When Gary Bettman issued his public apology on January 6, 2013, you could almost hear the hissing and booing from critics around the country. He is, after all, the selfish, greedy executive who stood between the fans and the start of their beloved hockey season.
I don’t envy Gary Bettman in the least; his is the last job I would want. After 20 years as Commissioner of the NHL, he has taken more hits than a crash test dummy. And after this latest lockout, he’s become the man with a target on his back. Fans, media and players alike are slamming Bettman at every opportunity, dispensing their opinions as if managing a multibillion-dollar hockey league is as easy as putting Eggo in the toaster every morning.
Bettman is being branded as the bad guy for cutting into the players’ salaries. He is accused of trying to fix a problem that some say is really caused by the owners. James Mirtle of the Globe & Mail affirms that the money issues behind this lockout stem from the NHL’s overexpansion at the end of the 90s. (Why NHL Teams Cry Poor Despite the League’s Record Growth) The league opened itself up to smaller markets, and most of those markets aren’t making money. This, in turn, is forcing Bettman to look for ways to find money to prop up the money-losing clubs.
I don’t argue that Bettman would likely use savings coming out of these negotiations to boost the lower performing teams. But that, in my opinion, was not the main driver. When the league came to the table with the proposal to change the definition of hockey-related revenues (HRR), reduce the year-over-year salary variability, and reduce terms for player contracts, they had one key goal: to address the problem of skyrocketing player salaries.
Last year, the NHL paid $1.87 billion US to its players. Brad Richards had the highest salary, earning a whopping $12 million dollars. The average player salary hovered around $2.4 million. (NHL Salaries, Markerzone). Now I don’t care how anyone tries to spin it, these numbers are simply ridiculous — and a big part of why the smaller markets can’t make money.
But to some self-proclaimed experts, the answer is simple: Shut down the teams that aren’t making money and relocate them to Canada or some other place where they can make a big profit. There are a few problems with that solution. 1) There aren’t a ton of places to relocate a hockey franchise except for maybe Toronto, Quebec City or Seattle. 2) Does the fact that a team can’t afford to pay a player $12 million mean that it isn’t worthy of having a team? That goes against the principle of making hockey accessible to its fans.
If we look at the numbers a little more closely, only 13 teams earned over $100 million in 2010-11. On the other hand, 13 teams were in the red by the end of the season, and 6 earned less than $10 million. These numbers don’t include interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization; if we factor those in, then those teams lost money too. (The Business of Hockey: NHL Team Values). So consider that if we went ahead and eliminated those teams, we would effectively reduce the league from 30 to 11, if not more. Far be it from me to belittle the principles of capitalism, but I do have a problem when the market becomes so skewed that only millionaires are able to compete.
It’s easy to make the employer out as the evil villain, particularly when the executive is looking for concessions. But somehow, I have trouble picturing the NHL players as victims in this whole scenario. (Forgive me, Mr. Ovechkin, but I have no sympathy for the fact that you will only be making $8.5 million this season instead of $9.78 million.) (Crosby, Ovechkin Would Lose Big Money Under NHL’s Offer). Gary Bettman is tackling a fundamental problem that needs to be addressed. He has my support and I can only hope that there will be more changes to come.