Bettman Across The Border

Jennifer ConwaySenior Analyst IMay 30, 2008

(Bryan Thiel has the Canadian view here. As he said in his article, it's time for a little American-Canadian cooperation.  Also, M MacDonald Hall wrote the gut reaction in a companion piece here.)

I love hockey. Always have, always will. That being said, the game I love is being strangled and stifled and frankly, I’m not sure how much more I can take.

The final straw was hearing the NHL’s reason for banning the octopus swing. Swinging the octopus would result in “matter getting on the ice.” The man who swings the octopus (Al Sobotka) is also the guy who takes care of the ice. He’s so meticulous about the ice that he is the reason why the ice in Detroit is the best in the League.

Didn’t the league also tacitly endorse the octopus swing once upon a time?

Let’s see…I recall a member of the NHL upper echelons once saying that if the octopus happened to swing itself around in the air, so be it. And now there’s a $10,000 fine for “exciting the crowd.”

Well heavens, we wouldn’t want an excited crowd at a game, now would we? Better get rid of all mascots and cheer squads. Let’s ban hats as well. Wouldn’t want to get more matter on the ice.

And the league wonders why it’s having such a hard time with fans.

There’s so much more to my frustration than this. There have been so many missteps but  I’ll just go through a few.

1. During Bettman’s administration, we saw Canadian teams shifted to southern U.S. markets. Why? It seems that in his marketing brilliance, the NHL truly believed that they could put a team anywhere and there would be an instant fan base. Rather than finding alternate ways to stabilise those Canadian teams and blocking their movement south, it was apparently far more important to get into big American cities which have more TVs than say, Winnipeg. He has also been, shall we say, less than enthusiastic about the possibility of more Canadian teams.

Canada. The place where hockey was invented. The place where the majority of players hail from.

Thanks Mr. Bettman. You just implied wonderfully that the areas that have a solid fan base and love the game the most are not viable markets, nor are these fans important to the league. Great marketing strategy. Of course, we have to remember that Mr. Bettman came into the job knowing nothing about hockey. Clearly, he is still ignorant (willful or not is up for debate) to the possibilities north of the border.

2. The current tv deal is ridiculous. NBC and Versus? I’m lucky in that I live in a place with free cable, so I can get Versus. Otherwise, I the devoted fan, would only get to watch games whenever NBC decided not to pre-empt a game for horse-racing.

Here’s what Bettman said about the deal: “We knew that in the short term we would be giving up some distribution for better treatment. We like the treatment we are getting from Versus. They are very NHL-focused in terms of the telecast. Their intermissions are about us, not about everything else that is going on in sports.” What, may I ask, is so awful about getting other sports updates during intermissions? There are only so many experts and rumours that the fan can take. And what exactly does Mr. Bettman mean by “the short term?”

Let’s face it. Hockey needs ESPN more than ESPN needs hockey. ESPN is included in nearly every cable provider’s basic package. Versus is harder to find. And yes, Versus is growing, at 72 million viewers, which is up from 64 million.

But wouldn’t it be better if we started with the ESPN base viewing? The reason ESPN rejected their option was that they deemed the NHL terms as overvalued. So Bettman went to Versus who agreed to show hockey, but also paid closer to his asking price. Was it about promoting hockey, or more about promoting the short-term bottom line?

Fans who can’t get Versus are forced to get either NHL Center Ice or the NHL Network or go without. Fans who have one or the other are now complaining that they can’t get games from the NHL Network on Center Ice. That means these fans are paying double for something they ought to be getting in the first place.

Oh yes. Did I mention that 22 percent fewer viewers saw the Stanley Cup Finals last year? I strongly suspect that the only reason ratings are up this year is because of the Sidney Crosby lovefest.

To go along with this, the league is looking at new ways to shove more ads into the game. There is a floating proposal to place ad patches on goalie uniforms. The reason?

According to agent Rich Winter: “The NHL isn't as profitable as other leagues, and we have very little choice but to pursue new ways to create revenue so we can reinvest in our sport. It's just a way to pay the bills." Surely there are other ways to pay the bills. Wishful thinking, but cut executive salaries for one or tie them to league performance.

3. Mr. Bettman really must believe that if he wishes hard enough, his reality is the same for the rest of us. While Bettman is constantly bragging that the new CBA is making the league healthier than ever, he neglects to say this: there are just six teams of the league’s thirty based in Canada, and yet they account for somewhere close to one-third (and more) of the league’s revenue. Since the recent Canadian currency surge, that alone may account for as much as half of the league’s revenue gain since the 2005 lockout. Can that be considered true long-term, viable gain? Smells like cooking, if you know what I mean.

Again, why not teams in Canada? The fanbase is clearly there, more so than in the southern U.S. While I would not advocate another team in Ontario, Winnipeg would and could support another NHL team. So could Quebec City. After all, if Bettman says that the new league is good for small-market teams, then these cities shouldn’t have problems, right?

Speaking of small market support, why are we forcing places to keep teams that are clearly hemorrhaging money? Phoenix has lost more than 30 million in one operating year. Why isn’t that a warning sign?

Growth is good. It is necessary and I have no problem with attempting to reach out. However, growth must also be carefully managed or it becomes a monster that collapses disastrously in the end. (Roman Empire, anyone?) Bettman is talking about expansion when there are teams struggling to fill seats. There have been several bankruptcies during his tenure, mostly in small markets. Instead of expansion, relocation is a much better answer. Why not do this instead? Probably because of the fat expansion fees, the new jerseys and memorabilia to be sold…

4. Ticket prices are climbing again. Wasn’t the CBA supposed to help keep ticket prices down? I understand that ticket prices will climb inevitably as a cost of doing business, but they’re too high for the average fan, especially combined with the rising cost of everything else.

They wonder why fancy new arenas are not attracting fans? Check the ticket and concession prices. Yeesh. I can’t afford to take my son to a game, which means he will rarely, if ever, have the joy of seeing a game live. That’s what makes real fans.

5. The worst decision of the season has to be the decision to continue the game after Richard Zednik’s horrible accident. Let’s see…respect for human life and the well-being of players or a game? Hmm…

The game could easily have been rescheduled. It’s not unheard of in NHL history. The NHL said that VP Colin Campbell (whose son was playing in that game and who he was there to see. Now let’s think about that, shall we?) and Bettman decided the game ought to continue once they knew Zednik was stable and the teams wanted to play.

Did the teams really want to play? Frankly I doubt it.

 It took fifteen minutes to clean all of the blood off the ice. Is a game worth continuing after that? The game, by every account, was very solemn, and many fans were too shaken to watch the rest of the game.

"We shouldn't have finished the game," Olli Jokinen said. "I saw the replay, that it was my skate that hit him in the throat. I think we were all in shock. I've never seen anything like that. There are bigger things than (finishing the game). It was terrifying. I didn't think anyone on our team was thinking hockey out there after an injury like that. If it was my call, I would have gone to the hospital with him."

Why on earth would you force players to finish a game after seeing something so traumatic?

6. The obsession with more scoring has got to stop right now. The most exciting games are often the one point games. Anybody see the 1-0 Canadiens playoff win? Any of the overtime 3-2 wins in the Wild-Avalanche series?

Oh, that’s right, unless you have CBC or Versus, you probably didn’t. That aside, one point has meaning. Ever watch a game where a team’s losing 5-1? Fans are heading out the door and turning off the TVs awfully early in games like that.

The excitement is in watching all aspects of the game. If games become a scorefest, fans are going to get bored fast. Players are going to be forced to be hot-doggers, and the little things that make the game so great will disappear.

 I’ll admit that once upon a time, I was an NBA fan. When the scoring got ridiculously high, and every play seemed to be more about the dunk style and the fancy pass, I quit. It wasn’t special anymore. There were no more moments of awe. I fear the same thing will happen to hockey. The league is chasing new fans at the expense of its traditional base.

7. The new jerseys are innovative…and short-sighted. While Bettman has been bragging about how nifty the new technology is, the players are complaining that the new uniforms are causing sweat to pool in the rest of their uniforms, so much so that they have to put their equipment in dryers between periods. Don’t forget that fans are now shelling out more money to buy these new replica jerseys, including the completely unnecessary third jerseys.

Finally, speaking of equipment…

It appears the NHL is creating their very own fashion police. According to the New York Post, Ovechkin’s tinted visor and the Gretzky jersey tuck will be outlawed. Apparently the NHL wants to grant Reebok apparel exclusivity within the locker room from 90 minutes before the game and 90 minutes after.

Bettman is pushing players as the face of the game, but how can he market players without allowing personality in the game? One-size-fits all. Yup, that’s absolutely the ticket.

While the players and GMs are concerned with no-touch icing and other serious matters of preventing player injury, Bettman is focused on forming his fashion police so he can get more money from Reebok.

Is it possible for a commissioner to simultaneously grow and kill a sport?

Ladies and gentlemen, I think we have our answer.


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