He has almost become the Vince McMahon WWE-style heel of the NHL; a lightning rod for fans’ frustrations and anger. Gary Bettman is the evil boss: snatching your hometown team and moving them overnight; canceling your hockey season; putting your games on obscure television networks.
Well, that’s the popular opinion at least.
Bettman entered the league as commissioner in February, 1993, after serving under David Stern in the NBA. He joined the NHL at a time of immense popularity, which would culminate in a Sports Illustrated cover story following the New York Rangers’ Stanley Cup championship.
The magazine explained why the NHL was hot and the NBA was not. The love-in didn’t last; the shine quickly faded on the league and, whether fair or not, Bettman was the brunt of much criticism from fans.
It’s not difficult to understand why fans direct so much anger towards the man in charge.
Bettman has presided over two lockouts, one of which cancelled an entire season which was unprecedented for a professional sports league.
His southern expansion, which has created some of the league’s least profitable franchises, is perceived to have come at the expense of Canadian markets – most notably Winnipeg and Quebec City, both of whom lost teams in the mid-90s for far less enthusiastic locations. The optics of the situation look even worse after Bettman has fought tooth-and-nail to keep the Coyotes in Phoenix for years, yet seemingly allowed both the Jets and Nordiques leave without a fight.
Bettman led the league into such a dismal state that ESPN opted out of their TV deal following the lockout, forcing the NHL into a deal with NBC, who provided no rights fees, and OLN, who people didn’t even realize was part of their cable package.
Hockey’s fans let Bettman know their true feelings every season when he presents the Stanley Cup to the winning team’s captain and when he makes an announcement at the NHL Entry Draft. He is met with a chorus of boos and almost has a slight smirk, as if he relishes the moment – furthering the Vince McMahon comparison.
Despite how Bettman is largely perceived by fans around the league, there is a growing list of reasons that indicate this is the wrong way of looking at the commissioner.
The league is now generating revenues close to $3 billion per season, a dramatic increase from the $400 million the league was making when Bettman took over as commissioner.
In the face of being initially lambasted by media and fans alike for striking deals with NBC and OLN, Bettman has turned those initial partnerships into a record setting 10-year agreement worth approximately $2 billion. This deal means more nationally televised games in America than ever before.
The 2004-05 lockout, which people worried would kill hockey, has proved to be one of the most important aspects of the NHL’s resurgence. The game is no longer characterized by clutching and grabbing, making the game faster and, to most, more exciting.
Bettman has also successfully implemented the Winter Classic, the New Year’s Day tradition that was the brainchild of NBC Sports executive vice-president Jon Miller. The annual outdoor game has been a rating boon for the NHL, rivaling the Stanley Cup Final in the U.S. and attracting a host of major corporate sponsors.
Finally, the recent relocation of the Thrashers from Atlanta to Winnipeg discredits any suggestion that Gary Bettman has a bias against Canada. It indicates that Winnipeg and Quebec City lost their teams because, at the time, they were truly unprofitable.
The lockout has ensured that player salaries are tied to league revenues, meaning that Canadian cities are a more viable option than ever. Will the Nordiques ever return to Quebec? The question is no longer simply hypothetical. There is a real chance it could happen in the near future.
The character Vince McMahon played for many years in the WWE was the hated boss, booed by fans with fury every time he touched the microphone. Yet behind the scenes, McMahon transformed the WWE from a rinky-dink operation into a billion dollar company with a major international presence.
Fans boo Gary Bettman with the same amount of venom normally reserved for McMahon. But, considering the way the NHL is prospering, maybe the compassion is more apt than people think.