Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Time for the National Hockey League to fire Gary Bettman

The time has arrived, the time is now, there is nothing more important to the future of the National Hockey League – it’s time the Lords of the Rink fire Gary Bettman before Bettman destroys the NHL. His time has long past, his inability to lead the NHL into what might be a bright future, is impossible given that Bettman and his ‘crew’ clearly have no understanding, no concept of where the sports industry is, where the NHL stands and how to move the NHL forward. If Gary Bettman is allowed to continue as NHL commissioner undoubtedly the NHL is headed to a dark deep place, a journey that will see the NHL as we know it implode with the NHL certain to lose at least six franchises in the next decade.

Bettman offered his “State of the League Address” Tuesday from the league’s All-Star festivities in Dallas. As is always the case with Bettman, he refuses to acknowledge there are any real challenges facing the NHL. There’s nothing wrong with any leader being optimistic, there is everything wrong with the person in charge of a sports league not showing a clear and concise understanding of his/her league.

The NHL Board of Governors meeting earlier in the day before Bettman spoke to the media decided not to change the NHL’s schedule format. As a result, the NHL has lost an opportunity. Under the current NHL schedule formula, NHL teams do not play each other every year. While that may seem like a non issue for those who follow the National Football League or Major League Baseball where teams do not play each other every year, one of the few great NHL opportunities went up in smoke Tuesday morning, Hockey Day in Canada. Canada is Hockey and Hockey is Canada. The last seven NHL seasons have featured a Hockey Day in Canada where the six Canadian NHL franchises played each other. Canada’s Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) made it a national day celebrating hockey in the only country in the world where hockey is a part of the fabric of society.

There will be no Hockey Day in Canada as part of the 2007-08 schedule. The teams in the NHL’s Pacific Division will not be playing the teams in the NHL’s Northeast Division. The Edmonton Oilers, Vancouver Canucks and Calgary Flames are all in the Pacific division, with the Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators and the Toronto Maple Leafs all members of the Northeast Division. In an example of failed leadership, Gary Bettman should have made it clear to the members of the NHL Board of Governors there must be a Hockey Day in Canada, and if it meant changing the NHL’s schedule back to what it was before the NHL’s lockout than so be it, but Bettman had to rise to the occasion and make it happen.

The President of the Calgary Flames Cal Nichols left the NHL’s Board of Governors meeting upset that Bettman hadn’t ‘stepped up to the plate’ and ensure the NHL went back to the schedule format the league followed before the league’s season long lockout.
What Nichols offered the media following the Board of Governors meeting was a total commdenation of Gary Bettman’s leadership. Given that Nichols is the longtime Chairman of the NHL’s Board of Governors the tough talking Nichols remarks clearly indicate one of the more influential Lords of the Rink is losing confidence in Bettman’s ability to lead the National Hockey League.

"Encouraging those to do the right thing for the game," said Nichols. "I don't know about individual conversations with others, but obviously they occur and I guess (Bettman's) decision to just sort of allow it to happen amongst ourselves is another frustrating thing. We voted for change and then we got into all these (different options). That shouldn't matter. We already said we wanted change. We should just pick the best one and go ahead. If there's disagreement, you've got to talk to people and convince them. It doesn't always work, but most of the time it does."

Bettman for his part did what Bettman does best, he sidestepped the issue.

“He didn't share that view with me. The fact is there wasn't enough support from the clubs to make a change, which leads me to conclude, because we're in the middle of a three-year rotation, a number of clubs only thought it fair to conclude it. And sometimes people lose sight of the fact that while some of you think I throw lightning bolts, the fact is I do report to a Board.

“And the Board on certain things has the final say. Actually, ultimately, the Board on anything it wants can have final say. But I'm comfortable that finishing the three-year rotation is the right thing to do.

“And whether or not we need to change after that, we have ample time to consider. What's interesting about the schedule, unlike lots of things that we've done as a League, where everybody can focus and do it on a League-wide basis, the schedule is kind of personal. Market-specific. Rivalry-specific. It gets emotional. And in the absence of what I call a catalyzing event, or a reason to have to do it, it's more difficult.

“So, for example, if Pittsburgh has to move, I guarantee you this issue will get resolved. If they don't have to move, you know, then maybe we'll just sit tight and see.

“So I think that the prudent, safe course was to continue what the Board voted a year and a half ago, and that had a three-year life to it in terms of how it played out.

“That's not an irrational, irresponsible or necessarily unwise decision. And the research we do with our fans is more fans than not like what we have.” Bettman told the media after the BOG meeting.

And when asked if changing the schedule back to a format where every team played each other at least once was something he personally wanted, his true lack of understanding became obvious.

“I think to the extent that there were some concerns by some quarters that they prefer to see every team at least once -- although I think that's being made into perhaps a larger deal, because it affects five teams in any given year -- that's really the difference in this. But I think since everybody went into this with the expectation that we would rotate through the three years, I'm comfortable with seeing that through.” Bettman commented.

Here’s the issue coming to a head. Many Canadians believe Gary Bettman has never appreciated how important hockey is to Canadians and how important Canada is to the NHL. That isn’t true. It was Gary Bettman who managed to save the Ottawa Senators and keep that team in Canada’s capital, but his belief that the current schedule “affects five teams in any given year -- that's really the difference in this”, doesn’t wash if you consider Tuesday’s BOG decision effectively killed one of the few successful NHL promotions. In a league filled with many more dark than light days, Hockey Day in Canada is a success story.

Two weeks ago Nashville Predators owner Craig Leipold made it clear to the Nashville media he was concerned with the teams attendance. Leipold has an out-clause in his contract with the city of Nashville that permits him to move the Predators if their paid attendance does not reach at least 13,200 by the end of the current NHL season. The Predators paid attendance isn’t near that figure right now. Two weeks ago when the Predators (then with the second best record in the NHL) met the Anaheim Ducks (the team with the best record in the NHL), the Predators paid attendance that night was less than 12,000. The two best teams meeting each other and less than 12,000 paying their way into the building – Gary smell the roses something is clearly amiss in Nashville.

“The attendance is up compared to last year, which is a good thing. I'd like to see attendance stronger in Nashville. I know Craig Leipold would like to see attendance stronger.

“I know that's one of the reasons he's made it known that he would like some local ownership to assist him, because I think we've got great fans.

“And interestingly enough, I think as a percentage basis, there were more individual season ticket holders in Nashville than most other clubs.

“I think it's really the corporate community that hasn't stepped up. And I'm hoping that, over time, that changes.” Bettman told the media Tuesday.

Telling it like it is is how and what Bettman should have done. He needed to send a strong, clear and concise message to Nashville’s business community, you had better step up and start buying tickets, and it better be now. He had a tremendous opportunity at the NHL’s All-Star media presser to deliver that message. Instead trying to be the nice guy, Bettman stepped around the issue instead of dealing with the problem.

One issue Bettman wasn’t questioned about during his media gathering Tuesday, but was dealt with in an interview Gary Bettman have to The Dallas Morning News before the NHL’s All-Star festivities this week, was how Gary felt about the NHL’s non-existent American television ratings.

“The answer is we're working very hard with our partners. Both of our partners tell us not to be concerned, that these things take time. We're committed to doing the right things over the long haul and we're confident over time our ratings will grow.

“I think that our fans are well served by all of our television relationships, both locally and nationally. Obviously, the broader the exposure you get over time, the more awareness people have of your broadcasts, the more likely you are to attract casual sports viewers. I also think high definition television will continue to enhance the broadcast quality of our game, which will make it even more attractive on television.” Bettman told the Dallas Morning News

Of all the mistakes, error in judgments Gary Bettman has made during his tenure as NHL commissioner none come close to his misguided belief that Versus is the right American cable TV partner for the NHL.

“They have honored and exceeded their commitments to focus on hockey. If you think back to last year's playoffs, every night there were doubleheaders, hockey-related programming, hockey features, hockey updates during the intermissions and between games, postgame shows instead of going to a sports summary show of all sports. They gave us more of the touch and feel of the game. They have been absolutely terrific in covering and promoting hockey. And we knew that they would. And we gave up some distribution in the short term in order to get this better treatment. And they've grown by more than 7 million homes in the year that we've been on them. And they anticipate continuing to grow.” Bettman made his belief in Versus clear to The Dallas Morning News.

It has been said before in the pages of Sports Business News and it will be said again, if you’re not on ESPN, you’re not a sport in the United States. It doesn’t matter if Versus has done more or less than what was expected of them. What is important is ESPN in the last year has become the machine that is consuming the sports industry. The only decision the NHL needs to make regarding Versus is how to head back to ESPN. And let’s remember this, it was Gary Bettman who set the “pay as you go” rights fee (or lack thereof) for the NHL. The NHL’s agreement with NBC doesn’t guarantee the NHL a dime, all it ensures is the NHL has an over-the-air national carrier in the United States. Its time Gary Bettman was held responsible for leading the NHL’s BOG’s into their terrible Versus cable agreement.

And just how bad are the NHL’s national TV ratings on NBC? They’ve fallen by 20 percent through the first three weekends of coverage. Just how can anyone judge what 20 percent of nothing is a bigger issue than it was last year, but the ultimate believer that little if anything is wrong with the NHL made it clear to The Dallas Morning News that as bad as the ratings are it’s much to do about nothing.

“No, when you look around at the sports ratings landscape, most sports, all sports are in decline, and that's a function of fragmentation, both with respect to other programming and the new technology. So, I think you have to look at it in context. But other than the NFL, I'm not sure anybody has a great ratings story to tell.” Bettman answered when asked if the NHL’s 1 percent national TV ratings was a problem.

"It's a bit like pulling teeth during the season," Calgary defenceman Andrew Ference, one of half-a-dozen player business representatives who are in Dallas to kick around some marketing ideas told’s Brian Milner. "We have to convince guys that it's worth doing."

"It's a work in progress," Ference said of efforts to improve NHL marketing. "It's not going to be perfected in one year or two years."

Which brings the biggest issue, the schedule back to the forefront. The NHL’s current schedule as it is currently formatted ensures the NHL’s two biggest and most marketable players, the Pittsburgh Penguins Sidney Crosby and the Washington Capitals Alex Ovechkin, won’t be playing in many NHL arenas every year. For the NHL that remains a major problem given that Crosby and Ovechkin have the potential to do what Larry Bird and Magic Johnson did for the NBA – save a sports league.

"You're hard-pressed in some markets to have a chance to see any of the new stars," said Paul Swangard, managing director of the University of Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center and a die-hard Vancouver Canucks fan since childhood.

Swangard made it clear to the’s Brian Milner. "If I have empty seats and I know there are some players who could potentially put butts in seats, I should think like a circus and take my stars on the road."

And a report in Canada’s National Post painted an even scarier picture of what the reality is in some key NHL markets as the league stumbles forward.

"I was in Chicago last Sunday and Tuesday," a scout said over the weekend told The National Post. "There weren't 6,000 people there either night. And I'm seeing a lot of that in the U.S. Los Angeles? For the most part, you won't see 10,000 people there.

"In Philly, they're really, really worried about next year, from a business perspective. They've got plenty of season tickets sold -- this year. But look at the stands. No one is using their tickets. What happens after you paid for season tickets but never used them? You don't renew."

"Detroit? A lot of empty seats there. The tickets are sold, but they're not coming," another scout reported. "I've never, ever seen empty seats in Detroit. I was there for a Dallas game -- empty seats. A Nashville game -- empty seats. Montreal? Empty seats."

The bottom line – Gary Bettman has had his share of success stories as NHL commissioner (notably the current NHL collective bargaining agreement) but if anyone were to objectively access Gary Bettman’s 14 years as commissioner he has failed. Under the direction of Gary Bettman the NHL expanded from 24 to 30 teams but common sense paints a picture of bad decisions.

It was February, 1993, and expansion teams in Anaheim and Florida would begin play next season. Within a few years, Winnipeg and Quebec City had left for Phoenix and Colorado, Atlanta and Nashville were awarded franchises, and expansion to Minnesota and Columbus rounded out the league at an even 30 clubs. Hockey teams moved from traditional (Quebec and Winnipeg) to non traditional markets (Denver and Phoenix). Denver has been a tremendous success story for the NHL (and Bettman) but Phoenix has been a disaster. The NHL’s return to Minneapolis another success, but expansion to Atlanta and Nashville are destined to be failures, and when was the last time the home of the Ohio State Buckeyes was a major league sports city? Columbus is and will always be a college town. Two franchises in Southern California is one franchise too many and in Miami they can’t giveaway Florida Panthers tickets. Eight franchises and two success stories, that’s a 25 percent success and that by any definition is a failure. Its time the National Hockey League Board of Governors showed they really care about their game, show they really care about the future of the NHL and hold Gary Bettman accountable for how his lack of leadership in managing the NHL.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited in this Insider report: The Dallas Morning News, and The National Post

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