Note: This article was written by Chris Ostrander.
Gary Bettman, who serves as the face of the league and the owners’ spokesperson, has taken plenty of heat for what he has done with the league and is in the crosshairs due to the current lockout. All of this has occurred despite the fact that Bettman isn’t directly responsible for the stance the owners are taking.
For those who think the lockout falls squarely on Bettman’s shoulders, you’re wrong. Bettman is a big part of this, yes. But the owners are the ones dictating their demands to him, Bettman is simply the face that everyone sees when the league asks for a roll back of 57% revenue sharing to 43%. In fact, Bettman is as much to blame as the players would be. For those wrongly accusing Bettman of being the lone scoundrel , realize you’re wrong and there are far more factors at play than simply Bettman’s personal agenda.
One question that I have begun to ask myself is if the NHL is better off under Bettman. Because, truthfully, there are plenty of pros and cons.
The big three arguments against Bettman are the trio of work stoppages the league has experienced under his watch. He also oversaw a period of poor hockey that drove away fans from arenas and on television. Of course, Bettman has ushered in a period of impressive prosperity with record revenues, increased exposure and unique events that have been unmatched by other leagues. However, as this third work stoppage rolls along, the question should be raised if Bettman’s leadership has made the NHL a better league.
His devotion to his southern expansion plan has been met with cheers and jeers. While the plan brought hockey to markets like Anaheim, Tampa, Miami, Nashville and Atlanta (plus Phoenix and Carolina via relocation), the teams have experienced varying success on the ice and at the box office.
While teams like Atlanta and Phoenix stumble along on the verge of bankruptcy, Bettman stands by the southern strategy as a key television and growth model. While these expansion teams have found their way into large TV markets, their lack of success on the ice has kept fans away. On the whole, a number of the southern teams are almost over their heads (see: Coyotes, Phoenix) and a great number see the strategy as nearly a complete failure.
The lockouts are an obvious red flag and the gains made in the 2004-05 lockout do not outweigh the lost season. Losing the 04-05 season is far more glaring now that the league is back in the same boat. Had the previous CBA fixed the woes that had plagued the league, the sacrifice of a season wouldn’t have the same effect. However, with the doors shuttered once again, the folly of a cancelled season leaves plenty of egg on the face of the league.
The circumstances that led to the 04-05 lockout were competitively based due to the massive disparity between large and small market teams. The need to balance the revenues, share it amongst clubs and institute a salary cap were needed additions to the NHL. Winning those over was a major step in the right direction. Had his owners not circumvented the cap with massive contracts and steered the league into a direct lockout nosedive, the last CBA would be a major bright spot on Bettman’s resume.
However, the culture of the league that helped lead to the 04-05 lockout also drained scoring from the sport and drove ESPN away to other games (not sports) such as NASCAR and poker.
Today the NHL has climbed back to impressive heights. The game is enjoying record revenues, there is growing support from all angles thanks to marketable stars, events like the Winter Classic and some well-timed Cup champs in major US markets. Factor in the fat new deal with NBC, the impressive support of NBCSN and the fan-favorite 24/7 series on HBO and there is plenty to be happy about.
Over the past seven seasons (since the last lockout) the NHL has grown and regained plenty of the goodwill that was lost after a cancelled season. However, the bad PR has already been stirred up again and the negatives are starting to outweigh the good.
With the lockout dragging on, ESPN has capitalized. They began broadcasting KHL games over the weekend in what appears to be a direct snub to the NHL. Not only did ESPN not want the NHL in the early 2000s, they showed zero interest out of the lockout. While being ignored by ESPN led to the impressive partnership with NBC, it took some rocky years with the OLN/VERSUS brand to grow.
Could ESPN’s decision to put the KHL on TV be a direct taunt to the NHL? It’s possible, but unlikely. They’re probably just trying to grab some hockey-starved viewers after missing out on the most recent TV contract. Regardless of ESPN’s true motivation, the fact that such a situation can exist is damning.
Not only has Bettman seen his owners push the league into another lockout, he has been at the helm as ESPN deserted and was subsequently snubbed in the most recent NHL television contract. While he isn’t directly responsible for the lockout, portions of his guidance could have been directed towards preventing such a thing from ever happening again. Yet, it is happening for the third time.
The infamous SI "NHL it hot, NBA is not" cover came along early in Bettman’s tenure. Since then the league shortened at least one season and lost another, a third is pending one of those results. In addition, goal scoring dipped drastically, ESPN walked away and at least one southern franchise was forced to move due to financial hardship.
The NHL has seen revenues balloon over those same twenty years, the league has expanded to new markets and has seen some blossom (Nashville) and others falter (Atlanta). The NBC television deal was a huge victory and a major step forward for the league. Ensuring that the Winter Classic has remained a mainstay complete with the ultra-popular 24/7 has helped thrust the NHL back into the "Big 4" conversation.
As would be expected, Bettman’s tenure has come with many ebbs and flows. While he had led the league through many impressive strides, his legacy won’t be remembered as such. Fair or unfair, Bettman will be remembered as the commissioner with the hat trick of lockouts. The CBA issues and work stoppages will define his time as commissioner, although it may not prove if his time truly brought prosperity to the NHL or not.