Bettman Makes The Right Call

by John Furgele

There are some tired things in sports.  Perhaps the most is when a golfer tees off on a 610 yard Par 5, and as soon as he hits his shot, the gallery yells, “get in the hole.”  How silly is that?  And, we all know that nobody is going to make a hole-in-one from 610 yards out.  Can’t the gallery think of something more crative—and realistic—to yell after tee shots are hit. 

Another tired thing is booing commissioner Gary Bettman when he comes out to present the MVP trophy (Conn Smythe Trophy) and the Stanley Cup.  It’s more than tired and to boo him and not know why you’re booing him is even more sillier than the golf gallery.  There may be times to bash him, but when he is giving out the most cherished piece of hardware that the game offers? 

The NHL is coming off a fine postseason.  Many of the series were pulsating, with several Game 7s.  Pittsburgh beat Washington in Game 7 in Washington in the Eastern semifinals, and Carolina won two Game 7s on the road, beating New Jersey in the first round and Boston in round two.  And, Pittsburgh did the ultimate by becoming the first road team to win Stanley Cup Game 7 on the road since the Montreal canadiens beat Chicago in the 1971 finals.  Furthermore, the Penguins win was the first in a Game 7 of a championship series in baseball, basketball and hockey since the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates won the World Series in Baltimore. 

The NHL is doing better.  Game 7 drew 8 million viewers to NBC last Friday.  That’s a good rating for the NHL and Friday night is never the best night for television in the United States.  Furthermore, the 4.3 rating is more than half of what the NBA finals garnered on ABC.  Usually, the NHL gets about 1/3 the rating that the NBA gets, so getting half is a step up.  And, let’s not forget that another 3.5 million Canadians watched on CBC.

NBC does a solid job covering the NHL.  They don’t send their big wigs to cover the games.  Remember when Al Michaels did the NBA finals?  NBC lets the hockey experts—Mike Emrick, Ed Olyczk, Darren Pang, Mike Milbury, Pierre McGuire—cover the games.  Many Americans might not know any of these guys—who are mostly Canadians—but they do know that these guys know hockey.  NBC and the NHL recently extended their contract to broadcast games.  There are no rights fees, but if your sport is to be taken seriously, it has to have a network presence and NBC feels that the NHL is worth air time. 

Of course, as soon as the season ended, the news turned negative.  Jim Balsille, the founder of Blackberry, wants to buy the Phoenix Coyotes and move them to Hamilton, Ontario.  Are fans more passionate in the Steel City of Hamilton than they are in Phoenix, Arizona?  Yes, but Bettman is making the right call by trying to keep the Coyotes in Phoenix.  As much as Canada loves hockey, moving more teams there doesn’t make sense. 

There are over 3 million people living in the Phoenix area, about the same number of Canadians that watched Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final.  Moreover, Hamilton is too close to Toronto and Buffalo and the NHL doesn’t need three teams that close to each other.  There are three teams in the New York area and right now, the Islanders are teetering, the Islanders, winners of four straight Stanley Cups in the 1980s might move to Kansas City if they can’t get a new arena. 

Having a team in Hamillton makes the sport a bit too regional.  Some may argue that the NHL should be more regional, but that’s not the way to keep your sport relevant.  Hamiltonians are passionate hockey fans and would love to call a team their own, but many Hamiltonians attend Toronto Maple Leafs games and Buffalo Sabres games.  The Sabres claim that 20 percent of their ticket buyers come from Southern Ontario.  If Hamilton gets a team, those 20 percent will drop the Sabres in favor of Hamilton.  And, now you have another team hurting.  The NHL doesn’t want that. 

And, there’s no proof that the crowds will pack the Copps Coliseum in downtown Hamilton.  Sure, most of the seats will sell, but in today’s sports world, it is all about sponsorship and luxury suites.  Are there enough corporations in Hamilton to keep the team flying high?  And, even when the recession ends, there will be a new business model.  Companies will spend money to go to sporting events, but not as lavishly as before.  All one has to do is see the empty box seats behind home plate at Yankee Stadium. 

The big companies have learned a lesson and that lesson is that the bottom line matters.  No longer will companies take out loans to continue their debt and one of the easiest things to cut is the $250,000 or more luxury box at an NBA, NHL, MLB or NFL arena/stadium.  They might buy eight season seats and use them accordingly, but I’m not really sure if Hamilton area companies are going to line up to buy these luxury suites when they are trying to be thinner and more efficient. 

Boo Gary Bettman all you want, but this time he is making the right call.

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