In The Instigator, author Jonathon Gatehouse looks at the NHL under the reign of commissioner Gary Bettman, whom Gatehouse argues has had a greater impact on the sport than any other single figure. Gatehouse spoke with The Sports Section about the current NHL lockout, the possibility of further expansion, and whether Bettman takes too much blame from fans.
Something that only gets a little attention in the book is the most recent round of expansion — the last four teams that were added to the league. You mention that the Fox network was sort of driving that, and helped shape those plans, and that there was a rush study prepared at the time that said the NHL could pull it off. Brian Burke is quoted in the book as saying that Bettman put the needs of the game ahead of what the TV voices wanted. But how much of that was the league sort of finding a justification to be able to expand, versus doing it because they thought it was the right thing to do?
Well, yeah, I mean, that’s Burke’s opinion that Bettman put the interests of the league ahead of the expansion. A lot of the fans, they could say it was just the opposite. You know, I think that they found a reason to be where they wanted to be, right? If you ask Bettman about the southern strategy, which really isn’t his — as I say in the book, he inherited it — but he still says it’s a success. That it’s the reason — even though they’ve had difficulties; they’ve failed in Atlanta and they continue to have difficulties in places like Phoenix and Nashville, to a large extent — that it’s the reason why this footprint of the game, at least in terms of sponsorship and TV deals, has improved in the United States.
How much do you think that expansion was about simply having a bigger league, as opposed to reaching the southern boundaries of the United States?
Well, you know, I think that they look at what the footprint of the NBA is and they try to see if they can stay roughly the same. You know, a lot of times, not in all markets, but there are a significant number of NBA markets where the NBA and the NHL go head to head, and often in the same buildings, right? So, I think, that’s one of those things that’s driving talk now about expansion in Seattle or relocation to Seattle, if they get a new rink and they get an NBA franchise at the same time, then there’s a lot of, you know, synergies to be had by putting in a NHL team in there as well. I can see them going to 32 teams in the relatively near future.
I’ve gotten the sense, looking at each of the labor negotiations under Bettman — starting with the ’94 one through the current one — that this is the one he’s sort of been preparing for. Bettman was brought in to institute a cap, but in ’94, the owners weren’t ready [to lose a season for the cause] and he didn’t get it. In ’05, he got the cap but the players got a sizeable cut of the revenue. But it seems like this is the one where, you know, he’s already got the cap, and now it’s a question of clawing back money. Is this sort of what Bettman has been waiting for? Not only does he have his cap, but now that he does, he can try for the deal that he really wants?
Well, I don’t know. I think his analysis of it would be more nuanced than that. I mean, he’s, he’s dealt with these systems for a long time and he knows that there’s a constant, push-and-pull to it, right? I mean, when he was at the NBA, he made his bones managing the salary cap. And he knows that there are always going to be loopholes, and soon as you close them, someone will find a new loophole to exploit. And it’s never going to be airtight. But his job is to try and make the system as tight as possible. And, you know, I think if you ask Bettman what he would really like to see out of these negotiations, it would be a limit on the longer-term contracts, right? What they call the back-diving stuff, where guys like Kovalchuk or even Brad Richards have deals that start way up high and then dive at the back-end to almost nothing. And I know that, you know, that is a huge concern for Bettman because he feels like that is directly undercutting the cap and also, you know, messing with the competitive balance, but I’m not so sure that the owners share that concern. You know, the owners like having — I think especially the powerful owners and the rich owners — like having a way to try and manipulate the system. So it’ll be interesting to see what happens: Whether in the end, you know, he’s got enough influence to get some sort of five-year limit or six-year limit on contracts.
How much of it is just sort of closing those loopholes versus just lowering the amount of money that players are getting.
Don’t make any mistake, right: The most important thing is lowering the money. And that’s the thing that the owners care the most about. The other stuff is stuff I think Bettman would like to see in a deal, and maybe some of the owners back him on it. I mean, if the owners have learned anything in the past twenty years, it’s that they can’t help themselves, right? That they are always victims to their own base instincts, whether it is their greed or their desire to win or, you know, the pressure that comes with the ego-boost of having a franchise. These guys will spend as much as they can. And often, I think, we tend to look at these things like a labor versus management thing, and it’s not. The system finds ways to collude, right? I mean, owners find ways to collude with agents and players to defeat their own rules, or to skirt their own rules. And that’s gonna continue. I think Bettman would view this more as a gradual, never-ending process where every five or six years, you have to go back to the table and try to tweak the system and tighten the rules.
The book I think takes a sort of sympathetic view of Bettman, at least compared to what the average fan at the bar might …
That wouldn’t be hard. [Laughs]
Right. Do you think he takes too much blame? And when I say blame, a lot of the time it’s not even for a specific thing. But there are fans whose automatic reaction when they see him is to boo and curse at him.
Listen, I think his job is to be hated, in large measure, right? He’s there to be the fall guy for the owners and to protect them from the fallout and from the anger of the fans, right? I mean, you know, he’s a front man. And so I don’t know if he can take too much blame for it. I mean, the other thing about it is that as the years have gone on, he’s become more and more powerful, and the strategy is his. There is no debating it. I mean, he’s the guy who crafts it, who sells it to the board of governors, and then they have to stamp it and they have to agree with it. The fact that you’re in a third lockout in twenty seasons has everything to do with Gary Bettman. I mean, this is his call: that they were going to get the best deal by locking the guys out. Because that’s what the NBA did and that’s what the NFL did. I mean, the way I would explain it is that I’m not so much sympathetic to him; I feel like I have a better understanding of the position he finds himself in. And some of it is of his own making, and some of it is just the circumstances of his job.
How much do you think Bettman cares about the perception of the league? Because one of the things I thought has really changed since the last lockout — and this is just anecdotal — is that the NHL has become less of the butt of a joke in the U.S. Right after the lockout, it was treated like a joke, and I feel like there’s been a lot less of that lately. As a hockey fan, I fear that if there’s another long lockout, that kind of thing is going to kind of creep back into the coverage the league. Do you think Bettman cares much about that? Or does he know that he has his base of fans that’s going to come back anyway, and he’s got his TV deals no matter what, and if sort of thing creeps back in, then so be it, if he gets the deal he wants?
Well, you know, I think it’s like most things in life: Respect equals money, right? I think, as you say, now he’s got his TV money. For the longest time, the biggest knock about the NHL was that it didn’t have an American TV deal. It couldn’t be on ESPN. I mean, winning that NBC deal and getting money — real money — it’s vitally important to him. It used to be that they had the same TV deal as arena football with NBC — the cost-sharing arrangement.
So now — now they have a legitimate, big-league TV deal. It is definitely post-lockout when things changed, and the arrival of John Collins is when things really changed. I think most people who are on the business side or the sports marketing side you talk to now look at the NHL and say, “You know what? It’s a smart operation. It’s a sophisticated operation.” I mean, they play for keeps, with the Winter Classic and these other events — the tent pole strategy that they have where they’re trying to create a year-long calendar of things that sponsors and fans and everybody else are interested in. This is sophisticated marketing, and the NHL is now a real player when it comes to pro sports in the States.
Anything else you want to say about Bettman, or now that the book is out, about any reactions that you’ve been getting?
I haven’t really heard from Bettman. I heard bits from Frank Brown and some other people. But not from Bettman, which I take as a good sign. All fans should take it as a good sign that he’s too busy to deal with me. But I think the point that I was trying to make in the book is: Here’s a guy who has the become the most powerful figure the game has ever known. And basically, it’s been a relatively slow process over twenty years. But, you know, when people spend all this energy hating him or having this cartoonish idea that he’s some scheming villain in the offices in New York, I mean, they sort of miss the point, which is that this guy has reshaped the game and his legacy is already secure, whether he left today or whether he leaves ten or fifteen years down the road. I mean, the game is marketed differently. It’s played differently on the ice. The way it’s showcased on television is different. Its international footprint in terms of the Olympics and its future in the Olympics (which we’re going to see coming out of this negotiation) is different. And there’s nobody who’s ever had a bigger influence on the game than Gary Bettman.