Early last June, the National Hockey League ended its season with Detroit defeating Pittsburgh for the Stanley Cup. As the Red Wings circled the ice with the legendary trophy hoisted above their heads, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman should have been ecstatic. A sport that The New York Times had dismissed in 2005 as "stagnant in personality and entertainment" had reconnected with fans thanks to attention-grabbers like a New Year's Day outdoor game and young talent reminiscent of Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, and other greats from hockey's glory days.
Yet Bettman confesses he felt a tinge of melancholy. "I didn't want the season to end," he says. Cheer up, Commish: The 2008-09 season begins in just two weeks.
The NHL has come a long way since Bettman took office 15 years ago. It has grown from 24 teams to 30, with new franchises popping up in unlikely hockey markets including Columbus, Ohio, and Nashville and older clubs relocating to Sun Belt centers such as Dallas and Phoenix. Revenues have more than tripled, to $2.6 billion last year, from $732 million in 1993. "The things Gary is doing are working," says Gordon Saint-Denis, managing director of sports advisory and finance at CIT.
Taking On the Brawlers
It's no surprise then that Bettman, 56, ranks among the most important people in sports according to BusinessWeek's upcoming Power 100 survey, placing 21st in the annual balloting.
Bettman earned his spot by taking on the biggest brawlers in pro sports—the NHL Players' Assn. In 2004, Bettman concluded that rising player salaries were pushing many teams, and perhaps the league itself, toward the brink. His fix: a pay cap similar to the one used in the National Basketball Assn., where Bettman worked from 1981 to 1993, in the marketing and legal departments. When negotiations with the Players' Assn. stalemated, Bettman canceled the 2004-05 season, a move unprecedented in American sports.
Players conceded before the 2005-06 season, and while TV viewership declined, the league emerged financially stronger. "It was painful for me and for everyone associated with the game," Bettman says now. "But it was necessary." Indeed, TV ratings in 2007-08 were back up to pre-lockout levels.
Beyond the Snowy Cities
The New York University Law School alum still has a job to do. On the top of Bettman's to-do list is expanding hockey's fan base beyond snowy cities in Canada and the Northern U.S. "It's definitely an uphill battle," Saint-Denis says. But subtle rule changes over the past few years should help, Saint-Denis adds, by speeding up the game and increasing chances of scoring. "People want to see goals," he says. "Give them excitement, give them scoring. The league needs new fans, and this is a way to get them."
Better marketing has helped, too. Last winter, Bettman introduced the Winter Classic, a regular-season game played outdoors in Buffalo on New Year's Day. "On a day historically devoted to college football bowl games, we were the big story," Bettman crows. "Because it was such a big event, hockey fans as well as casual sports fans tuned in. It's what we call building scale." The upcoming season's Winter Classic will feature the Chicago Blackhawks hosting the Red Wings at Wrigley Field.
Hockey also has an edge over other big league sports. Some 30% of NHL players are from outside North America, giving hockey a truly international audience. Currently, NHL games air in 150 countries, and with regular-season games scheduled in Stockholm and Prague to start the 2008-09 season, Bettman expects foreign interest to grow. Bettman, for one, can't wait for the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers to take to the ice in Europe against the Ottawa Senators and Tampa Bay Lightning, respectively. "I think we're poised to have another strong season," he says.