Gary Bettman is never going to be popular among fans. Not even really liked. Which is fine, it’s not really a commissioner’s job to be liked by fans, not anymore. And the one thing you have to give Bettman credit for is leaning into it the past few years. One can’t imagine Rob Manfred or Roger Goodell having a sense of humor about being relentlessly booed whenever they appear in public. It’s hard to imagine either of those weasels having a sense of humor about anything. Bettman at least gets that part of it.
Still, he’s Gary Bettman and he can’t help but semi-regularly kick himself in the face. No commissioner should have watched Rob Manfred’s balloon-handed attempts over the summer to garner sympathy amid altruistic claims while MLB owners were essentially unilaterally shortening the season to something only they could stomach. It backfired horribly, put the public sentiment behind the players in a labor dispute perhaps for the first time ever, and now might have even made MLB owners gunshy about attempting to shorten next season ahead of another surefire labor dispute over the expiring CBA.
But that’s exactly what Bettman did yesterday during his eve of the season, state of the union call with the national hockey press yesterday.
“We’re going to run through more money, or say it differently, lose more money at the club level and at the league level by playing than by not playing,” Bettman said during a webinar. “But the owners unanimously are OK with that because they know how important it is for our fans and for the game.
This might actually be true, but no one wants to hear it. No one is buying that the NHL owners are a group of altruistic charity organizers who just want to bring the game to the people so they have more to watch as we’re stuck in our homes (or should be) before they can tussle our kids’ hair again in the arena concourse and distribute candy and toys. Even if the NHL has rearranged their books to make this so, this is a thought you keep to yourself.
Much like baseball’s claims of mass losses, this is more about revenues missed than actual losses, or could be. The NHL is definitely the most dependent on gate-receipts and the connected revenues from that, but again, we’ve never seen the actual numbers that NHL teams are raking in. Simply taking a group of billionaires’ word for it … horseshit detectors are going off everywhere.
But let’s take Betts at his word, just for a moment. $1B. Breaks down to about $32M per team, though obviously that’s not exactly how it would go down, as, for example, the Coyotes or Panthers missing out on attendance probably isn’t that big of a blow. But for the sake of argument, let’s split it evenly. Is there an NHL owner that can’t stomach a $30M loss for one year? Ok, other than Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melynyk, probably. Again, it’s important to remember that most teams missed out on, at most, five or six home games last year because of the pandemic. And while some missed out on playoff gates, only Dallas, Vegas, Tampa Bay, and the Islanders would have had a significant boost due to their long runs away from home. And even the Islanders are questionable, because they would have been playing in either a tiny arena on Long Island or in a place everyone hates in Brooklyn. The NHL still got their playoff TV money. And seeing as how it was all playoffs, the players didn’t make their normal salaries during it, so how much of a loss was not having fans is a real debate.
But even putting aside all of that, the NHL is getting, essentially, a 20 percent cut on salaries this year, though they’re calling it “escrow.” As there’s no chance of revenues reaching a level where that full escrow wouldn’t be needed this year without fans, it’s a cut. That’s not going to make the owners whole on the losses Bettman is talking about, but it’s a help.
Additionally, the NHL’s TV contract with NBC runs out after this year, and now with a CBA in tow there’s no threat of a lockout when they negotiate a new one. At some point this bubble will burst for sports leagues, but it’s probably not now. The league can look forward to a boost from the $200M annually it gets now. With streaming services starting to break through the wall of live sports broadcasting, the NHL could really clean up here. That would be a nice salve for whatever losses the league and its owners incur this season.
All of this ignores the fact that, like every other sport, NHL franchise values have skyrocketed. Even the aforementioned Senators, run by a moronic dickhead in a town with almost no corporate sponsorship, are worth nearly five times what Melynyk paid for them. If these losses are so bad, any owner could sell their team and probably find a group of takers to net them enough profit to buy an island or two.
If Bettman and the owners were truly altruistic, they wouldn’t play at all, while still paying at least their non-playing employees. They would say there is no safe way to do this, as the NBA and NFL are currently proving, and they’re not going to put their players in danger. But they don’t care about that, and they’re only playing to get their TV money so they have something they can deposit. If it were truly better for owners to not play at all, you can best believe they would have found a way to make that so. There isn’t an altruistic fiber in any NHL owner’s body, and to try and feed us the line that this season comes from the goodness of their hearts should necessitate an eye roll so hard as to cause a seizure.
This is one-year trim for the league’s owners, and they should be given no leeway to claim anything else. Also ... they can easily afford it.