Thursday, 30 August 2012

How did Bettman get his job? How does he keep it?

How did Gary Bettman get his job you ask?  I think we all must know that he used to work with David Stern at the NBA, and at the time it was the hot, sexy league, with Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, they could do no wrong.  The NHL owners thought they'd capture some of the magic by hiring Mr. Stern's right hand man.

Now I have no doubt that Mr. Bettman was a basketball fan growing up, and was passionate about that game.  He tells the story about how he used to go to Knicks games with his buddies from school instead of doing homework, and they'd hold court sitting in the rafters.  Now where this breaks down is that he is quick to point out that he was 'also' a Rangers fan, but that rings hollow.  He doesn't know hockey and its history and the beauty and artistry of the game.  As the smoking gun, I put to you the instance when he described the St. Louis Blues as a member of the 'Original 12', a clunker of a phrase that no one has ever used and showed that he's not versed in the language and culture of the sport.

Is he successful as a Commissioner?  I don't think history will be kind when looking back at his reign.  He presided over a period of lackluster spectacle, a dumbing-down of the sport while other sports were exploding and trying to make their game more fan-friendly.  We see the NFL opening up the passing game by changing its rules to favour it over defence.  They also put in rules to protect the quarterback, the stars of the game who fans tune in to watch, despite the whining of defensive players, who should know that Brett Favre and Tom Brady are the guys who got them their fat paycheques, not defensive ends and linebackers.  The NBA has the illegal defence rule, the shot clock, they even went so far as to loosen the rules for travelling.  Rugby increased the value of the try from four ponts to five, and put in rules and interpretations that increased player safety, punished players who commit dirty plays, even if they weren't caught by the referee, and ensured that the team that is attacking with the ball gets to keep the ball when play breaks down, instead of it ending up with the defending team.  

What does the NHL do?  It looks into whether it should allow holding in some instances, with Brian Burke's 'bear hug' concept.  It allows the Bruins to out-thug the opposition, with hapless referees acting as impotent on-ice spectators.  It says in its own rulebook that light slashing is not slashing, so you know, go ahead and slash Steve Stamkos, it's all good.  Colin Campbell, a textbook case of conflict of interest, convicted by his own leaked emails, is somehow still in charge of things, when he shouldn't be running an AHL hotdog cart.  His solution to the 'diving' epidemic is to go on a wishy-washy PR campaign, instead of being very clear that it constitutes a blight on the game, is a form of cheating that will not be tolerated, and that divers caught in the act on video will be suspended, regardless of whether the on-ice officials catch them or not.  That would end the practice right there.  Instead, the poltroon that even Bob Probert outsmarted and derided is re-launching the once-failed public shaming campaign.  

There is a clear lack of vision in the NHL, which is buffeted by events and crises and lumbers from one disaster to another, instead of having strong leadership and charting a course for the league and the sport that would reap everyone (owners, players, spectators) great rewards.  Gary Bettman is a bean counter and number-cruncher and a redoubtable adversary in negotiations, no doubt, but he's not equipped to be in charge of a professional sport that he doesn't love and understand, and is played by men who do not respect him.

As far as the revenues growing under his watch, you have to assume that a trained monkey would have done just as well.  A lot of the growth of revenues stems from the appreciation of the Canadian dollar, so that seven Canadian teams now bring in money to league coffers instead of needing equalization payments, even when the arenas were full, when the dollar was worth $0.65 US.  

Another reason revenue is increasing is the rising tide that floats all pro sports league boats, namely the explosion of social media, which has driven the hype to heights unequaled in the age of newspapers and broadcast television.  Add in the introduction of the PVR, live sports programming has become the only guaranteed 'must see' content on TV.  We can all put off watching 'Breaking Bad', 'The Wire' and 'The Shield' until later now, as I did, and dang it if those series aren't awesome, and they lose nothing of their impact if you're a couple years late to the party.  Sports on the other hand must be consumed live, they get stale very quickly.  Mix in fantasy sports, and we see a convergence of factors that have made sports even more important in society than before.  

NHL hockey is still a minor sport in the broad North American picture, but its small slice of the pie keeps getting bigger as the pie itself inflates to previously unthinkable levels.  Gary Bettman has had no hand in this.  He didn't invent Wayne Gretzky.  In fact, what he has done is stifled Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin.  Two players who should have been all-time greats are headed for lesser-star status, more Pierre Turgeon than Mario Lemieux.  Instead of letting these guys shine, as David Stern did with his Mega-Stars, Gary Bettman through ignorance and inaction has allowed some of his most treasured assets to be tarnished, diminished.  He wears that.  That's his fault.  There will be apologists who'll blame the GM's and refs who make and enforce the rules, to which I say: Exactly.  He's the boss, and he's letting the Colin Campbells, the former goons and pluggers take care of the minor detail of the game, the actual product he's in charge of growing and selling.  He's ultimately responsible.  The throttling of hockey is happening on his watch.  He's the one killing the golden goose.

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