Just a Reminder: Gary Bettman Loves Money, Gary Bettman Does Not Love Hockey
Updated: Dec 27, 2021
Earlier this week, the news broke that Gary Bettman was pulling NHL players out of the Olympics. His excuse? Covid. He was pulling the plug on the NHL Season through New Year's with the understanding that the games would be made up during the time that the NHL would have been on hiatus for Beijing 2022.
Bettman had to have his arm twisted just to go to China. His exact quote?
"The middle of the season, where we disappear from the face of the Earth, is incredibly disruptive, nonproductive for our season." Bettman is 2018
So the nth variant of Covid comes and Bettman can't pull the plug on the Olympics fast enough. He is using Covid as an excuse not to do something he never wanted to do in the first place. Bettman's first priority has always been playing uninterrupted NHL games. [Uh, except for during lockouts, then Gary Bettman HATES playing NHL games.]
Let me ask you, when did you, the reader, fall in love with hockey? Now if you live in a big city in Canada, say Toronto or Vancouver, it's probably going to, or watching, your local NHL club with your family. Do I remember when I fell in love with hockey? Of course I do, the 1980 Olympics.
The Olympics is the # 1 tool to bring the casual fan to your sport. The best plan to grow the sport of hockey is to send the best players in the world to Beijing, The 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics were watched by 1.92 BILLION, with a capital B, people.
There are about a thousand athletes that play in the NHL, about a quarter of them would have made their way to China to represent their respective countries. Now the NHL games postponed over Christmas break will be played in mid-February. What will you, the reader, be watching? The NHL or the Olympics? Neither the NFL nor the NBA are cancelling games en masse, like the NHL, because they have no breaks in their schedules. Let me be clear, I am not saying the NHL is doing the right or wrong thing fundamentally by postponing games. And this is not about specifically China, this is about the core premise that the NHL should be vested in the Olympic games. I am also saying that the NHL wouldn't have postponed crap if there wasn't a break in their schedule.
The owners, for which Bettman is a puppet, don't like the idea of 3/4 of their players getting rusty and 1/4 getting overworked on the other side of the world. Bettman doesn't care what the players think, even though, as commissioner, that is supposed to be part of his management equation. The Olympics are very popular amongst the players. Owners care about their own individual teams and making money. AND AGAIN, THE COMMISSIONER'S JOB IS TO DO WHAT'S IN THE BEST INTEREST OF HOCKEY.
I am beating a dead horse here. For 5 years, I have been pounding my fists on the table that Beijing is when the KHL could possibly overtake the NHL in popularity...
See, now you're laughing at me. Hear me out. The NHL is clearly the best hockey league out there today. Clearly. But here's the problem moving forward. During the pandemic, the sports that have continued to thrive are television driven sports, like the NFL. The sports that have suffered are sports like hockey, that don't translate as well to television.The NFL just signed a $100 billion, 10 year television contract extension. The NHL just signed a $700 million, 7 year contract extension. There is an enormous difference between $10 billion a year vs $100 million year in TV money.
The NHL is in trouble. Gary Bettman claims (we don't believe his number, but he claims) that the NHL lost 1 billion dollars during the 2020-2021 season. The Arizona Coyotes can't pay their rent, the Calgary Flames just walked away from their arena deal, and the NHL has not only cancelled their upcoming games, but there is doubt as to when cross-border games will be able to return. Is it feasible that the schedule is being changed now, as we speak?
In a normal NHL season, the regular season lasts 82 games and the Stanley Cup winner ends up playing around 100 games. Let me lay out a worst case scenario for you:
Let's say Covid subsides just in time for Beijing. Russia wins the Gold Medal again, while the Silver and Bronze go to European countries. A quarter of a billion Chinese youths fall in love with hockey and mistakenly believe that the KHL is the best league on the planet. The Communist Party then decides that they're going to make it harder to access all American sports, including the NBA and the NHL. All of a sudden, venture capitalists are clamoring for more KHL, but instead of expanding the KHL season, the KHL gets in bed with Chinese investors to create a hockey version of the proposed (then withdrawn) Super League in Soccer.
The proposed European Hockey Super League would expand the Champions Hockey League to include the best teams in Russia and China. But instead of the Champions League format in Soccer, which heavily favors Western Europe, the European Hockey Super League would heavily favor teams in Eastern Europe and Asia. The KHL season + the New European Hockey Super League could still be done in around 80 to 90 or so games, still a feasible proposal logistically.
Now that alone would not do in the NHL. The NHL would also have to implode a little bit. Now Businessman Bettman would scoff at the suggestion of an implosion. According to Forbes, despite heavy Covid related monetary losses, the average NHL franchise is worth three-quarters of a billion dollars and the average worth of a NHL franchise has gone up over 100% over the past 5 seasons. Gary Bettman would argue that the NHL, using the business metric of franchise worth, is better than ever and that Covid is simply a blip on the radar that all leagues are dealing with.
But because the NHL is a regional sport, what happens if there's a jail break? Gary Bettman wakes up one morning and the Flames announce they are moving to Kansas CIty, the Coyotes are moving to Houston, and Ottawa is moving to wherever builds them the biggest hockey palace.
The entire country of Canada would be on Gary Bettman's lawn with torches and pitchforks. What if Canadian teams and the American Original Six simply pulled out of the NHL and started their own hockey league? The NHL would tumble like a house of cards. Gary Bettman should be marketing the heck out his his best players and selling the sport of hockey, using the Olympics as an introductory to the NHL. Instead, Scumbag Bettman acts like the owners' accountant. David Stern sold the sport of basketball, Gary Bettman holds the owners' jocks. All it would take to topple the NHL is an in-house rebellion from its Northern core. What if over expansion into America rotted out the soul of the National Hockey League?
The key to the NHL's success in the next generation is to own Canada. You put a team in each of the 10 largest markets in Canada, including 2 in Toronto, and then tighten up the season to end on Memorial Day. There are a number of ways to do the NHL in a more forward thinking, fan friendly way.
In our article Let's Punch the NBA in the Mouth we outlined a half dozen such ideas.
#1 Build a Tournament into your Season.
Subtract 4 meaningless regular season games and have a "fun" mini-tournament that would still count toward the final standings. How would you do that? Well, for example, you'd split the NHL into regions and have eight four team tournaments. You could argue it's gimmick-y, but no one is watching hockey in October or November. Try something different!
#2 Free Hockey
I was watching MLS TV on the Pluto Streaming Service and watched soccer highlights for about 2 hours. You can't tell me that MLS has more money in its coffers to market their game without fans paying an arm and a leg for cable highlights. Again, MLS TV doesn't show current games, only highlights and "classic" games. The NHL should have been the FIRST sport to think of that model.
#3 Hire Non-Hockey Personalities
The NFL hires comedians to show up on its halftime shows. The NHL needs to hire personalities to create some friction both in the studio and covering the games. When you think of Hockey Personalities, the first person you think of is Don Cherry. DON CHERRY IS 87!
My point is, you've got to get yourself a Canadian Version of Steven A Smith, where half of the hockey fans LOVE him and half of the hockey fans HATE him, but everyone knows who he is.
#4 You've got to play up the angle that NBA players just don't want to go to Canada.
Whether you want to admit it or not, the NBA has grown at the expense of the NHL. It is the sport that is its direct competitor on the sports calendar. You need to beat the drum long and loud about the NBA exploiting Canadians. The NBA wants the Canadian Dollars, but the players lament that Toronto just isn't L.A or New York. NBA Players Simply Don't Like Playing in Canada. Who's the Toronto Raptor's biggest free agent signee in their history? I could argue that it's Jeremy Lin.
When was the last time you heard a hockey player whine that he didn't want to play in Canada? The only hockey players I recall complaining about where they played were Russians. Pavel Datsyuk just wanted to go "home." For Datsyuk, home is Yekaterinburg, Russia, half a world away and a totally different culture. I get that. Just as an example, if an NBA Player is signed to the Raptors, they don't need to learn a new language, don't need to learn a new culture, and don't have to navigate a WHOLE different set of <ahem>...let's use the term Local Politics. An NBA player not wanting to play in Toronto has the same wrong-headed mindset as one that doesn't want to play in Minneapolis.
#5 Hockey Day!!!
Don't get me wrong, the Outdoor Stadium game on New Year's Day is great, but you need something that involves all the teams. You should try a slightly altered NCAA Basketball Kickoff Model. At 9:00 am on a February Saturday, right after Football Season, you should have a North American Hockey Day. All NHL teams play every half an hour. ESPN should cut in and out of games like it's NCAA March Madness.
Give those hard-core hockey fans a reason not to get off of the couch for a day and the casual fan an opportunity to come in and out of multiple games at once.
#6 The Hockey Movie!!!!
The Greatest Hockey movie of all-time, Slap Shot, is over 40 years old. Despite the hockey and the humor being timeless, the soundtrack and the actual film stock quality are dated. The NHL needs to invest in a great script and make another awesome hockey movie. (Those reminding me of The Mighty Ducks Movie Trilogy....YOU'RE BANNED FROM THE BLOG.)
#7 The Hockey Movie (Alternate Idea)
Hard Knocks on HBO covers the pre-season and gives the viewer a peak behind the NFL curtain.
What's practice like?
The drama of who gets cut.
Dealing with the heat.
And, most importantly, the show humanizes the gladiators behind the pads.
You root for the undrafted rookies and pick your favorite players.
HBO needs to take the viewer up close using the NHL product. Instead of football, once a month, HBO follows an NHL team in real time. They turn on their cameras at 6:30 pm and cameras are everywhere until 10:30. In the locker room, on the bench, in the net, on the helmets. And don't skimp on the production costs. Have microphones everywhere and Go-Pros anywhere that they can fit a camera.
Here, let me give you an example of what I'm talking about. You, sitting on your couch at home, name the leading scorer in the NHL today.
Here's a Hint:
If you recognize German Leon Draisaitl, you're not just a casual fan, you're a hardcore hockey fan. You aren't going anywhere and the Commissioner knows it. It is Gary Bettman's job for the casual fan to know the name Leon Draisaitl like the last generation knew the names Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux.
Speaking of Mario Lemieux, when other retired athletes, from all sports, are tripping over themselves to get into the ownership game, Mario is selling the Pittsburgh Penguins at age 56. Doesn't that raise a red flag?
I am telling you, the growth of the game has occurred despite Gary Bettman, not because of Commissioner Bettman. When Wayne Gretzky was traded from Edmonton to the L.A. Kings back in the 80's, I could have argued that the NHL was almost as popular as the NBA. Today? Oh, not even close. The NBA Finals garners around 20 million viewers a night, the Stanley Cup Playoffs around 2 million. If you grow the game, the money will follow. If you bleed a city dry, asking for cities and sponsors to shore up your profit margins, you get the NHL of 2021.
You don't agree with me? Let me ask you one final question. In 20 years, do you think that Gary Bettman has positioned his league to be a major player in the sports landscape, or do you think the NHL will continue to be a niche sport at best?