Is Gary Bettman That Bad?

There are many villains in sports. People that fans just love to hate.

The NFL has Michael Vick. The NBA has LeBron James. The MLB has the entire Yankees organization and the hockey universe has commissioner Gary Bettman.

Gary Bettman

(Kellen/Icon SMI)

Some say they feel the need to brush their teeth after they say his name. Others say Steve Carell’s character from ‘Despicable Me’ was created in Bettman’s image. If there was a Hall of Hate attached to the Hockey Hall of Fame, Bettman would have his own wing.

Bettman is booed at every arena in the NHL. He is blamed for the league’s fall in popularity in years past. He is considered inept and brash, and he is loathed for ‘stealing’ teams from Canadian cities and relocating them to untraditional hockey markets. I’m surprised he wasn’t blamed for Sydney Crosby’s concussions.

As much as fans love to hate the man, Bettman has managed to turn the NHL into a league where its popularity and revenue have been growing rapidly since the 2004-2005 season long lockout.

Prior to that lockout, I say have at him. Hate away. Sharpen up your pitch forks and light up your torches.

Up until then, the lockout was just the icing on the cake of Bettman’s gaffs. There was his southern expansion into unstable hockey markets such as Phoenix and Atlanta. These expansions, of course, came at the expense of Canadian markets such as Winnipeg and Quebec City. He didn’t do himself any favors there.

Fans joke that the evil Gru character from 'Despicable Me' was based on Bettman. (Photo courtesy of Universal Studios)

Yes, there was financial reasoning behind those moves, but fans don’t care about that. All the fans knew is that they won’t have a team anymore and Bettman was to blame.

There was also the huge punch to the gut of ESPN opting out of their TV deal with the league. Not only did the league lose nationally televised games, but they lost invaluable coverage and time consideration on shows like NHL 2Night and SportsCenter. The fingers all pointed back to Bettman.

Early in Bettman’s tenure as commish, there was the lockout during the 1994-1995 season that shortened the season to 48 games. During this time, Bettman was seen as a figure who tried to strong-arm the player’s union. Last minute deals were made in January of 1995 and the result was seen as a win for the owners. Bettman’s popularity never really recovered in the eyes of the fans, and the players for that matter.

However, a funny trend has started to happen regarding Bettman since the most recent lockout. Things have been going right.

The league is healthy, both financially and in popularity.

Revenues are at record highs. When Bettman took over the job as commissioner in February 1993, after serving under David Stern in the NBA, the leagues overall revenues were $400 million. After last season, revenues were at $3 billion. That $3 billion was a 14.8 percent increase from the prior season’s revenue.

Last year also marked the fifth straight year of record revenue numbers by the league.

Those high revenue numbers are led by increases in sponsorships, merchandise sales, corporate involvement in prime-time events and the growth of the league throughout the digital landscape.

Sponsorships are up 33 percent overall. This is a result of more large-scale events on the season’s calendar, such as the Winter Classic and the Heritage Classic. Last year’s Winter Classic between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals was the most watched regular season hockey game in the U.S. in the past 36 years.

Companies such as Discover, Bridgestone and Tim Horton’s have teamed with the league through multi-year contracts to act as headlining sponsors for events such as the All Star Game and the NHL Entry Draft. This equals buku dollars for the league.

Gary Bettman

(Chris Williams/Icon SMI)

Last year’s All Star Game was up 64 percent in sponsorship money. This was aided by Discover being the first presenting sponsor of the event in ten years.

These events also bring additional exposure to the NHL. HBO now has hockey programming with its 24/7 Winter Classic behind-the-scenes coverage. Versus (soon to be NBC Sports) has hockey highlight shows. The league even has its own channels on television and satellite radio.

This was all done under Bettman’s watch. Credit has to be given.

After ESPN pulled out, Bettman made a TV deal with NBC and OLN (now Versus). At the time this was seen as a major downgrade as minimal games were scheduled nationally and most people couldn’t find OLN on their dial if a gun was to their heads.

Today the same can’t be said as the most recent deal was agreed upon for 10 years and $2 billion in revenue. Not bad. Also, more games than ever are scheduled this season to be broadcast nationally once Versus turns into the NBC Sports Network at the start of the new year. This all results in an increase of 70 percent for TV ad revenue. Credit Bettman.

The fans, which make-up the largest group of Bettman haters, have also benefitted from the direction he has taken the league. More coverage. More nationally televised games. More ways to interact with the league.

Fans are closer to the game as ever with the emergence of digital media. Merchandise sales are also on the rise. (Photo Courtesy Chris Pesotski, Creative Commons.)

Under Bettman, the league has created an immense digital footprint. From its 2 million fans on Facebook to interactive digital experiences. One recent and popular innovation was last year’s All Star Game voting which allowed fans to “draft” their own all-star roster that then decided who would be the starters for the game. Interactive programs like that bring fans closer to the game.

Fans can also credit Bettman for a better game to watch. After the 2004-2005 lockout, Bettman campaigned for a crackdown on obstruction. This has made for faster, higher scoring and more exciting games for the fans to watch. Don’t agree? Then imagine Alexander Ovechkin being held and clutched every time he touched the puck. How exciting would he be to watch then?

By the way, all this new exposure and fan interest in the game has helped generate a 15 percent increase in merchandise sales for the league. Thank you Gary.

Oh, Bettman also gained some Canadian fans back when he approved the move of the broken Atlanta Thrashers franchise to Winnipeg. Bettman also aided Mario Lemieux in helping keep the Penguins in Pittsburgh and the building of their new arena. Who would have ever thought Bettman would tally an assist on a Lemieux goal?

Then there is his most recent victory. Realignment.

Fans and teams win here. Teams benefit through better travel and a more balanced schedule. Fans get to see their team play a better variety of competition. Also, fans get to see their team play the elite stars of the game at least twice a year. Pat on the back to Bettman.

So there you have it. Does this change your mind about the most hated man in hockey? Maybe or maybe not. But credit is due where it is deserved, and any hockey fan has to at least acknowledge that the current NHL is pretty darn healthy right now and it only looks to be getting healthier.

  • Peter Viola

    Nicely done. Very informative. Well turned phrases. Especially, “Who would ever think Bettman would get an assist on Mario Lemieux goal?”Impressive stats to support your article. Well done.