The NHL and Gary Bettman: 25+ Years of Progress and Controversy

* originally published in Feb. 2018

Gary Bettman gets booed when he speaks. A lot. He is the public face behind the decision not to allow NHL players to participate in the 2018 Olympics. When an owner wants public funds used to finance a new arena, Bettman makes the case in the media. He has led the NHL to three lockouts and supported the league to expand into non-traditional hockey markets with mixed results. He has also been behind new television deals, expanded access to the game, and masterminded new events. As the NHL Commissioner, he represents the owners of NHL teams. Yet, from the moment he took office in 1993 to the present day, NHL fans have been keen to show their distaste.

Is the NHL thriving under Gary Bettman? While many fans might say no, his contributions are significant.

The Case Against Gary Bettman

Gary Bettman was hired as the NHL’s first Commissioner with a mandate to end labor unrest. Instead, his two-decade tenure has turned out to be the most unsettled of any major professional sports league.

Lost Seasons: 1993-94 and 2004-05

In 1993-94, during his second season at the helm, the NHL lost 103-days of play during a lockout. In 1995 the league agreed at Christmas to play an abbreviated 48-game schedule. The lockout had furthered economic upheaval.  The LA. Kings declared bankruptcy and owner Bruce McNall went to jail. The Quebec Nordiques were on their way to Denver, and the Winnipeg Jets were on the tenuous ground.

While player salaries had increased following the ’94 lockout, Bettman did nothing to challenge the notion that NHL players were “privileged millionaires.” In 2004, the owners refused to negotiate and the season was canceled. The NLHPA disintegrated into rival factions and the owners were able to institute a salary cap. Before 2004, players could sign with the team willing to pay market value for their services. A hard salary cap was instituted and the players took a pay cut. The owners made more, and kept more. Fans lost a season.

NHL Lockout
Is another lockout looming in the not so distant future?/Photo courtesy of D’Arcy Norman – Flickr

The 2012 NHL Lockout

In 2012 the lockout issues were slightly different. The owners sought to reduce the players’ guaranteed 57% share of hockey-related revenues, introduce term limits on contracts, eliminate salary arbitration, and change free agency rules. By 2012, public perception was not on the owners’ side. Owners lost between $8 million and $10 million a day in revenue but would go on to negotiate a 50-50 split of hockey-related revenue under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. This translated to well over $2 billion over a 10-year CBA.

Players lost around 40% of their wages for the lockout season and additional revenue going forward. No matter how you spin this, players have a smaller share of total dollars and fewer contract rights than they had before the lockout. One winner was expansion teams. New rules that placed a seven-year cap on individual contracts, and the 35% year-to-year variance limit on contracts. The reduction of the salary cap helped other smaller market teams as well. In Canada, however, businesses in areas with NHL teams were hurt because of the lockout.

Insistent Hockey Expansion into Non-traditional Markets

When Bettman took over in 1993, the NHL had expanded to 24 teams. The Florida Panthers and the Mighty Ducks were both poised to join the league.

Under Bettman’s watch, the league added the Nashville Predators, Atlanta Thrashers, Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets, while moving the Minnesota North Stars to Dallas, the Quebec Nordiques to Denver, the Winnipeg Jets to Phoenix and the Hartford Whalers to North Carolina.

However, few expansion teams have found success. The Atlanta Thrashers survived in Atlanta for nearly 12 years. Attendance started at 17,206 in their first expansion year and dwindled to a low of 13,469 in their final season. The team would eventually relocate to Winnipeg.

Atlanta Thrashers Bettman
We all know how hockey worked out in Atlanta (BridgetDS/Flickr)

Arizona and Arenas

A continuing concern is in Arizona. On top of bearing the weight of being the dearly departed original Winnipeg Jets, the Coyotes franchise has been plagued with problems from the outset. Their original home at the AmericaWest arena was not well-suited to hockey; their current home in Glendale is an hour from Phoenix and has its own issues. Despite the Auston Matthews phenomenon, hockey is not indigenous to the desert. The Coyotes have struggled to build a fanbase.

The Phoenix Coyotes made the Western Conference Final in 2012, and the Tampa Bay Lightning did the same in the East in 2011 (as well as having won the Stanley Cup right before the 2004 lockout). The Carolina Hurricanes were named the first cup champs after the lockout, and the Anaheim Ducks followed in 2007.

To the chagrin of Canadian fans, during the Bettman years, the sunbelt teams have been a lot more successful in the playoffs than their Canadian brethren. This has fueled a belief that the diminutive American has little respect for Canada and Canadian fans.

Disrespect to Canadian Franchises

In 2012, the seven Canadian hockey franchises were among the strongest in the league, almost regardless of their on-ice performance. Attendance figures were high, and tickets are priced accordingly.

Many Canadians have not forgiven Gary Bettman for relocating the Winnipeg Jets to Phoenix or the Quebec Nordiques to Colorado early in his tenure or for blocking the potential relocation of the Nashville Predators to Hamilton. While the return of the Jets has been lauded, rumblings continue that Quebec City is being kept from reclaiming a franchise. Fans negative view of Bettman remain unchanged.

Gary Bettman, Donald Fehr
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHL Player’s Association Executive Director Donald Fehr (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

One result from the age of parity is that Canadian teams, with all their fan support and all their ticket-sales revenue, have generally struggled to be successful on the ice. Meanwhile, Bettman’s expansion teams have done pretty well. The Carolina Hurricanes were named the first cup champs after the 2005 lockout. The Anaheim Ducks followed in 2007. Smaller market teams now had a chance to compete for big name free agents. Even the Phoenix Coyotes found themselves in a Conference Final by 2012. Last year the Nashville Predators made the Stanley Cup finals. This year, due to the nature of the expansion draft, the Vegas Golden Knights are off to a phenomenal start.

In Defense of Gary Bettman

The success or failure of hockey teams in non-traditional markets shouldn’t be used to criticize Bettman. However, most fans would agree his focus has been to grow the business of hockey and not to protect the special connection Canadiens have with the game. This, of course, is not his remit. Bettman’s legacy must be based on his record to expand the game.

Gary Bettman NHL
NHL Exposure

The NHL has done a phenomenal job at marketing itself ever since the 2004-2005 lockout. A lot of that can be credited to the commissioner himself. Prior to the 2004-2005 lockout, the NHL had a TV contract with ESPN and ABC in the United States. That was nothing short of a disaster, and aside from maybe one or two games a week, ESPN brushed off hockey. In fact, the epic game 6 between the Flyers and Lightning was pushed to ESPN 2 for something along the lines of the World Series of Poker.

Post-lockout and in full recovery mode, the NHL signed a deal with OLN (Outdoor Life Network) as the exclusive broadcasting partner in the US. That transition started out very slow. OLN televised the first two games in the 2006 and 2007 Stanley Cup Finals. Out of those four games, the highest rating was a 0.6, and the average ratings for the entire series were 1.8 in 2006 and 1.2 in 2007. As a comparison, in 2004, the Cup Finals averaged a 2.7 on ABC and ESPN. Still, this was all part of a downward trend that had begun back in 2000. ESPN and ABC hadn’t made a change when the NHL’s ratings were declining. In 2000 the Finals posted a 3.7 rating, by 2004 it had dipped to 2.6.

Connecting to Comcast

OLN would rebrand itself to Versus for the start of the 2007-2008 season, more importantly, they were owned by cable giant, Comcast. Comcast, who owns the Philadelphia Flyers and is based out of Philadelphia, was about to go through a period of rapid growth.

As of 2013, Comcast was far and away the leading cable provider in the US. Even more importantly, in 2011 Comcast acquired NBC Universal. This included networks such as USA, CNBC, and MSNBC. Ironically, not even a year later, Comcast owned network, Versus, rebranded itself to NBC Sports Network.

Bettman helped ensure every playoff game in 2012 was nationally televised. That paid off right away. The epic war fought between the Flyers and Penguins in the first round brought in outstanding ratings on a national scale. In fact, the playoffs as a whole did very well that year, with the exception of the Final, probably due to how lopsided it was early on. But having the Kings back in the Final did renew a lot of interest in hockey in Southern California.

Dustin Brown Los Angeles Kings owner Philip Anschutz 2014 Stanley Cup
Dustin Brown and Los Angeles Kings team owner Philip Anschutz celebrate after winning the 2014 Stanley Cup (Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)

The contract with NBCSN and NBC is the best thing to happen to the NHL in a long time, and it is a direct result of Gary Bettman thinking outside of the box. NBC’s coverage of the NHL is unmatched.

Accessibility and Marketability

There are a plethora of other avenues to spread the word and get people watching hockey, and that’s another area where the commissioner has excelled in promoting the game. Early on, every nationally televised game is accessible through NBC Sports Live Extra. That meant anyone could watch the games anywhere. Today, Game Center and the NHL App allow many games to be streamed. While blackouts remain, the sheer volume of hockey available is amazing.

Secondly, the NHL took advantage of YouTube in a variety of ways, early on. Since the ‘new NHL’ came about in 2005-2006, the NHL has posted clips and highlights of every single game that has been played. They aren’t just on their website, they’re on YouTube as well. If you’re sitting here reading this in 2015, you can go look up a game from 2006, and it’ll be there.

Highlights

The other thing the NHL did was to make their videos accessible to anyone. Unlike the MLB, If I want to go out and create a highlight video of Patrick Kane using the NHL’s clips, guess what? I can do it. There are thousands and thousands of highlight packages out there of all types of players. There’s even a dedicated website that archives every single NHL fight, and the best part is, the NHL’s policy allows for it.

In 2010 NHL adopted the ‘History Will Be Made’ campaign in 2010, and it was immediately a home run. These commercials quickly went viral and truly brought out the raw emotion of the playoffs. Thousands of user-created videos flooded YouTube.

The NHL’s marketing team has done a brilliant job with getting the game the exposure it needs, and that is just another thing that can fall on Gary Bettman’s watch.

The Business Side

The case against Bettman is in part a reaction to the lockouts on his watch. While a legacy of lockouts is hardly good news the NHL is reaping the benefits today. Before the 2004 lockout, there was absolutely no balance in the NHL. If you’re a ‘rich’ team in the NHL, you could throw everything but the kitchen sink at the most prized free agent.

Coyotes fans
Coyotes fans showed up for the playoffs (THW Archives)

Take, for example, the Flyers. In 2004 the Flyers were one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference and had their fair share of really decent players. Primeau, LeClair, Recchi, and Roenick were all Flyers at the time. The Flyers had $22 million tied up in just three of those players. Why? Because they could. As I mentioned above, the Flyers are owned by Comcast, so their pockets are essentially limitless.

That all changed after the 2004-2005 lockout. A hard salary cap of $39 million was instituted for the next season. This meant teams like the Flyers couldn’t drop $22 million on three players. The cap did what it was supposed to do. The Penguins became relevant again, the Blackhawks found new life, and those smaller market teams now had a chance to compete or big name free agents. Even the Phoenix Coyotes found themselves in a Conference Final by 2012.

Revenues and Imagination

Bettman’s era has brought some important positive changes to the league. Revenues have quintupled in size and player payrolls followed suit. The NHL played a series of regular-season games in Europe and Japan, broadening its global appeal. It created the successful Winter Classic, the annual outdoor game played on Jan. 1 that has caught the imagination of the U.S. TV viewing public.It has hit historic ballparks such as Wrigley Field and Fenway Park and has packed 110,000 fans in the freezing cold snow to proudly sport their teams’ colors. Television revenues have grown significantly as have league sponsorship deals. He helped stabilize wobbly franchises in Edmonton, Calgary, and Ottawa through the Canadian currency-assistance program. He enabled Minnesota and Winnipeg to get their franchises back.

New Challenges

Gary Bettman is a mystery wrapped in an enigma. In some ways, he is brilliant. In other ways, totally tone deaf. The John Scott fiasco is a prime example of why some fans will never warm to Bettman.

The NHL faces new and serious challenges. Is Bettman up to navigating these difficult waters?

Can the league continue to make the business case for expanding into non-traditional markets?

How will the league respond to the first discovery of the first case of a living person identified with the degenerative brain disease, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE? The research seemingly cements the relationship between contact sports and brain damage. It will have profound implications for the NHL.

Will the league adopt the suggestions of Ken Dryden in his new book Game Change? The book represents a challenge to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. While he tells Bettman and readers both why and how the game must change if it is to survive, some fans are concerned a moratorium on head shots will lead to a less physical game.

Fans will boo Gary Bettman again. Sometimes it appears he enjoys it. This summer he used a child to troll fans. He will remain contentious. In assessing Bettman’s legacy, people struggle to separate the personal from the professional. Some will always consider him to be an outsider, never having been steeped in hockey culture. However, Bettman has been commissioner for nearly 25 years. It is hard to imagine the NHL without him.


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