A year ago, during Hockey Hall of Fame weekend, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was a mostly invisible presence. The NHL was involved in an acrimonious lockout with its players, there was franchise instability in Phoenix, New York and Florida, and the business of hockey had ground to a halt.
Nowadays, all is sunshine and light. Play has resumed; the NHL will participate in the 2014 Winter Olympics; and there are six money-making outdoor games on the schedule, including one at Dodger Stadium.
Last Thursday, Bettman sat down with an old sparring partner, The Globe and Mail’s Eric Duhatschek, at his New York office to discuss NHL growth, safety issues, expansion and television.
In September, reports circulated that the NHL was expecting $1-billion in growth over the next three seasons, a figure that may stagger some (but presumably, not NHL GMs, who are signing players to lucrative long-term contracts as if they know the salary cap is about to rise). Where is all this money going to come from?
Bettman: Sports, as a media property, is increasingly valuable because it’s something you have to have live. As a result, we’re a better touch point for sponsors and advertisers because our commercials typically don’t get zapped out. International is importan to us. Events are important. Not all of these things are for the money. I know that’s what the media focuses on when somebody makes a statement about a billion dollars. It’s about how we’re interacting with our fans, with sports fans who are becoming our fans, with advertisers, with sponsors, and with media outlets.
You sat with me at a luncheon this week, and we were keeping current with a game [Tampa vs. Boston] on my iPhone. You couldn’t do that 10 years ago. Fifteen years ago, if somebody wanted to know what happened in a game, they had to wait for you to write about it at 11 o’clock at night, and then print it in the newspaper for the next morning. Well, now they can go to nhl.com. Not only do you get the story and the stats, but you can get the video highlights. If you want to say the revenue growth is dramatic going forward, it’s dramatic as you look back, too. It’s all part of what we’ve been doing, taking advantage of the technologies that are there to better connect with our fans.
Duhatschek: And the money flows from that?
Bettman: The money is secondary. In my pyramid of how this works, the game on the ice is the most important thing. Then, you service your fans. If you’re doing that right, then the money flows.
Duhatschek: Let’s talk expansion, and especially expansion into Canada. I live in a province, Alberta, where making money is considered a virtue and entrepreneurship is encouraged. When you’ve previously talked about expansion strategies, you always talk about how the geographic footprint as the most important thing. Okay, I get that. But there’s a part of me that asks, what’s wrong with just doing it for the money? We write about putting a second team in Toronto all the time and that’s been a personal hobby horse of mine for going on 30 years. You’re running a business. To me, it just looks as if you’re leaving money on the table by not pursuing that.
Bettman: Because that, my friend, is a snap shot as opposed to the long-form movie. Whatever you do needs to be sustainable over time and taking the money in the short term and taking it in a bubble – like buying an Internet stock in 2000 – may not be sustainable. What you want to do, particularly when you’re dealing with a professional sports league and franchises and people’s passionate commitment to the game and for the team they root for is, it has to be sustainable.
Duhatschek: The objection I hear most often is that second teams in markets don’t always work. You might even argue that’s the case in the NHL. But I believe Toronto for hockey would be like New York with baseball. When a second team came in, the Mets, there were enough people that didn’t like the first team, the Yankees, they became fans of the second team. I believe that could happen if you went into Toronto with the St. Patricks or whatever you want to call them.
Bettman: Reasonable people can differ. Ultimately, if it ever became something worthy of consideration, based on circumstances, then the board would decide. But there’s no master list. There’s no pressure to do it, other than the pressure you’re exerting, which is pressure that’s been built up from you pitching something for 30 years hasn’t come to fruition.