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Should Bettman be locked out?
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman will stand at a podium at some point and announce the end of his sport’s latest work stoppage.
It will be the third time he has done so. The first work stoppage resulted in the loss of nearly half the 1994-95 season, the second in all of the 2004-05 season. Hopefully, the third work stoppage will result in only a slightly truncated schedule.
Afterward, maybe there should be time for some introspection at the league’s headquarters. Should it be time for Bettman’s nearly two-decade reign atop the league to end? Should he follow his former boss, NBA commissioner David Stern, into retirement?
Under Bettman, the National Hockey League has generated mixed results. He has tried to grow the sport nationally with expansion and relocation to new markets in the South and West, but not all of those moves have worked out. While TV revenue has never been higher under the current deal with NBC Universal, hockey exposure on the sports landscape isn’t what it was a decade ago.
One thing is clear from his reign: No one has made the jeering of a league commissioner more trendy than Bettman.
The 60-year-old chief is mostly beloved by the only group he answers to: the 30 NHL owners. His job security, according to several people interviewed for this story, is not in jeopardy — at least in the near term. But should it be? Should an examination of his record, including the three lockouts and the failed franchise moves, reveal a need for new leadership in the NHL?
FOXSports.com examines three areas of concern during Bettman’s nearly two-decade stewardship of the NHL:
1. Repeated collective bargaining agreement woes
Bettman might get a pass on the first work stoppage since it occurred a couple years into his tenure. Not much was gained by ownership — in other words, no salary cap — despite reducing the 82-game schedule to 48.
In 2004-05, the owners — and their front man, Bettman — were dead-set on making dramatic changes in how the league functioned economically. A hard salary cap was a must, and even though it cost the entire season, the owners got it.
But Bettman and the owners made one major misstep: They insisted upon — and got — a cap that would shrink or grow along with league revenue. The players wanted a set yearly increase in the cap, expecting — as most did — the league would struggle like Major League Baseball after the 1994 postseason was canceled.
“In retrospect, they probably should have made a better decision,” said Northeastern University School of Law professor Roger Abrams, an expert in sports labor law. “You can’t use 20-20 hindsight. I’m sure he was able to learn from that.”
League revenue didn’t shrink; it grew 50 percent in the years since the dark season. Because of the link to league revenue, the cap went from 54 percent of league revenue to 57 percent. Not a big shift percentage-wise, but enough to lead to the current stoppage.
Now, Bettman is seeking to cut the players share to 50 percent, something the players seem willing to do.
“The only people who have record revenue and try to cut everything from us are the owners. There needs to be a give-and-take. We’re willing to take less revenue. We’ll do a 50-50 split if they honor our contracts. That seems fair. When you sign a contract, you look the GM in the eye and you expect them to honor your contract.”
2. Expansion, relocation and other misadventures
Bettman has been on the job for nearly 20 years, a period that has seen six new teams (some approved under the previous regime) and five relocations (not counting the Islanders’ move to Brooklyn in 2015-16). There probably should have been another move, but Bettman has stubbornly sought new ownership willing to keep the Coyotes in Phoenix, something that appears finally to have taken hold.
Some of those expansion teams are among the most financially troubled in the NHL. Four of the seven least valuable franchises, according to Forbes magazine — Winnipeg (formerly the Atlanta Thrashers), Nashville, Florida and Columbus — were expansion teams under Bettman.
And about half of the NHL franchises lose money, which has spurred the third lockout since Bettman became the commissioner in 1993.
Don’t worry. There won’t be any more expansion.
“Expansion is not something we’ve been considering, are considering or plan on considering,” he told reporters in Brooklyn last week.
League expansion was a huge payday for owners and in a way masked some of the league’s overall financial problems. Minnesota and Columbus — the last two teams to enter the league — each paid $80 million when they came aboard in 2000.
Atlanta became one of the failures under Bettman. The city was granted a team even though the previous franchise (Flames) relocated to Calgary. A deteriorating ownership situation — troubles that also hit Phoenix and Dallas — forced Bettman’s hand, and the Thrashers were allowed to relocate to Winnipeg in 2011.
Toss in the uneven success with expansion, franchise relocation and, finally, the league’s move away from ESPN, and the league hasn’t taken a foothold nationwide, a goal of Bettman’s when he took office.
“The NHL remains a mostly regional sport,” said Ted Kian, a professor of sports management at Oklahoma State University. “From a marketing standpoint, Bettman needed to expand his product to make the NHL a truly North American sports and not just a sports Canada and the Northeast cared about. It still isn’t as popular in the West and South.”
The NHL does have a lucrative TV deal with NBC Universal that runs 10 years to the tune of $2 billion. Credit Bettman for securing that contract and with creating the highly popular Winter Classic game broadcast on NBC.
3. Public image issues
Beyond NHL club owners, Bettman is seen as smug and dismissive — as he’d been the past few years when asked about another potential lockout. It came as no surprise that Bettman locked the players out on Sept. 15, a stoppage that has already cost the first two months of the NHL regular season.
“No. 1, he’s very smart. No. 2, he’s very successful,” Abrams said. “If that means he’s arrogant, I don’t think he minds being arrogant. I think he’s comfortable in that role, and the owners have paid him very well as a result.”
Bettman made nearly $8 million in the past fiscal year, a sum that would put him in the top five if he were a player.
“At this point, nothing's really surprising anymore,” Winnipeg Jets forward Jets Blake Wheeler said. “It’s really too bad. I think compared to the last lockout, it seems almost foolish we are where we are. We should be able to hammer out a deal. We're a lot closer. We’re bargaining over things that shouldn’t be keeping us out of hockey right now.”
There have been a couple of public relations miscues since the lockout began. The league commissioned a company to run a focus group in suburban Washington, DC, to help it craft a message during the lockout. Unfortunately for the NHL, one of the 30 focus group participants leaked the contents of the three-hour session to Deadspin.com. Among the gems was that the group did not have a favorable impression of Bettman.
The owners’ contract proposal from two weeks ago bordered on nothing more than a PR stunt as well. That offer included several facets that the NHLPA balked at, including salary rollbacks, a five-year cap on contracts, a 5 percent limit on the salary cap escalation and a delay in when a player can become eligible for free agency.
Then came reports that the league allowed the owners to contact players directly for a 48-hour period. It was a legal maneuver, although the optics weren’t great since it was seen by many as an end-around on the NHLPA.
These are not moves that are going to bolster Bettman’s already flagging popularity.
“I remain the eternal optimist that hopefully something will get done,” Bettman said last week. “We are all obviously disappointed things are where they are.”
The problem is Bettman has found himself in this position more than any commissioner over the same span — even more than Stern.
Stern will step down himself in February 2014. Could Bettman be that far behind?
FOXSports.com's Sam Gardner and FOXSportsNorth.com’s Tyler Mason contributed to this report.