Wednesday, February 07, 2007

There’s no time like the present – FIRE Gary Bettman

Growing up in Montreal, Les Canadiens de Montreal had (still do) larger than life presence. To Canadians hockey is Canada and hockey is Canada. The National Hockey League is to Canadians what the National Football League is to Americans. The National Hockey League to Americans is on the edge of the abyss, a dangerous place where no business ever wants to be – in danger of total collapse. At this point it isn’t a matter of if, but when the National Hockey League falls off the face of the earth. And the one man who the Lords of the Rink have to thank for the implosion the NHL is facing, Gary Bettman.

Last week the National Hockey League ‘celebrated’ the 14th anniversary of Gary Bettman’s reign of terror as NHL commissioner. And how was this momentous moment in NHL remembered? Over the last two weeks (since our last Insider calling for the NHL Board of Governors to fire Bettman), the league announced Versus the league’s no-name national cable partner extended their current agreement for an additional four years, rumors circulated from Dallas Texas Motor Speedway President Eddie Gossage, a New York Times report suggested the New Jersey Devils (one of three NHL franchises in the Greater New York area) don’t have a television audience and whatever media follow the NHL are almost universal in the total condemnation of Gary Bettman’s ability to lead the National Hockey League.

“We’ll definitely have the third season, and we’ll have [the NHL] for six years,” said Versus president Gavin Harvey, who declined to discuss deal terms. “We’re looking forward to season three on Versus.”
Sources close to Versus told Multichannel News the 71 million-subscriber network exercised a $72.5 million option for the 2007-08 campaign and then extended its pact for three more seasons at an undisclosed price.

“We're pleased to be partnered with Versus next season,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in a prepared statement. “We look forward to working together on the promotion of our game, players and the telecasts as we focus on growing U.S. viewership.”

The problems with the Versus agreement are so far reaching Bettman should be fired for allowing the NHL to move forward with Versus. Versus had the option for the third year (this is year two), but its inexcusable why any sports executive would encourage his league to agree to a three year extension with a cable network no one has ever heard of.

The issue isn’t the original agreement the NHL signed with Comcast, Versus parent company but the nonsensical three year extension. Two years ago Comcast talked the talk in regard to Versus (then known as the Outdoor Life Network). Comcast talked about building a national cable sports network that would rival ESPN. The NHL would anchor Comcast’s ambitious plan that reportedly included securing the eight game late season NFL games the NFL awarded to their own NFL Network and the MLB regular and post season package TBS secured. It would have been reasonable for the NHL to have made it clear to Versus if at the end of our current agreement you haven’t moved forward and secured other major sports properties we will take our product elsewhere. Instead for some inexplicable reason known only to Gary Bettman the NHL remains the ‘fools on the hill’ stuck in what is now a six year agreement with a cable network that features bull-riding, the World Combat League, the National Lacrosse League, the Tour de France along with various fishing and outdoor life programming.

And to make matters worse, NHL ratings on Versus have become a source of humiliation to Bettman and the NHL’s New York staff. Played two weeks ago, the All-Star Game drew a 0.7 Nielsen rating on Versus. The game was viewed in an estimated 474,298 households and by 672,948 viewers, down from the 1,985,000 households that saw the 2004 All-Star game on a Sunday afternoon on ABC. The game was the most-watched cable show that night in Buffalo and Pittsburgh; it did not place among the top 20 cable shows in NHL markets such as New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Washington and Miami. The 7.1 rating in Buffalo was by far the largest in any U.S. market.

In host city Dallas, the game was only the 18th most-watched cable program with a 0.5 rating. The national rating is the percentage of U.S. television households tuned to a program, and each point represents about 1.1 million homes.

If you ask Gary Bettman about the NHL’s partnership with Versus seemingly he couldn’t be any happier as he told Adweek.

“They have done remarkably well under difficult circumstances. We are their most important property, we are their priority, and we love the attention they're giving to us. What we did to get that special treatment, we give up some short-term distribution that we believe will grow over time. Would we like our ratings to be higher? Yes, but that's something we'll work on in a marketplace where everybody's ratings have gone down.”

Either Gary Bettman doesn’t understand how terrible the NHL’s ratings are, or he’s misread the marketplace. Yes, TV sports ratings have fallen, but those entrusted with managing leagues needing exposure (the Arena Football League, Major League Soccer and the Busch racing series) are all being proactive in understanding how they’re going to move their product forward. The NHL’s leadership shows time and time again a complete lack of understanding of current market conditions.

Its bad enough for the image of the National Hockey League to be the center-piece on a network built around fringe and niche sports fans don’t believe are sports, the problem goes to another level when you consider where ESPN “The Worldwide Sports Leader” is going with their partners.

Monday, ESPN announced phase two of their marketing efforts with NASCAR’s Busch Series. Not only is ESPN committing their marketing resources to NASCAR’s “B” series, ESPN and NASCAR officials are working together on securing a lead sponsor to replace Anheuser-Busch who will be ending their title sponsorship at the end of the year. ESPN who purchased a minority stake in the Arena Football League on December 19 now have a vested interest in moving the AFL forward. In early August, ESPN and Major League Soccer announced a comprehensive agreement that includes a minimum of 26 regular season games on ESPN2.

What’s essential in understanding the error in judgment the Gary Bettman led National Hockey League is the nature of the recent rights agreements ESPN has reached with Tier II sports like the National Hockey League. The National Football League, National Basketball, Major League Baseball, the Nextel Cup and the NCAA men’s basketball and football do not need ESPN, ESPN needs those sports properties as their partners. ESPN have taken the next level of sports properties (Tier II where the NHL resides) and created marketing and broadcast partnerships. That’s what the NHL needs, to realize it’s no longer a major sports in America and must follow the lead of other Tier II sports properties.

Last week The New York Times Richard Sandomir offered a ratings report that suggested in no uncertain terms the NHL has fallen off the face of New York City sports. The New Jersey Devils met the Florida Panthers at Miami’s BankAtlantic Center on January 27, 2007. The game was televised in the New York area on the MSG Network. What was the game rating ten days ago: Only 736 households — a minuscule .01 rating — tuned in. That is 736 out of nearly 7.4 million, from 7:30 to 10 p.m.

When contacted by Sandomir for his reaction to the dismal rating, Mike Emrick, the TV voice of the Devils said: “I don’t know whether ignorance is bliss, but it doesn’t affect what we do,” he said yesterday by telephone. “And we don’t hear much about the numbers.”

He added: “I’m shocked that the Devils aren’t appreciated by more people. They’ve done their best to be successful, that’s for sure.” ran duel columns focusing on the NHL last week, which included among the discussed topics: Gary Bettman’s 14-year tenure as NHL commissioner. Both columnists suggests the NHL was once considered a top Tier sport in the United States soon after Bettman was hired as commissioner (the New York Rangers1994 Stanley Cup and Wayne Gretzky’s NHL career in Los Angeles, St. Louis and New York) but both agreed because of Bettman the NHL is sliding backwards.

Gary Bettman has his defenders. Brian Burke who worked alongside Bettman in the NHL’s New York offices made it clear to The Los Angeles Times’ Helene Elliott, he believes in Bettman.

“You're talking about a whole list that's as long as my arm,” said Brian Burke, the Ducks' general manager and a former NHL executive. “But to blame Bettman is like blaming a meteorologist for a drought.

“Compare us with what we're up against. Every kid in America plays baseball and football, even if it's touch football, and basketball. There are no barriers to entry in those sports. Our sport requires a major investment of money and time. We can't expect to be at the level of those other sports….

“Do I think we need a different guy driving the bus? Not a chance.”

Burke may be offering the company line in supporting Bettman but that’s the problem. Is anyone associated with the National Hockey League capable of telling the truth? Does anyone associated with the National Hockey League understand where the NHL is in the conciseness of American sports fans? There are many who believe it isn’t Bettman who needs to be held accountable for the NHL’s problems it’s the Lords of the Rink – the NHL’s Board of Governors.

Fine, if that’s true it only amplifies how ineffective Gary Bettman has become as NHL commissioner. If nothing else Bud Selig is passionate about Major League Baseball. Selig may have made more than his share of mistakes during his years as MLB commissioner but at the end of the day Selig’s love of the game has made him a winning commissioner. David Stern, Roger Goodell, NASCAR’s Brian France, the MLS’s Don Garber and the Arena Football League’s David Baker are all well respected, strong and decisive leaders who are never afraid to tell it like it is. They aren’t afraid of taking charge, they embrace the opportunity. The NHL is headed towards a deep dark hole the league may never recover from, what the NHL needs now with the clock about to strike midnight, is anyone except Gary Bettman running the National Hockey League – fire Gary Bettman before it’s too late.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom.

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