Wednesday, 30 May 2007

Honesty Is Better Than Rhetoric

It came as a shock to me this week when a reporter asked Gary Bettman about the return of the NHL to Winnipeg. It's no secret that Jim Balsillie tried to buy the Penguins with the intent on placing a franchise in the Kitchener-Waterloo region in southern Ontario. Mr. Balsillie's purchase of the Nashville Predators this week only lead to more speculation as to what may happen with the Predators. While the thought is that southern Ontario is the destination of choice for Mr. Balsillie if he's given the option of relocation, Mr. Bettman responded to an editorial in a Canadian newspaper about the relocation of the Predators' franchise to Winnipeg.

"I'm not opining on whether or not that's an opinion that I agree with, but it is an interesting and intriguing thought," Bettman said. "Interesting and intriguing" is how Mr. Bettman put it. That's not a guarantee, but I'll admit that it raised my eyebrows when he said that. Heck, it downright shocked me.

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you know that I have been against the idea of an NHL franchise returning to Winnipeg. The Living In Dreamland article showed the passion that Winnipeg has in terms of trying to be an NHL town, but Randy Turner of the Winnipeg Free Press pointed out all the reasons why Winnipeg should embrace the AHL instead of dreaming about the NHL. The Living In Dreamland: Gimme A Break article only went to further the points made about Winnipeg not being an ideal NHL city. As a follow-up to that, I will also say that Hugh McFadyen's own Conservative candidates indicated that his crazy NHL promise was a major reason for another crushing defeat at the hands of the NDP in Manitoba's provincial election.

This is where the shock came from when Mr. Bettman made his statement during his State of the Union address before Game One of the Stanley Cup Finals. Mr. Bettman stressed that no one has put much thought into the idea of a team moving to Winnipeg at this time, but did leave the door open in terms of a possibility. In determining Winnipeg's chances, he used the Minnesota Wild as an example.

"When we had the chance to go back to Minnesota, we did. Because it made sense, the right ownership, the right building situation," Bettman demonstrated. "The market was strong and vibrant. We haven't studied Quebec City or Winnipeg or anywhere else in Canada, but the notion that if it could work to put a franchise back in a place where one was lost, feels good - provided we don't wind up in a situation where we've created a prescription for another failing franchise.

"So am I intrigued? It's obviously something I've thought about in terms of trying to make right something that one point in our history went wrong."

Mr. Bettman indicated that factors like the salary cap and revenue sharing facets of the new collective bargaining agreement provide a chance for a small market like Winnipeg to obtain another team, and be successful in the new NHL.

Clearly, this was not to be taken as fact. Mr. Bettman was simply illustrating a point in which a franchise in Winnipeg could succeed if all the right circumstances came together. Tim Campbell of the Winnipeg Free Press decided to press the matter a little more, and followed up on the comments made by Mr. Bettman on Monday with his own interview on Tuesday. Here is the interview in its entirety as found in the Winnipeg Free Press' May 30th edition.

Free Press: A year ago, at the 2006 final, the question of relocation to Winnipeg came up and there seemed to be a change in your reaction. Before, to be polite, it seemed to be something you had never considered or had any time for, and your remarks seemed last year to go from somewhat negative to very neutral. Some perceived that to be quite a change in your reaction. Any thoughts as to why?

Gary Bettman: "If anybody perceived a change in reaction, it's probably a function of the partnership we have with the players, which includes the salary cap and revenue sharing because our economics have changed for our clubs and their ability to be competitive. Now whether or not Winnipeg or any place else would be in a better position than they were when there was no ability for the team to continue to operate where it was is a question that the changed circumstances would raise. By changed, I mean the new CBA."

Free Press: Is there a way to quantify what it would take for a city like Winnipeg that is not currently in the NHL, to return to the NHL?

Bettman: My guess is that it would take a lot of due diligence and somebody would have to make a judgment. Could I quantify the analysis now? No. It's not anything we've given any thought to."

Free Press: In your remarks Monday, you were quoted as saying: "It's obviously something I've thought about in terms of trying to make right something that at one point in our history went wrong." Did you really mean leaving Winnipeg was wrong?

Bettman: That was part of a broader statement where I said I don't like franchise relocation. As I have said in the past, when we left Winnipeg it was under circumstances where one, there wasn't a new building or the prospect of a new building and two, there was nobody who wanted to own a team there anymore. And so if there are changed circumstances in that regard as well as the new CBA, then if the circumstances present themselves, that might lead to a different analysis. It might not lead to a different result but analytically you start in a different place."

Free Press: The idea of Winnipeg's return has been out there for some time. As the leader of the NHL, is there any way for you to sum up recent reaction or comments it receives from governors, GMs or people within your league?

Bettman: I don't think there's one blanket characterization. People remember the times in Winnipeg, both good and bad, and people know that there are passionate hockey fans, passionate NHL fans in Winnipeg, but I don't think anybody has reached a conclusion yet as to whether or not, with all the changed circumstances we've discussed, whether Winnipeg could support a team. Obviously, as I've indicated before, the analysis has changed because some of the circumstances have changed. That analysis would be something that would have to be done if this process moved beyond simple intrigue."

Free Press: Are you willing to say how much contact you have with Mark Chipman
[Teebz: current owner of the AHL's Manitoba Moose], assuming he's the lead player on this end?

Bettman: "Mark has fairly consistently communicated his interest in the possibility of exploring the issue."

Free Press: Winnipeg's new arena has been called too small by some. Is it too small, what's too small, how do we know what's too small?

Bettman: "I don't know the answer to the questions. I haven't seen it. I haven't studied it."

Free Press: Do you have rules on seats or luxury suites?

Bettman: We don't have fixed rules but there's a certain reality to the economics of operating a team and what an arena needs to have in order to support those operations."

Free Press: It's sometimes called the "X Factor," when fans miss a team or regret its departure, as we've seen in Denver and Minnesota, and you referred Monday to Minnesota's return to the NHL. Can and would something like an "X Factor" apply to Winnipeg?

Bettman: "I'm not sure what anybody would mean by an 'X Factor' but it's more a question of if you had an opportunity to either relocate or expand - neither which is currently pending - the question is where are the best places to consider going. And if people believed that a particular city could support a team and warranted consideration, then as part of the due diligence, you would study this."

Free Press: On the subject of the rising salary cap (maybe to US$49 million next season) do you have any worry that's going to eliminate any of your franchises from viability or a chance to be competitive?

Bettman: "No, I don't, because a rising salary cap is purely a function of rising revenues. That is the partnership we have with our players and don't forget it's also coupled with revenue sharing."

Free Press: Is that revenue sharing meaningful and is it your experience in the short life of this CBA that it can make a difference?

Bettman: "I think the franchises that are receiving the revenue sharing think it's quite meaningful and it's enabled the system to work as well as it has."

Free Press: Is there a one-word answer to this question: Do you see the NHL coming back to Winnipeg?

Bettman: "That is an intriguing but uncertain question."

Free Press: We'll give you a general platform here: do you have any advice for hockey fans and NHL fans in Winnipeg?

Bettman: "To continue to follow the game and continue to be passionate about the game. But obviously at this point and after all the issues we've discussed, nobody can make any promises and I certainly wouldn't want to lead our terrific fans in Winnipeg on about the future prospects when I don't think anyone at this point is in a position to make any promises or commitments whatsoever."

I have new-found respect for Mr. Gary Bettman. It's not because the NHL is considering relocating a franchise to Winnipeg. In fact, I am still against that idea until Winnipeg finds a billionaire owner and some major corporate sponsorship. However, in Mr. Campbell's follow-up interview with him, Mr. Bettman shows three things that great leaders possess: honesty, integrity, and courage.

I still truly believe that Winnipeg is an AHL city. However, it's nice to know that the big league hasn't forgotten you when things went wrong. And it is extremely refreshing to hear Mr. Bettman say that the NHL is "trying to make right something that one point in our history went wrong."

The Winnipeg Jets were a great franchise, and a point of pride of Winnipeg. It was their mark on the world of big league sports. I'm not convinced the NHL will return, but thank you, Mr. Bettman, for having the honesty to admit that mistakes were made; the integrity to say that you're willing to give Winnipeg another chance; and the courage to say that it may not happen any time soon, but Winnipeggers shouldn't stop dreaming.

Thanks for being a leader, Mr. Bettman. Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice.


Sage Confucius said...

I haven't read your entire post yet because I am very tired from work and about to pass out. However, when I saw an excerpt of Bettman's comments I immediately thought about you. I don't want the Preds to leave at all, but even considering a move to Winnipeg amuses me. Some teams move because they have owners who just want the team somewhere else, or they don't have an arena deal in place. To consider moving an under-supported team to a place that lost its team because it was under-supported just cracks me up.

Dear Lord Stanley said...

I don't share your sudden affection for Fuhrer Bettman. Simply because he admits there have been major mistakes made in the overall direction of the NHL doesn't mean he's any less responsible for making those mistakes in the first place.

His screw-ups and complete lack of leadership in promoting the NHL in the US far outweigh any points he may have scored by saying that Winnipeg maybe could use another NHL team.

Teebz said...

DLS, my opinion as to whether Winnipeg deserves another team is moot. Winnipeg shouldn't have one. End of story.

My point is that he had the balls to finally admit that the NHL has made serious mistakes in a game that relies on the 6 Canadian teams to bring in 40% of the revenue for the NHL.

He can spend all the time in the world promoting the game in the US, but he (a) doesn't have a major television contract, (b) doesn't have the fan support in the southern US teams with the exception of Dallas, and (c) gets zero support from the major media outlets down in the US.

ESPN runs hockey highlights 15 minutes into the show. USA Today has hockey coverage on page six, and it's a blurb. That's ridiculous. Until the mindset in the US changes, the NHL will always be the #4 major sport of the four major leagues.

Dear Lord Stanley said...

But how do you change that mindset? It's not going to just magically change on its own. And the three faults of the league you listed (no TV, no fans, no media coverage) were not a problem ten years ago. The game hasn't changed that much to blame it on hockey itself. It must be the fault of the league's leadership. The lockout, the bad choice of cable TV coverage, the absolute refusal to buy television advertising time during any program not a hockey game, etc etc. The only thing the NHL has gotten right is the deal with Google to put tons of hockey clips on YouTube.

Americans like sports. They will follow just about anything as long as it is portrayed in a favorable, exciting way. We pour tons of money into NASCAR (cars in circles!) and golf (what's more boring than that?) and advertising during a horse race costs more than a hockey game. If the hype and the hoopla is enough, Americans will become fans of any sport you can name. Look at for who we'll vote for President. We're pretty much sheep.

Bettman can either exploit this and saturate the media with how awesome hockey is, or he can maintain his current policy of "out of sight, out of mind" and let the reputation of the sport get worse. So far, he's made the wrong choice.

Teebz said...

"But how do you change that mindset?"

That is the $64,000 question. You can't saturate a market that doesn't want something. That's why all the southern US cities are having a hard time with hockey. I live in Canada, and we live and breathe hockey. In Florida, it's an afterthought. You can't change that mindset. It is part of their social fabric.

Detroit, Minnesota, Denver, and the New England/New York/New Jersey area don't have those problems due to them being exposed to hockey at a young age, and have a huge population to draw from.

You can't cultivate a hockey mindset in a place where hockey has never existed as a major sport. The places I listed above have that mindset because they've been exposed to it for so long.

I honestly believe that the sunbelt experiment has been the worst experiment and the most costly mistake that the NHL has ever made.

Dear Lord Stanley said...

I totally agree with you. I wholeheartedly believe that---at minimum---Florida, Tampa Bay, Phoenix and Nashville should either move north (Hartford, Cleveland, Hamilton, Seattle, etc) or be dissolved completely.

For one, I think the expansion to 30 teams was a mistake in the first place, let alone where the expansion teams went. The league would function much better (and have a better talent pool) at 26 teams.

And when I say "media saturation", I'm not talking about the South, I'm talking about everywhere else. Bettman can't even promise everyone in Michigan and Minnesota that they can watch NHL playoff games. That's inexcusable.

All that aside, if Bettman's willing to pay the money, any TV station in the US is willing to run his commercials, whether it's in New York or Florida. I grew up in a non-hockey part of the US and I still found the sport and fell in love with it. But I got lucky. In the early nineties, the NHL was still promoting itself and kids like me were able to at least watch the playoffs on network TV. That's just barely the case now.

While I agree that the Sun Belt is not a good place for NHL teams, don't write off everyone in those states---there are potential hockey fans everywhere. They just need to see the games and know the players.

Teebz said...

Great comment, and excellent points, DLS.

I never meant to lump all fans in the Southern States together. It was more a generalization, and I apologize to any southern state-based fan that reads this.

As for Minnesota and Michigan, I was unaware of that situation. However, I also believe that the league, as well as the teams, need to promote themselves locally and nationally. Your comment of "the NHL was still promoting itself and kids like me were able to at least watch the playoffs on network TV" says a ton. The NHL pushes its stars on minor-league TV stations.

Great comment, DLS. Totally appreciated.