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.
Duhatschek: Touché. But I’m reading your words at [the PrimeTime Sports Management Conference] last week. You say there’s no formal expansion plan, but people are coming to you with expansion inquiries all the time. In my mind, when people hear ‘no plans for a formal expansion,’ they are hearing you say no expansion period. I know how precise you are with the language and so when I hear you say people are pitching ideas all the time, I’m hearing a ‘maybe’ there.
Bettman: Because of the way my words get scrutinized, I have to use a level of precision so people don’t accuse me of misleading them. There are people expressing interest and I’m not denying that. But we’re not turning that into a formal process to move forward. Could that change in the future? It could. And is it no forever? Nothing’s forever. I’m trying to be as open and honest and clear as possible and while it may not satisfy either your journalistic or emotional needs, what I’m saying is completely accurate.
Duhatschek: I still think some time soon, someone will come to you that has a new building and a big pile of money and say, ‘Gary let us operate in Seattle.’ Or Quebec. Or wherever. And you will say, ‘That makes sense from a business perspective,’ and you’ll do it.
Bettman: When people call us and say we’re interested, we listen – because you never know what life will bring you.
Duhatschek: Let’s move on to player safety issues. I understand the overriding theme – keep the physical play in hockey, but minimize the number of concussions and other injuries because injuries aren’t good for the business of hockey. But not everyone thinks the pace of change is moving along fast enough.
Bettman: This is a physical game. The players want it physical, that’s how they make their livelihood. The fans want it physical, that’s the nature of the game, but we want to make it as safe as we can. If you go back four years, a shoulder hit to the head was legal. If you go back four years, maybe guys were less willing to admit they were feeling symptoms of a concussion. Part of what we’re doing through rule changes, equipment changes, medical research and medical protocol is change the culture of the game from a safety standpoint in a positive way. We’ve encouraged players who are having symptoms to come forward, get treated – and they’re doing it.
Duhatschek: Well, most of them are.
Bettman: But it’s not like throwing a light switch. It’s a cultural change. But [reporting concussion symptoms] is more acceptable than it’s ever been and more players are willing to do it. In fact, we’re hearing stories of teammates encouraging other teammates to do that. Two types of hits that were perfectly legal in the game four years ago are not – and that evolved. So with hits to the head, we started [banning just] blind-side – and decided that wasn’t enough. Now, if the head is the main point of contact, it’s not acceptable. We’re looking, with the [NHL] Players’ Association, at equipment. We have, in the course of a season, 55,000 hits. We’re trying to get rid of about 100 of them – which isn’t going to reduce physicality but is going to make the game safer for the players who get hit in the way everybody agrees is objectionable. This is a process, one that we take very seriously and one that we’re working very hard with, with the players.
Duhatschek: Do players, coaches, managers, fans understand that you are trying to shift the line in terms of what is allowed and what isn’t? Sometimes, I don’t think they get it. Whenever there’s a discipline hearing, you always seem to have GMs or players argue, ‘That was always okay in the past.’
Bettman: The thing that makes me scratch my head, whether it’s a player or a coach, is when somebody says, ‘I don’t understand the ruling, the rules are confusing.’ Brendan [Shanahan, the NHL discipline chief] has put out 100 videos. We couldn’t be any more transparent about what’s okay and what’s not. Just watch the videos. No sport has ever done that. His only instructions from me are, ‘Do what you think is right. You’ve got 21 years of NHL expertise. You’ve recently come off the ice. You know how the game is played.’ And by the way, he knows when someone’s trying to sell him a bill of goods.
Duhatschek: I don’t quote your predecessor very often, but one thing John Ziegler Jr. once said always stuck with me: There are a handful of players in the game that cause most of the problems. That was true in the 1980s, and it’s still true today.
Bettman: I’m not going to weigh in on that, but I will say this: We’re having a terrific season. The game on the ice is exciting and entertaining and there are certain things that get a disproportionate amount of the attention.
Duhatschek: Well, I’m going to bring up one of those things right now – fighting. I had a GM the other day that came up to me and said, ‘When did you go all green on me?’ I used to believe in the fighting as a safety valve theory and, hey, I didn’t mind watching a good scrap that had nothing to do with anything. But then I started coaching minor hockey and it changed my view. Fighting certainly has no place in that game, and yet there are players fighting there because they see fighting in the NHL.
Bettman: As it relates to kids, we can agree. But the NHL is at a different level of skill. The players who are, the life decisions they choose to make, the sacrifices they make in exchange for being compensated are decisions that adults can make. I don’t think you can equate the NHL game to what kids do.
Duhatschek: My point though is that players playing at every level of hockey under the NHL emulate what happens in the NHL. It’s like banning smoking in your home or office. Why don’t you just use your powers as commissioner to do it unilaterally?
Bettman: I can ban smoking in this office and I can make that unilateral decision. I don’t make the [game’s] rules. I don’t have unilateral decision-making authority and there are people on both sides of the discussion that are very well dug in on their positions. That’s a discussion, as with all elements of the game, that we’ll continue to have internally and the game will continue to evolve.
Duhatschek: Do you a personal opinion about it?
Duhatschek: Would you care to share it?
Bettman: No. And it’s probably not what anybody thinks or has been speculated. There are people here that know, but anyone who has speculated doesn’t know.
Duhatschek: Okay, on to television. I kept running into colleagues in the television industry last weekend, and it sounded as if you’re closing in on some agreements for a new Canadian TV rights package. I’m led to believe the CBC looks as if they’ll retain the Saturday night national package and that ‘Sunday game of the week’ they’ve been talking endlessly about might go to Rogers Sportsnet. What can you tell me about the state of the TV negotiations?
Bettman: Absolutely nothing. I’m in the middle of discussions and it would serve no constructive purpose to get into a public discussion of that. We’re working on it.
Duhatschek: But those agreements are up after this year. Is there a time frame in which you’d like to have new deals in place?
Bettman: Sooner rather than later. Look, I understand these questions. You have a job to do to get as much information as possible, but I have a job to do, too: To chart the future of our game on national television in Canada. I can’t do that in a public forum. It doesn’t work. The people who talk to us wouldn’t want to talk to us if they knew that was going to happen. Now, when we ultimately come to a conclusion, we’ll answer any questions that people had – within reason.
Duhatschek: So overall, where are you at? I’ll grant that you’ve managed to put out a lot of fires in 2013, relating to labour and franchise stability issues. I would think you’re probably drifting into the office around 10 in the morning and leaving by 3 p.m. most afternoons right now.
Bettman: (laughs) We’re now in the second year of a CBA that has a long shelf life. We have a system that promotes competitive balance – the best this league has ever seen. We sold three franchises this summer in a six-week period. When you say there’s nothing controversial, it’s because things are good. When you turn an aircraft carrier, it churns up the water. When you finally get it turned – which you can’t do overnight – things calm down and you can cruise.
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