Gary Bettman is easily one of the most hated figures in sports, and yet that image is one Bettman seems to embrace. Every time Bettman presents himself at an event, whether it be to award the Stanley Cup or kick off the NHL entry draft, he is received with a chorus of boos, and yet he keeps that famous evil grin on his face.
Why do people hate Bettman? You could probably ask five different fans and get five different answers. One would say the lockout, another would say the NHL's TV deal.
Whatever the case may be, the answer seems to make sense, but under the surface, it's incredibly shortsighted.
Take a look at some of the most popular criticisms closely. The most early one in Bettman's tenure would likely be the Sunbelt expansion. While certainly some of these teams haven't done well (namely Atlanta and Phoenix), other franchises have managed to succeed, or even thrive in their markets.
Teams like the San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks come to mind. Even the Colorado Avalanche and the Dallas Stars were once profitable teams and still could be. The Tampa Bay Lightning are also on their way back to prosperity.
So while it's very true that the Sunbelt experiment has failed in some markets, it has also succeeded in others.
Another criticism about Bettman is about the '04-05 lockout in general. That's certainly an understandable reaction. I remember the lockout, and no hockey for over 15 months absolutely sucked.
The majority of the CBA negotiations that derailed the '04-05 season consisted of disagreements over the establishment of a hard salary cap.
By the end of the lockout, Bettman got his way and the hard cap was installed, and yeah, while it did suck to lose that whole season, the seasons following the lockout have arguably been the best the NHL has had.
The parity in the league is outstanding, and while teams can still cripple themselves by signing awful contracts, everybody has the same amount of money to work with. So regardless of what Bettman may have cost us for one year, it has made the league far better over the last seven seasons.
In fact, the parity in the league is so good that we haven't seen the same team win a Cup twice since the lockout, and aside from the Detroit Red Wings and the Pittsburgh Penguins, no two teams have made the Stanley Cup Finals twice.
The next criticism that you commonly hear about Bettman is about what he's done with the NHL on TV. This is arguably the worst criticism anybody can bring to the table.
In 2005, during the NHL's reentry into the sports world, Gary Bettman signed a deal with the Outdoor Living Network. Yes, that channel that you saw non-stop hunting and fishing shows on.
The deal brought immediate criticism from hockey fans everywhere and is still criticized to this day. But to borrow a phrase from the fishermen who used to be on OLN, "It's better to be a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big pond."
What I mean by that is this: To those of you who constantly criticize the NHL for not going back to ESPN, remember exactly what ESPN did to the NHL.
Leading up to the lockout, the NHL was taking a backseat to the NBA, constantly getting bumped to ESPN2 whenever they were lucky enough to actually have a game broadcasted, and eventually they were taking a backseat to poker.
And that's the company you want the NHL to go crawling back to? No official numbers were released about the NHL's most recent contract negotiations in 2011 with ESPN, but it's said that ESPN was offering a third of the money they would get with Versus/NBC ($200 million/year) with a fourth of the coverage. (100-plus games/year)
And take into account that for all 25 games that ESPN would be broadcasting, how many of them would once again be taking a backseat to the NBA and whatever pathetic excuse for a "sport" ESPN needs to show that day.
Also, take into account that since the time the NHL signed with OLN in 2005, to 2011 in their present form as Versus, the channel went from being available in 55 million homes to being available in 80 million homes.
In 2014, as the NBC Sports Network, the channel is projected to be on par with ESPN in household availability for the Winter Olympics.
Then take into account the fact that the NHL is increasing their annual revenue faster than any other sport. In the first year after the lockout, the NHL was a $2 billion sport. Currently they're a $3 billion sport.
And when you're breaking the ratings records that you set on ESPN, with Versus and NBC, it doesn't show that you're doing too bad for yourself.
So with a league that is breaking all of its old records and making nearly 150 percent of the profits it did six years ago, was the TV deal really that bad?
Now we're brought to the latest criticism of Bettman—the NHL realignment. Lots of people have criticized the realignment plan for how unnecessary it is.
First of all, details need to be straightened out with the realignment. Nobody was saying that there was necessarily anything "wrong" with the six-division alignment. There doesn't have to be a distinct problem with something in order for there to be a better option out there.
The fact is that the four-conference alignment will make it much easier for the NHL to realign conferences in the future, and it has made it possible for many more new rivalries to begin.
While the playoff format leaves some concerns, those can easily be fixed and won't hurt the league all that much if it turns out to be a problem.
And with the way Bettman's past "bad" decisions have brought the league success, it's not exactly outlandish to think that this one will bring the league success as well.
So with that said, why all the criticism for a league commissioner who is running the league that is by far in the best shape of the United States' big four leagues?
Jordan Matthews writes for the NHL and for the Detroit Red Wings. You can view some of his recent articles here:
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