Gary Bettman has been the commissioner of the NHL since February 1993, almost 20 seasons. In that time he has done some good things, but when it comes to major issues he has often dropped the ball. None of this ball dropping has been as arrogant and self-serving as the current lockout imposed on the NHL.
Let’s take a look at the highlights and lowlights of Bettman’s nearly 20 year reign over the NHL by examining several different categories (and some that overlap). First off, his mandate when he was appointed commissioner was (from the New York Times Feb 2nd, 1993)
Bettman’s mission is simple: Put a stop to labor unrest; sell the product in television’s mainstream marketplace; change the violent image of the game; curb salary inflation; force enlightened self-interest on reluctant, old-fashioned owners; expand contacts with European developmental leagues and markets; settle the divisive issue of possible Olympic involvement, and help launch several new expansion teams.
So that explains what he was hired to do. So how did he do?
The league has shut down mid-season for Olympic Games in Nagano (1998), Salt Lake City (2002), Torino (2006), and Vancouver (2010). The NHL has down so relatively reluctantly, and it has been the players desire to participate that has driven the shutdowns. If the NHL had its way, theplayers would not be participating in the Olympics. Bettman has been on record stating his objection to shutting down the NHL and not realizing any benefit to the league, especially when the games aren’t staged in North America.
CHANGE THE VIOLENT IMAGE OF THE GAME
One of the defining issues, especially in the past few seasons has been the lack of consistency in player discipline, as well as reckless plays resulting in injury to players. While players also need to take appropriate steps and protect each other, the onus is on the Commissioner to instill a safe working environment for the players, and that begins with the installation of a set of guidelines that everyone is aware of and knows what consequences go with what actions. The NHL has failed in this area multiple times, resulting in confusion and bad publicity. There might not be as much fighting as there used to be, but the headshots and cheapshots that have found their way into the game are much worse.
The image of the game to those unaware or peripheral fans is still one of violence, because the only time the sport seems to mainstream media coverage in the US is when a serious injury is the result of a dirty play. Which brings me to the next issue;
MAINSTREAM TELEVISION EXPOSURE
As stated in the previous point, there still is a lack of acceptance in the US mainstream media. For years the league was underexposed and hidden on channels that a very low percentage of households actually subscribed to. Then they embarked on an agreement with NBC that essentially had the league paying to be on tv in a revenue splitting model. It wasn’t until recently (2011) that the league cashed in with a 10 year, $2B deal with Comcast/NBC. By the way, the. $200M payment still goes to the NHL even if no games are played this season, and the broadcasters get a free season tacked on at the end of the deal.
The fact it took Bettman 18 years to establish a profitable and lucrative National TV after many unsuccessful attempts doesn’t smack of success. The key to getting the contract signed was having teams in solid US television markets, which leads into
HELP LAUNCH SEVERAL NEW EXPANSION TEAMS
When Bettman took over, the NHL had 24 teams. In his regime, his desire for expansion to the non-traditional southern US saw 6 expansion teams (Columbus, Minnesota, Florida, Nashville, Atlanta and Anaheim) while overseeing 5 relocations (Winnipeg, Quebec City, Minnesota, Hartford and Atlanta). The league was more than happy to divide more than $420 in expansion fees among themselves, while accepting the new clubs into the league and then hanging them out to dry. You could argue that the struggles of (some of) these southern markets can be tied directly to the league (by way of the commissioner) ignoring their plight and allowing them to flounder while boasting of record revenues and ever-increasing franchise valuations (at least until it is time for a new CBA, and then it is a system that can’t continue). Which again leads to the next point;
GHANGING THE MINDSET OF THE ‘OLD GUARD’ AMONG OWNERS
While some owners have been very progressive, there is still the old guard that can’t see the forest for the trees. Bettman has failed to convince the rich owners that a more even revenue sharing program that allows poorer teams to compete will benefit all owners in the long run. I’m not sure if Bettman actually believes it himself. When it takes the death of an owner in Chicago to finally get the Black Hawks on local TV, them Bettman isn’t doing his job.
CURB SALARY INFLATION
Bettman’s need to provide cost certainty backfired dramatically since 2005. Since he fought for player expenditures to be tied into revenues, salaries have been escalating along with the revenues. It was his system that has put the teams in the state they are, and while half a dozen teams are reaping the rewards of the system that saves the teams from themselves, the same system has paralyzed many other franchises to the point of bankruptcy and/or relocation. Leading to the final and most important point;
PUT A STOP TO LABOUR UNREST
This is the third lockout under Gary Bettman’s commissionership. The league lost about half a season in 2004-05, and the whole 2004-05 season. Bettman serves the distinction of overseeing the only completely cancelled season in North American Progress sports history, the 2004-05 season. His antagonistic approach doesn’t sit well with the players association, and now that there is a formidable personnel the opposite chair (Donald Fehr, who has been through his fair share of baseball strikes and lockouts), he can’t play the bully like he did last time around. The implementation of the salary cap in 2005 was less a demonstration of Bettman’s negotiating prowess and more a show of ineptitude of former NHLPA Executive Director Bob Goodenow to keep a handle on things in his own group.
In the history of pro sports in North America, only twice has a championship not been awarded, and these two men were each involved in one of them. Neither one is going to back down, and Bettman could be a casualty when the dust settles, because he is trying to sell two different bills of goods to two factions (the haves and the have nots) among those who employ him. After the debacle his cost certainty program has created for a majority of the teams around the league, I am surprised they have kept him on this long, let alone keep giving him raises.
In my opinion, Bettman’s job most likely relies on him getting immediate relief in terms of percentage split as well as salary percentage. Hence the strong-armed proposal he put forth the week before the lockout and his refusal to budge from it even though games are now being cancelled. Say what you will, but revenues have never been higher than they are right now. However, his task is to now find a way to let the owners keep more of that revenue in their own pockets. I believe that has made promises to his employers that even he knows he can’t really expect to keep.