I had a terrifying realization today as I was checking Twitter and I saw this:
Gary Bettman (who looks like he threw his back out in that photograph) has been the league commissioner since 1993. He has been the commissioner of the NHL since I was 11 years old. To many hockey fans, he's the only league commissioner that they have ever known. He is the Queen Victoria of league governors.
I would say that he is the Queen Elizabeth II, but at the end of his contract, he'll be one year off from being the longest governing official in league history.
So, what has he done to warrant this extension? Obviously something, because despite being one of the most often-booed figures in professional sports, the NHL has been successful in growing its brand and growing its revenue. Bottom line, it's about the bottom line. The owners don't care about the same things that the fans and players do. They could care less about the John Scott situation. They expect the secrecy in the relocation and expansion processes (Bettman on expansion yesterday: "We could make 17-18, but if we don’t make 17-18, we don’t make 17-18."). Lockouts are viewed as part of the negotiation process - no one likes the short term lost revenue and income, but the three of them have, in some views, brought some negotiating heft to the league's table.
Many moves, especially the Sunbelt expansion of the game, have been panned as an Americanization of the game, because as we all know, only Canada is allowed to enjoy the sport and they play it The Right Way. Struggles in Arizona, Atlanta, and now Carolina, along with ongoing drama in Florida, are often pointed to as examples of why Bettman's tenure hasn't been successful, but the situations in each of those locales are unique and uniquely complicated.
The league brings in $4 billion a season. Bottom line, when push comes to shove, that is what matters to the league as a business. It's still the smallest of the four major sports leagues in North America, and it probably will remain that way, but reasonably speaking, $4 billion a year is a good stream of cash that the owners aren't going to complain about.
Personally speaking, Bettman has worked through things that I don't necessarily agree with, especially the relocation process of the Atlanta Thrashers. However, the sport continues to grow in non-traditional markets, the league continues to pull in the cash, and Bettman keeps getting booed by fans and rewarded by the league. He must be doing something right. As CBSSports.com's Chris Peters said:
"There's no question the game has grown throughout the United States with participation in the sport at an all-time high, in addition to rising revenues for the NHL itself. The game is also reaching its best exposure through its TV deal with NBC Sports. That could be one of Bettman's crowning achievements. The remarkable thing about the NHL is that it remains incredibly strong, if not stronger coming out of two lockouts in the last decade. Gary Bettman…may not be perfect…but (he) is a good leader for the NHL and probably deserves some recognition for it."