Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame 2018: Gary Bettman, Father of the Modern NHL

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Sports is dominated by statistics. Bigger, faster, better, tougher are all measurable. Accumulating enough good numbers, a player is a sure bet to be elected to the sports league’s hall of fame.

Business success can be measured in some of the same ways. That’s why NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman joined his league’s hall of fame this year and is being inducted into the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame.

In a media era, one of the big reasons for both honors must be how, under Bettman, the NHL went from a media non-starter to a staple on NBC Sports’ networks. The numbers tell that story.

In 1993, the year Bettman moved from the NBA, where he was general counsel, to the NHL, the hockey league collected a paltry $400 million in revenue. This season, it is looking at $4.5 billion.

In 2014, Sportsnet In Canada paid $5.2 billion for its 12-year contract. Three years earlier, the NHL had signed a 10-year $2 billion deal to keep the games on NBC-owned properties, an important deal then but, compared with other sports’ recent contracts, seems almost modest.

Under Bettman, seven new teams joined the league, most of them in oddly un-hockeyish cities. The Vegas Golden Knights? The Tampa Bay Lightning? Who woulda thunk it? The NHL grew from 24 teams to 31.

Those are some of the numbers that earned him a place in the NHL’s Hall of Fame, under the “Builder” banner. He is also the first commissioner to be inducted into a sports hall of fame while still in office. And he is now the dean of pro sports commissioners: at 66, he has been presided over the league for 25 years, longer than any of the other Big 4 sports commissioners.

Before Bettman, hockey was anything but must-see TV. Between 1976 and ’89, the NHL had no contract and tried to sell games on a station-by-station basis around the nation. In 1994, Fox, having bested CBS for rights to the NFL, won the NHL contract just as Bettman arrived. After that, ABC and ESPN showed a limited schedule, and, in 2006, NBC joined the party.

In an era when the NFL’s Super Bowl taught Americans to read Roman numerals, viewers were unable to see the entire Stanley Cup Finals series on national television in the U.S. They can now.

“When I came to the NHL,” Bettman says, “it was underexposed. This great game, these great players deserved to be more than regional staples. I knew it was going to happen, but a big part of the problem was finding the [time] slots to handle us.”

About the time the NBC contract happened, something else happened: HDTV. The new sets were hot sellers by 2006.

With the more vivid and, most important, wider screen, the NHL caught a break. Fans at home could now see plays develop, see the passes set up, even see the puck more easily. The thrill of the sport was finally there.

“Everybody had the notion that there was nothing like being at a hockey game in person and that it couldn’t be replicated on TV,” Bettman says. “We were at a disadvantage. But, when it was in HD, all of a sudden, the clarity and especially the wide-aspect ratio changed that.” The games popped.

In his years as commissioner, Bettman has made lots of changes, not all of them endorsed by fans at first and some not even now. Hockey fans have tribal traditions and, it appears, deep suspicions.

Many of them hated — and still hate — that Bettman eliminated the quaint and historic names for conferences and divisions. Gone were groupings like the Prince of Wales Conference, replaced by boring geographic designations.

He instituted a shootout for deciding the winner of tied games. Some fans still hate it, but few can deny that it’s exciting.

And he has presided over three work lockouts, nasty ones that set up and then adjusted the collective-bargaining agreement and the salary cap. The second impasse, in 2004-05, went on so long that Bettman canceled the season.

Far more than other sports-league heads, Bettman hears it from fans, who are already raucous to start with. Boos drown out the public-address system any place he goes.

He is so used to the reaction, it has almost become his meme.

“I think everyone knows that my public appearances get an enthusiastic reaction,” Bettman joked last month in his heartfelt NHL Hall of Fame speech. “I get booed when I present the Stanley Cup and at the NHL Draft. I even managed to get booed in Las Vegas before the Vegas Golden Knights ever played a game.”

He then went on to deliver a fairly frank rundown of his time as commissioner. He noted that he had made the tough calls and that some players and many fans didn’t like many of them. “Let there be no doubt,” he said. “Tonight should erase any claim that election to the Hockey Hall of Fame is a popularity contest.”

But Bettman also gets credit for making the NHL stable and growing. Players are paid much more. Franchises are worth much more. Thanks to a wise association with BamTech, NHL.tv thrives.

And look what he started on ice. The Winter Classic, Heritage Classic and NHL Stadium Series are now massively popular games: hockey played in the (hopefully, cold enough but not too cold) outdoors. Games are now played in China, too, with hopes that the league can construct a predictable yearly schedule of games in foreign locales.

Bettman expects to be around to see it happen. “I don’t love being commissioner as much as I used to; I actually love it even more,” he said at the NHL induction ceremony. “For those who think I might be getting ready to retire, forget it.”

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