Gary Bettman: 25 years of growth and frustration
The first commissioner of the NHL has been in his position for a quarter of a century. So, what exactly does he have to show for it?
(Photo Credit: NNC Public Affairs Photography)
After 76 years in business, the NHL saw its first commissioner take over for outgoing NHL President Gil Stein.
That man was Gary Bettman.
A former lawyer and senior vice president of the NBA, Bettman was tasked with taking the NHL and ending labor unrest, grow revenues, continue the game’s reach in the United States, increase franchise stability, and so much more.
Though his tenure started on a positive note thanks to new organizations forming in Florida and California, it wasn’t long before Bettman and the owners he represents were facing backlash from both players and fans of the league.
More money than ever
When Bettman was first hired as the head of the league in December 1992, he was asked about the growth of the game. Rather than talk about the on-ice product, his primary focus was on the bank accounts of the owners and the league.
“The issue is finding ways to grow the revenue pie,” he told members of the media that day. “If you run the business aspect well, the game will take care of itself.”
In the 25 years since that statement, growing the “revenue pie” has been one of the most successful aspects of Bettman’s tenure.
League revenues were just about $400 million back in the early 1990s. In a report from Forbes, the NHL has seen its revenue increase from $2.27 billion for the 2005-06 season to $4.1 billion for 2016-17. By the end of 2018-19 season, the NHL is looking to pull in just over $4.5 billion in revenues. Even with inflation taken into account that growth is impressive by any standards.
The NHL still lags behind the other “Big Four” — NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL — North American sports leagues in revenue, though. The king of that realm, the NFL, brings in over $13 billion annually while the closest league to the NHL, the NBA, brought in $5.87 billion in revenue for 2016-17. That number is only expected to rise as the NBA becomes even more popular in the U.S..
But when it’s all said and done, Bettman is in place to make the owners money, and make money he has.
Expansion and relocation
Prior to Bettman taking his place atop the NHL, the league began its next phase of major expansion with the addition of Ottawa, Tampa Bay and San Jose to the fraternity of teams. Upon his arrival, it was the goal of the then-40-year-old to continue the reach of the league into more markets, particularly in the American south and west.
From 1993 to 2001, the NHL added teams in Florida, Anaheim, Atlanta, Nashville, Columbus, and Minnesota via expansion. Teams also relocated from Minnesota to Dallas, Quebec City to Colorado, Winnipeg to Arizona, and Hartford to North Carolina.
The teams in Anaheim, Nashville, Minnesota, Colorado, and, recently, Columbus have seen plenty of success over the years since joining the league. The same can’t be said for other teams and cities that joined the NHL.
Atlanta lasted just over a decade before moving to Winnipeg and being re-branded as the Jets; Arizona has been part of endless relocation rumors that don’t seem to be quieting down any time soon; Florida and Carolina continue to struggle with fan attendance.
Meanwhile, Calgary has entered the relocation rumor mill due to continuing struggles between the city and organization regarding a new arena for the Flames.
But it’s not all doom and gloom for the NHL with its teams. The Vegas Golden Knights, an organization that just began play in the 2017-18 season, have been an immediate success on the ice, much to the surprise of nearly everyone in and around the league. The league is also set to welcome yet another expansion team in the very near future as Seattle has begun the process of applying for NHL inclusion.
Should the NHL Board of Governors approve the team’s entry, it will include a $650 million expansion fee. Combine that with the $500 million the league received from Vegas, and the NHL is set to bring in a cool $1.15 billion just by upping the team total from 30 to 32.
If one were to hand out grades for Bettman’s performance in his role, easing labor unrest would easily be the lowest grade on his report.
Under Bettman’s watch, the league has locked out its players three times due to failed collective bargaining agreement (CBA) negotiations. Three lockouts in 20 years, one of which resulted in the cancelation of an entire season that nearly crippled the NHL, resulted in the loss of 2,208 regular season games, billions of dollars, and respect across the sports world.
The first lockout in the history of the league took place during the 1994-95 season, just over a year after Bettman took over as commissioner. Lasting 104 days, the NHL saw the players stand pat on their demands resulting in the league having nothing to show for it other than a shortened 48-game season.
Just 10 years later, the NHL and its players were once again butting heads in part to the league’s desire for a salary cap after losing $273 million during the 2002-03 season. Bettman and the NHL’s various owners failed to relent on their desire to cut down on spending, resulting in the NHL becoming the first major North America sports league to cancel an entire season due to labor disputes.
When the league returned for the 2005-06 season, teams had a salary cap of just $39 million. Though small at the time, it has risen back up to near $80 million in the decade-plus since.
The full-season lockout also saw the NHL’s reach in the United States fall drastically as games were no longer aired on the ESPN family of networks. Instead, the league found itself on the Comcast-owned Outdoor Life Network, now known as NBC Sports Network. The first deal with Comcast paid the NHL just $70 million per year for three years. Broadcast rights have since rebounded as the NHL signed a 10-year, $2 billion contract with NBC Universal prior to the start of the 2011-12 season to continue as the United States T.V. rights holder.
One year after signing a new broadcast rights deal with NBC, the NHL locked out its players for the third time due to contract lengths, a fast rising salary cap, and player revenue shares, among other issues. Like the 94-95 lockout, the 2012-13 work stoppage ended with a 48-game season being played.
Since then, the league has gone on without another lockout, though one looms ahead. Though the current CBA doesn’t expire until 2022, the NHL could see a fourth stoppage under Bettman’s watch by 2020 thanks to opt-out clauses available to both sides in 2019. With questions surrounding trading dead salary, player escrows, and the future of no-trade clauses, it wouldn’t surprise anyone — even the players — if the league sees another season cut short in a couple of years.
At 65 years old and the longest-tenured active commissioner in professional sports, Bettman has shown no signs of slowing down as the NHL’s commissioner despite continuing questions surrounding the league and its future.
From his stance on the correlation between concussions and the game of hockey to the upcoming potential lockout to the decision to keep NHL players from representing their countries in the Winter Olympics, there are calls for someone younger to step into the position. But as long as the NHL’s revenues continue to expand and interest continues to increase, Bettman isn’t likely to be replaced.
That being said, it’s a lot closer to the end of his tenure than the beginning. The league needs to plan for the future and whether deputy commissioner Bill Daly is the right person to take over for Bettman, or if someone from the outside be brought in to lead the league into its next 100 years.