February 18 2009 09:10AM
Yeah we said it. We are going to defend Gary Bettman. So what? Wanna fight about it?
As anyone with operating eye and ear organs knows, there is a lot of talk around the league about how half the teams in the NHL are seemingly on the verge of mid-game economic collapse. The poster boy for economic woe is of course the Phoenix Coyotes and their owner Jerry Moyes. Despite the overwhelming challenges these "solvency challenged" teams face, one guy remains squarely in their corner, performing the thankless job of propping up screwed franchises as he has for over 16 years:
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said the league is trying to help the financially struggling Phoenix Coyotes and called reports of the franchise's demise "ridiculous" on Wednesday night. Coyotes owner Jerry Moyes has been seeking buyers for the Coyotes, who reportedly are losing more than $30 million per year. "There's been a tremendous amount of speculation and commentary about the state of the Coyotes and most of it has been terribly unfair to the Coyotes, to the players and to the fans," Bettman said. Obviously, there are issues we're working on - getting some capital infusion for the club ... possibly some new partners for Jerry Moyes or even a possible sale." Bettman would not disclose the names of any potential financial partners for the Coyotes but said "we're working on bringing this to a conclusion by season's end." Bettman also said the NHL "has a good track record" of helping other struggling teams get financially healthy again and dismissed speculation that the Coyotes would be relocated. "The reports of the franchise's demise are just ridiculous," he said. "Jerry Moyes has been committed to Glendale and committed to the Coyotes. All of this blanket characterization of 'hockey doesn't work in the Sun Belt' is just hogwash. I think the Coyotes have a bright future on the ice."
We are starting to feel for Bettman a little bit these days. In certain circles, the guy is about as popular as Chris Brown (post limo-ride) and he takes a constant beating on sites, radio shows, message boards and articles all around the league. If you listen to some folk, Bettman is to blame for pretty much everything that is going wrong in the NHL. As fun as it is to rag on the guy for not comprehending the importance of fighting in the game or for his repeated attempts to "Americanize" the game, it's evident that his job is getting less and less fun with each passing day of this economic hullabaloo.
At the risk of being unpopular—oh wait who gives a shit?—we're going to come to his defense for two reasons. Firstly, we know that we will eventually be sued in some capacity by the legal arm of the NHL. We want to get this article entered into the Internet Vault long before we come face to face with a pantheon of lawyers that will claim we hate every business facet of the NHL. Secondly, we think that if it weren’t for Gary Bruce Bettman, none of us would be sitting here on a Wednesday morning in February, warily eyeing a playoff berth on behalf of the Edmonton Oilers. It was his support of small market Canadian teams—coupled with the efforts of many, not least of which include the EIG—that allowed the team to remain in E-Town.
Yeah, yeah we know. “Gary Bettman doesn’t like fighting. Gary Bettman is against no-touch icing. Gary Bettman has been sent to Earth via wormhole to alter the space-time continuum and tip the balance of power in the Delta Quadrant.” This may very well be the case, but let’s take a trip down memory lane and put his reign in proper context shall we? Anyone have to go to the bathroom before we leave? No?
The Bettman Years
We can vividly recall when ol’ Uncle Gary took to the stage in 1993. These were the dark days—you will recall Nation—when every second story on the news about the Oilers involved their imminent departure to somewhere warm and sunny. TSN had even gone so far as to make a graphic for the story—a mocked up For Sale sign with an Oilers logo displayed front and centre. Did you think the OilersNation forgot about your treachery TSN? You heartless sons of bitches... Commissioner Stein had just checked out of his one-year tenure as NHL President, which had given him ample time to call his own number and be shadily inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. On February 1, 1993 the reins were handed to Bettman and a new era began for the NHL.
We can remember the day that a young and brash Gary Bettman swaggered into Edmonton fresh from his doings over at the NBA. The NHL was then much like it is today: no national US TV deal, relatively small revenues compared to other leagues and labour unrest waiting around every corner. Bruce McNall was chairman of the NHL board of governors, for heavens sake—and was looking forward to a long career as an NHL owner and a non-inmate of the United States Penal System. Here in E-Town the Oilers bench solidly outnumbered the crowd in the stands at RX1 and most of the front office staff busied themselves preparing for a move to Atlanta, Hamilton, Houston or worse.
Bettman rolled in and talked about his commitment to seeing teams remain in Canada and his further commitment to small-market teams that were struggling financially. These promises were promptly met with the almost immediate departure of both the Nordiques and Jets for the States. For a prepubescent Wanye, there was little to suggest that the Oilers wouldn’t be the next to depart. We were convinced that the Oil were as good as gone and began crying ourselves to sleep on a nightly basis while tightly clutching our Jason Arnott sweatpants.
But as the mid-90s progressed and the years went on, the oddest thing happened: the Oilers didn’t leave town and Bettman held true to his word that he would do his best to keep the Oil in Edmonton. Bettman “championed the Canadian assistance plan, a revenue-sharing agreement that saw American teams give money to help support the four small-market Canadian teams—Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa, and Vancouver—throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s.”
Let’s not kid ourselves. When the Oil sold for a jaw dropping $200,000,000 last year, the good fans of the OilersNation and the gigantic wallet of Kay-Z repaid Mr. Bettman’s faith many, many times over. But one must never forget that there were a great many years in the middle where Bettman worked with the City, and various other orders of government and the business community here in Edmonton to keep the team on the ice and our Oilers sweatpants firmly on our legs.
Fast forward to good times
We can recall seeing Bettman on the Jumbotron at RX1 during the Cup run of ‘06. These were slightly different times in the Nation and we were all in the process of cheering each and every Oilers related anything we came across:
Guy at the corner has an Oilers flag on his car? Woooooo!
Radio stations play Nickelback or one of the dozens of Oilers tribute songs? Woooooo!
Gary Bettman is on the jumbotron? Woooooo!
We can distinctly recall his look of genuine happiness as Bettman appeared on the big screen and saluted the crowd, the members of which were busy unbolting their chairs from the arena stands and throwing them into the air with joy. The look on his face seemed to suggest that Bettman's plan to “keep a team in this Siberian Railtown" had worked.*
Like it or not, Nation, this guy knows his business of hockey and most likely goes to bed at night wishing that he had arenas full of rabid Oilers-fan types paying in American dollars to see American Teams. He may not have strapped on the old skateroos and played in some Byzantine hockey league but we have to think that after 16 years on the job he has earned more respect than he is given.
*We made this quote up.
Where my TV deal at?
One of the common gripes against Bettman is his inability to sell the game south of the border and his insistence on favouring American over Canadian cities when looking to expand or relocate NHL teams. Bear in mind that Bettman has been trying to sell our favourite game to American TV networks for 16 years. And it hasn't been all bad—before we all laugh heartily at his efforts to sign these TV deals let’s take a quick look at his track record since taking the job:
Bettman quickly accomplished one of his stated goals, signing a five-year, $155 million deal with the Fox Broadcasting Company to broadcast NHL games nationally beginning in the 1994–95 season. The deal was significant, as a network television contract in the United States was long thought unattainable during the presidency of John Ziegler. Despite falling ratings, Bettman negotiated a five year, $600 million deal with ABC and ESPN in 1998. It was the largest television contract the NHL ever signed. The $120 million per year that ABC and ESPN paid for rights dwarfed the $5.5 million that the NHL received from American national broadcasts in 1991–92. The NHL's television fortunes have faded since the ABC deal, however. In 2004, the league could only manage a revenue sharing deal with NBC, with no money paid up front by the network. Also, coming out of the lockout, ESPN declined its $60 million option for the NHL's cable rights in 2005–06. While wishing to retain the NHL, it stated the cost was overvalued. However, Bettman was able to negotiate a deal with Comcast to air the NHL on the Outdoor Life Network channel, now called Versus. The three year deal was worth $207.5 million. Bettman has been heavily criticized for the move to Versus, as detractors have argued that the league has lost a great deal of exposure since moving to the much smaller network.
First off, where in the hell did the Outdoor Life Channel get its greasy hands on $207.5 million? Does someone at the network have naked pictures of the President of Comcast? Holy crap! Secondly, you think you're frustrated at your job? Imagine Bettman. First, he signs a gigantic TV deal within 18 months of taking the job, then despite falling ratings he is somehow able to re-up a deal four times as big. What should be one of the legacies of his tenure has now become a black eye as the deals have gotten progressively worse, ratings have tailed off and the NHL is essentially right back where it started, though they do have an impossibly lucerative Versus deal in their pocket. Reading this timeline, you get the feeling that Bettman has consisetently delivered the best TV deal available to him. It is the ratings that are killing the collective efforts of the NHL.
It's this inability to attract legions of new beer swilling, t-shirt purchasing and hard rock loving American fans to the game that has haunted Bettman and Company throughout his reign at the top of the NHL chart.
Same old, same old
It must be like Groundhog day for Bettman over at NHL offices with the essentially the same to do list every single day:
- Help (insert screwed Franchise here) get back on its feet;
- Get better TV deal for league; and,
- Shake head in disbelief at quarterly NASCAR ratings.
Can you imagine being NHL Commissioner for 16 years? Watching owner after owner get carted off to jail, dealing with franchises perpetually flying into the ground at Mach 11 and yet still having the task of attracting new sponsors, broadcasters and franchise owners? How about not one but two labour disputes on your watch as players and owners engage in a marathon game of "who is the bigger bunch of idiots?" Still want the job? That kind of blind perseverance alone in the face of tremendous losses should make him an Honorary Citizen of the OilersNation.
For a man who is so powerful that after three phone calls he had his half brother Jeffrey named Commissioner of the World Series of Poker it must be an exercise in frustration on most days.
Now that this economic shitstorm (represented in the picture above as the burned out engine of a car) is going down in the US, the shoe is on the other foot. Canadian teams now seem to be amongst the most stable and it's a great many American teams that are in now in dire financial trouble. Bettman is faced with another round of doing what he has always done: putting out fires, propping up the weak sisters of the league and insisting that all is fine. It's no day at the beach defending unscrupulous owners in dubious hockey markets in an attempt to keep leverage in negotiations with new unscrupulous owners in these same dubious hockey markets.
5,848 days after he started as Commissioner of the League, Gary Bettman faces the exact same problems that were on his plate on Day One. Mentally stunted owners that alternate between spending like drunken sailors and going tits up. A crappy TV deal that while potentially lucerative, lacks the large scale exposure that will be necessary to one day grow the game south of the border. Waning interest in many secondary US markets which threatens numerous teams already weakened by the stalled economy. This is the NHL as it stands today. And still Gary goes to work every morning trying to shore things up and improve the league so that we may enjoy the game for years to come.
Bless his heart. Seriously.