoming well-trodden.

The NFL have successfully grown its fanbase in Britain over the last decade ©Getty Images
The NFL have successfully grown its fanbase in Britain over the last decade ©Getty Images

The NBA have held basketball matches in London since 2011, as well as some in Mexico. Arguably, the greatest success has been had by the NFL in the United Kingdom. From hosting one regular season match in London in 2007, there are now set to be five matches a decade later as interest has grown.

The NFL have certainly thrown everything into attracting British fans. On a couple of occasions, I have heard NFL officials talk of the importance of making those overseas games an all-day experience and one that, as well as entertaining spectators on the day, educates them to boost the chance they will become fans of the sport on a long-term basis.

Attendances at London's Wembley Stadium have mostly been more than 80,000, while I have increasingly heard people in Britain mention the NFL team they support. The NFL have actively come to find them and look set to reap the benefits. The talk of a British franchise continues, particularly with dedicated NFL facilities being a part of Tottenham Hotspur's new 61,000 seater stadium, where construction concludes next year. Most people would have previously laughed at the idea of a British franchise.

Clearly, it is not only American sport which is taking this particular approach to growing their fanbase and, obviously, their bank balances. European football teams have been doing this too. Tottenham rocked up in Hong Kong last week for a post-season match, while their South Korean star Son Heung-Min took a couple of team-mates to his homeland. "David Beckham is coming," one said, before the local favourite was mobbed on arrival.

Fellow Premier League side Liverpool jet-setted off to Sydney for a match, while the summer will be filled with top European clubs heading across the world for pre-season matches. These are really glorified marketing exercises.

Son Heung-Min has helped boost Tottenham's support in South Korea ©Getty Images
Son Heung-Min has helped boost Tottenham's support in South Korea ©Getty Images

The example of Son is an interesting one. It is probably fair to say that many South Korean people would have followed his career, with their support of a particular club possibly being a knock-on effect. With social media and the ease with which you can keep in touch with what an sports star is doing, following particular athletes is perhaps the best way into supporting clubs and ultimately following leagues.

How many people worldwide support Barcelona or Real Madrid due to Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo? How many people have become fans of mixed martial arts because they follow Conor McGregor? I have no interest in MMA but I know who Conor McGregor is, because I have been unable to escape him. A British newspaper even live-blogged the birth of his child…

Having watched basketball competition at last year's Olympic Games, I have developed a slow-burning interest. While good to watch, the background provided by commentators and some friends on a number of stars and emerging players piqued my interest. I'll keep track of what certain players are doing and maybe, just maybe, it could result in me following one of their teams.

Should NHL players miss out on competing at next year's Olympics, I will still struggle to name their main stars and the chance of me becoming a fan of their league diminishes considerably. I probably will not be the only one.

The NHL being absent from Pyeongchang 2018 would certainly feel like an opportunity missed.