The NHL commissioner has kept the wolves at bay for years, but this season finds Bettman with nothing new to offer and much to lose

Bruce DowbigginDon’t look now but Gary Bettman may be running out of second acts.

The National Hockey League commissioner for life has spent a good deal of time pushing off the dodgy reality of his league’s place in the broadcast universe. He’s kept a marginal attraction afloat when ESPN and others ignore the league.

But could it be that the narrative he’s been fashioning lately is not playing?

If you read between the lines of remarks made at the recent Winter Olympics by Mark Lazarus, the chairman of NBC Broadcasting and Sports, the NHL’s absence at the Games is not the deft masterstroke Bettman thinks it is. In assessing a tepid product in South Korea, Lazurus referenced the absence of the NHL contributing to a drop in ratings “in the high 20s or low 30s” for NBC’s hockey coverage.

For good measure, Lazurus pointed out that NBC’s ratings for the regular season that Bettman refused to interrupt are weak, too. “Our numbers are off, and if you look at the RSN (Rogers Sportsnet) numbers for every NHL team over this week-long period, at least when I looked at it, all but two teams were off versus a year ago in this window. So it is not good for anybody’s hockey ratings.”

Bettman receives the slings and arrows of hockey fans and cranky journalists all the time. He thrives on brandishing his black hat.  The boos seem to buttress him. Just when it seemed he was ready for the drop after a lockout, the NHL would come up with the outdoor games or going to the Olympics (in 1998).

But he’s not used to hearing criticism from the people who really matter in his world – the New York network suits, the corporate leaders, the investment gurus. People like Lazurus. People he respects.

Bettman staked his integrity on keeping the NHL at home this February, leaving Lazarus to telecast a hockey tournament more like the Spengler Cup than a world-class event.

This type of upbraid is unheard of. (International Olympic Committee officials were just as miffed that their prize jewel, the NHL, sat it out.)

Naturally, Bettman fought back.

“This is an exciting time,” he said in agreement with virtually no one outside Las Vegas this season. “To have disappeared halfway around the world for three weeks doesn’t do anything to enhance our game.” To reiterate his point, Bettman predicted that the NHL would likewise stay away from China, where the next Games will be held in 2022.

He then parsed the NHL’s ratings. “For example, if the Kings were playing on the East Coast and the games are shown locally at 4 p.m., and last season they were playing against San Jose in the same time zone … it didn’t make sense. It wasn’t great use of the data.” Hey, Gary, if you’re talking, you’re losing.

It was the usual bravado. But one wonders if the sports world hasn’t seen all this one time too many. Having kept the wolves at bay for years with a business plan that mixed expansion, modest TV exposure and the fanatical devotion of Canadians, this season finds Bettman with nothing new to offer.

The revelation of an expansion team, the Golden Knights, topping the standings has been amusing. But it also reflects poorly on many of the other teams in his league. How good is the calibre of play if a rag-tag bunch thrown together last summer can dominate franchises that have been together for decades?

Bettman is promising even more expansion – Seattle looks a shoo-in if the owners can cash the $650-million fee. The move is sure to water down play even more. And that’s a damp squib in a league where a number of the prestige clubs – the Red Wings, Rangers, Canadiens and Blackhawks – are in free fall, and a half dozen others are finagling to get the No. 1 draft pick.

Lazurus was probably willing to put up with some Olympic dropoff if the regular season was making up for it. But the ratings dip screams that that’s not about to happen. Compelling playoff story lines outside the Maple Leafs and the Golden Knights seem hard to find.

A knee-jerk prohibition on going to the next Olympics seems tone deaf under the circumstances. NBC pays more for the Olympics than the NHL by an increment of 10. Messing with their business hardly seems a promising business tack.

Having stiffed ESPN, TSN, Fox and other networks in the past, the NHL could be running out of dance partners unless it super-sizes its ratings. Yes, digital still offers a more promising future (with 1.31 billion live streaming minutes through the first Sunday at NBCOlympics.com, NBC Sports Digital has more than tripled the 420 million minutes for the 2014 Sochi Olympics.)

But unless Bettman and his advisers capture the imagination of the market again, Lazurus won’t be alone in asking if there’s anything there.

Troy Media columnist Bruce Dowbiggin career includes successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he is also the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster.


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