When historians look back at the Gary Bettman era, they'll figure out it was a pretty good time to be a member of the club.
|Bettman's been commissioner since Feb. 1, 1993. (Getty Images)|
That's not necessarily a bad thing in a world where chasing the almighty buck often supersedes all else. And no one who benefited ever complained about it. Of course they had no reason to, but the truth is that overall, the Bettman years have been pretty good for almost everyone in the hockey world, save maybe for the fans who lost teams in Quebec, Winnipeg and Hartford.
Even so, Bettman did not manage to stay insulated from all kinds of outside criticism and on the 15th anniversary of him becoming the NHL's first commissioner, that hasn't changed.
Much of it was legitimate thanks to the many missteps by Bettman since he took over the job on Feb. 1, 1993. Two long work stoppages, bankruptcies, relocations and a zealous expansion effort that helped dilute the product and push the league perilously close to extinction aren't efforts that endear you to purists of a game, but Bettman's tenure has also been marked by exponential growth for the league and the sport and ultimately, that's what the CEO of an operation has to be judged on.
"Look, he's pissed off a lot of guys with the way he's done things over the years, but let's face it, we're all making much more money," said one prominent agent. "I wouldn't tell him this to his face, but I think he's actually been pretty successful when you look at the big picture."
Arguably the NHL today is on its most solid financial footing in years, it is more competitive from top to bottom than it has ever been and its brand is drawing interest from more places than ever before. As an enterprise, the league is doing well and for those team owners who employ Bettman, that's really all that matters.
"I think Gary is the best hire we ever made," Flyers owner and NHL board of governors chair Ed Snider told the Philadelphia Daily News this week. "He's done a great job."
For the owners, Bettman has. His detractors can legitimately argue the commissioner put franchises in places they had no business being and that he nearly killed the sport by engineering a season-long lockout in 2004-05. But the cost certainty that Bettman achieved out of that difficult episode will ultimately prove to be his greatest legacy because it allowed the NHL to keep its footprint and from bleeding itself to death.
Besides, the resulting salary cap has leveled the playing surface and created the kind of parity that has 29 of 30 teams still in position to make the playoffs. That's good for the fans who came back to the NHL after the lockout in record numbers, even if their ticket prices haven't reduced by much, if at all. It's even more important to the guys who sign Bettman's check.
Idealists might have a more virtuous notion of what the NHL should be, but at its core, the league is a profit-oriented entertainment business and under Bettman, the game has become faster, more exciting and appealing.
So while the NHL was pulling in about $400 million in annual revenue when Bettman started, with few national sponsors and little network television exposure, this season, even without the kind of lucrative television contract other leagues have, the NHL will gross about $2.4 billion in revenues and look upward. There are new revenue streams from sponsors, digital distribution deals and merchandising, and the league is finally creeping back in the mainstream American sports consciousness thanks to special events like the Outdoor Game in Buffalo on New Year's Day.
In the meantime, franchise values, which were about $50 million when Bettman started, are now in the neighborhood of $260 million, while players who earned an average of about $400,000 in 1993, now make nearly $1.8 million a season.
The bottom line is the NHL really is in better shape now than it was when Bettman took over. And one day people might actually realize it.