Hard Choices: The NHL's Gary Bettman
When I became commissioner in 1993, hockey had enormous growth potential. But from an economic standpoint, the league was in trouble. We tried to address the issues in negotiations with the players' union in 1994. We lost half a season and didn't fix the problems. The competitive balance was off. We had teams with $80 million payrolls and teams with $20 million payrolls. It was not sustainable.
Prior to the collective bargaining agreement running out in 2004, it was clear that the players' union's strategy was to tough it out. The conventional wisdom was that no sports league would ever cancel an entire season. And if they did, they'd never live to tell about it.
Coming into negotiations, the first hard choice we had to make was that we weren't going to open the 2004-05 season. I think the union expected that. The second was announcing in February that the rest of that season wasn't going to be played and that we wouldn't open the next season without a collective bargaining agreement. We were serious about the need for cost certainty. I was not happy about having to prove we meant what we said.
During that period we went about changing our business. We looked for new ways to market ourselves, and we retooled the game so that when we came back with a better economic system we'd also have a faster, more entertaining game for fans. After the lockout, our sponsors and fans hung in there. At the time, though, ESPN didn't share our vision. We signed a cable TV partnership with Versus, or what was then Outdoor Life Network. We would not be nearly as well-positioned as we are now if we hadn't changed. We're headed toward six years of record revenues and attendance.
My job includes being the lightning rod. I understand that commissioners typically are not beloved. Having to cancel an entire season was the toughest choice I've had to make. But we had to fix the problems.