I recently sat down with NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly to discuss key issues the NHL faces in the future.
THE NHL LOCKOUT & ITS IMPACT
ERIC MACRAMALLA: Let's address the NHL's post lockout success. Before the lockout, the NHL was enjoying record revenue, television ratings and attendance. There was tremendous forward momentum. For that reason, there was concern that the lockout could cause irreparable harm to the NHL and its brand. That, however, does not appear to have been the case. Can you help us understand why that is?
BILL DALY: Gee, I wish I knew. Certainly, we're gratified by it and the fan response to the game. I certainly wouldn't recommend work stoppages as a way to build interest in your business, but knock on wood, luckily the fans have responded to the players and the game. They came back and the level of play and the quality of play, the races, the competition, have all been good and we're hoping to continue to grow.
MACRAMALLA: Speaking of that growth, during the lockout, some of the NHL's business partners at a regional and national level expressed some dissatisfaction with how things were unfolding. What are some of the things that the NHL has done at a league level to help address or repair some of those relationships with their business partners?
DALY: It's a good question and I think it's a fair question. During the lockout most of our business partners understood that this is one of the unfortunate realities of being associated with any professional sport. We're certainly not immune to having difficult labor negotiations like other sports leagues. We worked with our business partners throughout and were in constant communication with them throughout the work stoppage. We gave them as much and as candid an assessment where we were in the process throughout. We looked to make them feel good about the partnership in any way we could. Sometimes those are kind of soft ways, sometimes they're more concrete. Each relationship and each contract is different, but I think overall -- and this is not only at the league level -- but I think at the club level as well, we know our sponsors and our business partners are one of the lifebloods of our business, and you have to be responsive to their concerns.
MACRAMALLA: It's interesting you say that you were in constant communication keeping them apprised of developments and being as candid as you can. Being open was one way you sought to preserve those relationships?
DALY: Absolutely, and as you might imagine, there were some difficult questions they were asking. The most you can do -- and what they should expect of you in any kind of business relationship -- is to give honest answers. We tried to give honest answers throughout – you never have a crystal ball; you never know exactly how everything is going to play out in the end. We certainly made it very clear what our needs were, what our objectives were in negotiation, why we needed it, and why there was a work interruption, which was to ultimately achieve a collective bargaining agreement that works for the long-term health of the league. Our business people at the league scheduled regular conference calls with our key business partners, and we kept in touch.
MACRAMALLA: You speak of key business partners referring to brand owners and companies like Visa and Molson. Does it help that these companies themselves are sophisticated and understand the challenges that big businesses face.
DALY: I certainly think that's a benefit, but there's also a certain level of emotion and probably frustration that may be apparent in a professional sports league context that might not necessarily be apparent in other industries or lines of business. So it is unique; it is a unique industry, it's a unique situation, and you deal with it the best you can. It's certainly by no means a perfect situation.
MACRAMALLA: It certainly was not a perfect situation. Last question on the lockout -- how did you go about successfully it seems repairing the relationship with the fans? Bill, they weren't happy at all.
DALY: They certainly weren't happy and, you know what, in fairness, they had a right not to be happy. Hopefully, the unhappiness was fairly allocated as between us and the Players Association and wasn't just a kind of league and club issue because every negotiation really involves two parties, or multiple parties and you have to get to a place where you're comfortable. Look, the fans are business partners as well, so I think we took the same tack in terms of trying to be as communicative with the fans and as candid with the fans as we could be. Again, understanding that there was no point in this process where we could say just hold out another month and we'll have a solution because we were never really in that situation. It's a fluid situation. Still, you have to be honest with your fan base.
HOMOSEXUALITY IN THE NHL
MACRAMALLA: I want to shift our focus to the NHL's partnership with You Can Play, an organization aimed at eliminating homophobia in sports. Helene Elliott of the L.A. Times wrote, “It's a big deal and should be recognized as that." Bruce Arthur of the National Post said it's now “Part of the playbook, and that's progress.” Can you explain to our listeners how this relationship with You Can Play unfolded and why it's important to the NHL?
DALY: You Can Play is an organization that we have a close connection with because Patrick Burke, the founder of You Can Play, is Brian Burke's son and founded the organization in the wake of his brother's untimely death. It's something that we have worked with Patrick on from the start when he first organized it. We spent a lot of time with Patrick over the last year. We've watched with admiration and respect as to how he's committed himself to this cause and how he's built this organization. It's certainly become a very credible organization. It's just over a year old now, and we felt collectively with the Players Association that this was a cause that was worth being officially associated with, and the fact that it was Patrick Burke made it that much more appropriate.
MACRAMALLA: Commissioner Gary Bettman has said that he accepts the league might face a backlash for its stance. He said this: “There's nothing that anybody can do that will get unanimous support in this day and age. You have to be comfortable that you're doing what you believe is the right thing.” Bill, has there been a backlash?
DALY: You know what, I'm sure in some quarters, but I can tell you it's been overwhelmingly positive, so the fact is there are some voices in the wilderness who have a problem with this type of thing -- and will continue to have a problem with this type of thing. But I totally endorse what Gary had to say. Ultimately as an organization you have to do what you think is the right thing and clearly our board, our owners, our clubs and league office thought this was the right thing to do.
MACRAMALLA: Some believe that it is going to be awhile before a gay NHL player comes out for fear of retribution. Do you think that we are going to see a player come out as gay during his career in hockey?
DALY: You know, it's a fair question, and I really wouldn't know how to handicap that. I certainly think it's possible. Again, announcing an association like we did I think is an important step. I think the way the players have responded to this association overwhelmingly is creating a very positive inclusive environment and should make players feel comfortable with respect to who they are, what they believe and how they choose to conduct their lives. So I think it's all about setting the stage and creating an accepting and inclusive environment.
MACRAMALLA: So it sounds like the NHL has at least prepared itself for a gay player coming out. Would that be a fair assessment?
DALY: Yes, I think that's fair, absolutely. I think that's part of this association. I think it's understanding that it's a reality that you have to be prepared. Hopefully, we've created the right type of environment so when [and} if it does happen, it's not earth shattering news. It's just part of everyday life.
NFL CONCUSSION LAWSUITS & FIGHTING
MACRAMALLA: Let's shift our attention to the NFL concussion lawsuits. A third of living retired NFL players are suing the NFL for, in part, actively concealing the long-term neurological impact of head shots. Over 220 lawsuits and 4200 plaintiffs are involved. Hockey and football are both collision sports. Is the NHL keeping an eye on the NFL concussion lawsuits?
DALY: Certainly, we're aware of them, and aware of the industry in which we operate. You have to be cognizant of what's going on around you. I'm a lawyer by training, so I follow legal developments and certainly that's a legal development. It's a fact of life. Having said that, I don't think litigation per se can direct your business strategy. I think it's similar to what we were talking about before. You have to do what is right. Obviously, we feel there is an obligation on the part of the league office to make the game as safe as it can be without changing the culture of the game. Part of the attractiveness of our sport as an entertainment product is the contact nature of our sport. You don't want to take contact out. At the same time, if you can minimize injuries and make it safer for the players, you try to do that.
MACRAMALLA: Ultimately, hockey is a violent game and the risk of injury can't be eliminated. At the same time, the NHL has taken proactive steps -- for example, not allowing headshots. Are there other changes to the game that are being contemplated? For example, if the rinks were a bit wider -- say, by seven or eight feet -- would that create a safer work environment for players by giving them an additional second react?
DALY: It may. I suppose I couldn't definitively tell you one way or the other whether that would be the effect. I would also say it would change the game in some respects. As keepers of the game, we have to weigh the pros and cons of any of those types of changes and make judgement calls as to whether it's a positive improvement to the entertainment product or something that perhaps may not achieve as many benefits as it would cost in terms of the attractiveness of the sport. So those are always difficult decisions. I think it's fair to say that we as a league feel very comfortable with the steps we've taken over time on head injuries generally, and the concussion issue in particular. We're the first sports league ever to require baseline testing and use baseline testing as part of a diagnostic tool. We've repeatedly taken steps to make the game safer and as safe as it can be -- again without changing the fundamental culture and history of the sport. These are all difficult issues. You try to act as responsibly as you can to further the health and safety of players. The contact nature of the sport is also what makes our game interesting and in demand with our fans.
MACRAMALLA: You mention that the level of contact makes it attractive to fans and is in demand. Does fighting help the league grow its market share in non-traditional hockey markets?
DALY: That's a tough question. I don't want to get into a debate on the merits of fighting. Obviously, it's been part of our game for a very, very long time. I have no doubt that at some point in this sport's history and in some markets the fighting element of the game has been attractive to fans in non-traditional hockey markets. I'm not sure the game has ever really been marketed or certainly in this more modern era marketed toward those fans who are craving fighting. But it's part of the fabric of our game. I think we've taken steps over time to try to minimize the number of fights in our game and make them a little safer for the players. Perhaps as we continue to evolve and move forward, the rules that govern fighting will continue to be looked at and adjusted in the best interests of the game.
OLYMPICS & A POSSIBLE REVIVAL OF THE WORLD CUP
MACRAMALLA: The goal of any league is to become a global brand and a force in a number of different markets worldwide. For the NHL, how important are the Olympics from a brand development and fan activation standpoint?
DALY: Well, I think they're important. Clearly, Olympic participation is probably more important as a kind of international business development strategy. It's really, really important in the European countries that their best athletes get to represent them in the Olympic games, particularly in a sport like hockey. So we recognize that. We recognize it's a potential driver of future popularity and growth of the sport, but I would say that's primarily in the international sphere and not as much in North America. There are challenges associated with participating in the Sochi Olympics. There is going to be a nine-hour time difference between Sochi and the East Coast of North America, and a 12-hour time difference on the West Coast. So game scheduling is going to be challenging in terms of finding a spot where people can watch the game. It just makes it a more difficult environment to make the Olympics and the NHL's participation in the Olympics a big deal.
MACRAMALLA: There are rumblings that the NHL is considering reviving the World Cup. Is this true?
DALY: Well, certainly I wouldn't say it's untrue. We've talked over time about the World Cup property and how to promote it and make it a regular property involving best-on-best competition in non-Olympic years. That's going to be a discussion we continue to have with the Players Association and something we have to work with the Players Association on. We have meetings coming up. We've been trying to schedule a bunch of meetings coming out of collective bargaining. Certainly, the international development and growth of our businesses is an important area for both the League and the Players Association. Those are issues we're going to have to focus on.
SOCIAL MEDIA & BRANDING
MACRAMALLA: We interviewed the CEO of the LA Kings, Chris McGowan, after the team's Cup win. Chris has since moved on to the Trailblazers. We discussed the importance of social media from a branding standpoint. Chris described social media, and particularly Twitter, as a “critical” part of the business. How does the NHL view the utility of social media from a brand messaging standpoint?
DALY: I think I would share that assessment. I think it's critical. It also presents its challenges like anything else. Being able to handle those challenges is important for any business, particularly a business like ours. It is an opportunity to communicate directly with your fans on a regular basis in a different way. One of the best parts about this job is the fact that the landscape is constantly changing and certainly the advent and popularity of social media presents both opportunities and challenges.
MACRAMALLA: It does introduce challenges. Twitter can be a bit of a loaded gun. Does the NHL encourage players to tweet, and are players made aware of the risks associated with tweeting?
DALY: As is the case with other sports leagues, we have a social media policy that we collectively bargained with the Players Association. It makes players aware of the potential dangers of social media. Obviously, there's a competitive element and a game element in which our clubs have a right to expect that players will be focused on the task at hand, and their primary job, which is the game on the ice, and not on social media. So there is a blackout period. For the most part, we want players to understand that what you tweet or what you put out there on social media is a representation of you and the League -- and reaches millions and millions of people instantaneously. So we tell players you shouldn't say anything in a social media communication that you wouldn't be prepared to say in a press conference.
MACRAMALLA: Let's hit some personal information about you. You are William Daly III. Who is William Daly I?
DALY: That would be my grandfather on my father's side. My father was William Daly Jr., and I, as the first son of my father, was named William Daly III. Now by the time I had my first son, my grandfather had already passed. So there is some etiquette or protocol preventing me from naming my son William Daly IV.
MACRAMALLA: You apparently have some Canadian roots. Is that correct?
DALY: My mother is from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and I grew up in Western Canada. We as a family used to vacation in the Maritimes every summer, so I spent a lot of my childhood in Canada. I'm proud of my Canadian roots.
MACRAMALLA: And I've read somewhere that you are a collector. Is this true?
DALY: A collector of what?
MACRAMALLA: Press credentials and tickets?
DALY: Oh, that's interesting. I think that's fair. I'm not sure I would have ever shared that with anybody, but I think I have all of my media credentials that I've gotten over time. I tend to hold on to tickets as well. I've worked at the League for 17 years and have a pretty extensive collection of hockey tickets. I also have tickets to other sporting events. I'm not a hoarder, I'll tell you that.
MACRAMALLA: Good -- we won't see you on A&E. I've been keeping all my sports tickets. My first sports ticket was an Expos/Reds game back in the 80s. My dad got upset because I kept asking him to buy me food -- even when I was full. You know how it is when you go to your first game.
DALY: Very, very good. I know something new about you Eric.
MACRAMALLA: If not law, what would you have gone into?
DALY: Gee, that's a good question. When I decided to be a lawyer, I did it with the hope and intention that I could get into the sports industry. I was fortunate enough that when I graduated law school I joined the law firm Skadden Arps, which had a sports practice. I had some good experiences with sports league clients. I did some work for the NFL, the NBA and the NHL, which was great. I really enjoyed my time in private law practice, and it had to be a pretty unique opportunity to cause me to shift as I did. The NHL was a unique opportunity. Hockey was a love of mine since childhood. I feel very fortunate with how my career has progressed and I get to do what I love. I love coming to work every morning and that's a good thing to be able to say when you have a career or profession.
MACRAMALLA: Bill Daly, thanks so much for joining me.
DALY: My pleasure, Eric. Thanks for having me.
Eric Macramalla is a partner at a Canadian national law firm and also a sports legal analyst and sports lawyer. You can follow him on Twitter at @EricOnSportsLaw, and his sports law blog is located at www.OffsideSportsLaw.com.