Is Gary Bettman the Worst Commissioner Ever Because He’s Not *Enough* Of An Owners’ Stooge?

After a couple commenters brought it up, I was looking forward to reading Bill Simmons’s Gary Bettman rant. The problem is that his bottom line is completely wrong. In a lockout so obviously unjustifiable that it’s a rare case where both fans and (based on my anecdotal reading) the mainstream press has correctly blamed the owners, Simmons says that Bettman wasn’t pro-owner enough (or, more precisely, wasn’t pro-owner enough during the previous lockout):

We should mention that, in a vacuum, he’s correct about this particular lockout: The league’s financial model (already a mess because we have too many NHL teams, which is 100 percent Bettman’s fault, but whatever) can’t be sustained with such meager television revenue. Hockey depends on its attendance and the unwavering devotion of its zealous fan base. From a television standpoint, the league will always be handicapped by its lack of marketable stars (the biggest reason it can’t command anything close to the NBA’s television deal), a glaring problem that I noticed during my first year owning Kings season tickets, when I realized that it didn’t really matter who the Kings played from night to night. Sure, you always enjoy seeing the Malkins and Ovechkins, but it’s a much different mind-set from, say, LeBron playing the Clippers. Anyone who went to Wednesday’s Heat-Clippers game was thinking I’m going to see LeBron!, because they knew he was playing 90 percent of the game. In hockey, you don’t say “I’m going to see Ovechkin!,” because he might play one-third of the game if you’re lucky (and might not make a single meaningful play).

What evidence, exactly, is there that the NHL’s financial model isn’t “sustainable?” Plenty of teams are profitable, many of the teams that aren’t showing a paper profit aren’t losing money for the owners (many of whom benefit from windfall ancillary revenues given to stadium authorities or whatever rather than the team itself, as well as increasing franchise valuations.) And if you can’t make money in a nontraditional hockey market with a team that has no history of success, well (as Simmons concedes) I’m not sure how that’s the players’ fault.

At any rate, there’s nothing inherent to the nature of the game that makes it a bad TV sport per se (in Canada, where the NHL has a status comparable to the NFL in the United States, ratings are very high and tv rights therefore very valuable.) The NHL doesn’t get a lot of TV money from American networks because the NHL isn’t the number one sport anywhere and in many markets doesn’t even rise to the level of a niche. And nor is it true that the NHL doesn’t generate stars. This, of course, is why Simmons needs the qualification about how you can’t be guaranteed to see stars play most of the game and be a focal point. So what this is really about is another way for Simmons to make his point that the NBA is by far the greatest of the American team sports. Which is fine as far as it goes, but not a good way to think about a labor dispute. Obviously, the NBA is far more than any of the major sports dominated by front-line stars. To many, this is crucial to its fascination; to me, it’s the primary reason why the NBA is by far the least interesting of the major American sports. But this is a matter of taste (and I’m making it sound like a more rational dispute than it is; if I grew up in Indiana rather than Western Canada I’d be much more likely to see the virtues of the NBA’s star-generation rather than the NHL’s greater competitive balance.) But as an argument that the owners deserve to keep more money, it’s neither here nor there. What matters is not TV revenues or revenues generated by star marketing but revenues, period. And while Simmons won’t mention this because he no longer like the game, note that Major League Baseball, which dilutes the impact of its star players to a degree greater than the NHL, brings in much higher revenues than the NBA. The latter is much closer to the NHL than MLB.

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