NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman Excited For Growth Potential With Two National Rightsholders

Bettman also addressed opportunities in sports betting and social media

With an expansion franchise, two new arenas, and two new national broadcast rightsholders in the United States, this may be the wildest National Hockey League season in recent memory. For NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, this isn’t stressful; its exciting.

At SportsBusiness Journal’s World Congress of Sports, Bettman addressed the return of ESPN, the addition of Turner, and the latest in growing the game through sponsorships and sports betting.

On the return of ESPN as a national rightsholder:
The song is back. The level of promotion that led up to the game was phenomenal. The investment that they made in production and talent and cameras and all of the ways that they are covering the game was great. They are putting a tremendous amount of production capability behind us. I was at the game [on Opening Night] so I couldn’t hear what most of the commentary was but [lead play-by-play announcer] Sean McDonough was a pro. As much as I could tell, the studio setup was great.

They treated this like a big event which makes us feel good about our game because we think our games are a big event. We feel there’s a real genuine excitement. We have camera operators on the ice during TV timeouts; we had to work on that together. I guess the best thing I can say about it is its clear to us that there’s an energy and excitement on behalf of ESPN and The Walt Disney Company to have us. We’re thrilled to be with them. It’s palpable.

The way that we structured this deal is really an attempt by both of us to be forward looking with a key element in ESPN+ being our direct-to-consumer [play]. So we have traditional linear and we have the digital platforms while I think is going to put us both in good stead as the broadcast industry continues to evolve.

I think in terms of promotion and platform, being back on ESPN brings us back to a more traditional sports fan. Hockey fans got separated from ESPN because there wasn’t as much coverage. With my tongue in my cheek, if ESPN is half as good at promoting us as they were at freezing us out when they didn’t have our rights, this is going to be great.

On the addition of Turner Sports:
I have known Jeff Zucker for years and we’re excited about being with WarnerMedia.

Turner, I think tends to skew a little younger; digital facing with Bleacher Report. So I think for us, having been in one place when the other three majors were on multiple platforms being promoted, I felt it was important that we be in both places. I have great confidence in both the ESPN and the TNT relationships. They are used to being in the sandbox together because they both have NBA rights. So I think this is going to be a wonderful collaboration for all of us. We’re something new for both of them and they are excited about that and this is an opportunity for us to reach more fans and even bring in more casual fans.

On the changing generational demographics:
There are a couple of aspects to that. One is we need to continue to use technology to help our fans connect with games in ways that they want to. So, yes it’s about linear and digital but we are going to be more data driven. We have tech partnerships with AWS, SAP, Apple, Sportradar, Verizon. We are creating more data. Our game is played faster than any other game with more non-stop action so to give fans an opportunity to follow that we are using puck and player tracking. In terms of 5G, while we think our in-arena experience has always been great, this is a chance to enhance that and make sure that fans want to be at the games. All of this is to give fans a context and an ability to connect with the game on their terms and we haven’t even touched sports betting yet.

The other, which has been a priority of mine, is we as a league need to be more diverse and inclusive. We are spending more money and more resources to not only make sure that our game is more welcoming at the NHL level for people who are players, fans, or on the business side, but we also want to make sure at the youth level that there are programs and that the culture is one that is welcoming and accepting of everyone no matter who they are or what their background is. We’ve probably been the most diverse league in terms of the nationality of our players as more than 20 different countries are represented but we need to do a better job in embracing the changing demographics in North America.

On sports betting and other new sponsorship opportunities:
DraftKings is our tenth and newest daily fantasy/sports betting partner. We’re trying to do this in a responsible way where people can be comfortable betting on our game if they want to. If you want to just do fantasy, you can do that. To the extent that more and more jurisdictions are added, this is another way to grow the game. Not unlike, during the pandemic when we allowed some branding on helmets and, beginning next season, very modest but appropriate branding on sweaters. Again, it’s a way to continue to grow and maybe make up a little bit for the mess of the past 18 months.

We’re in the infancy of sports betting. What it looks like today, and its exploding, it will continue to evolve in terms of where people and how people will be betting on sports and connecting with sports.

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