Tuesday, 9 April 2019

Setting The Record Straight

Since the CWHL closed its doors over a week ago, there have been many who have demanded that the NHL "do the right thing", step up, and fund women's hockey. Long before the CWHL closed its doors, the NHL and Gary Bettman have maintained they would not and will not get involved in the operations of either or any women's hockey league unless there were no other options available for women to play professional hockey. Including today, Bettman has held firm on his stance regarding women's hockey despite all the cries for them to help "grow the game" and whatever other catchphrases and colloquialisms fans use in their pleas for assistance. Deaf ears is all they're finding.

Today, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman appeared on Sportsnet 590 and Rogers Sportsnet on a program called Prime Time Sports with Bob McCown, Stephen Brunt, and Richard Deitsch to discuss a number of issues including that of the status of women's hockey currently. Before we get to the interview, it's imperative that one be very aware that professional hockey is a business with the NHL being a very lucrative and profit-driving business. And like any other business, the NHL is not into giving out handouts or investing its hard-earned dollars into something it neither owns nor controls. This is how it remains profitable, and the NHL continues to invest in its own brand in order to ensure that year-over-year profitability.

I have isolated the 7:20 of Gary Bettman speaking about women's hockey, and it is posted below. I'll let you listen as you read through the rest of this article. Before grabbing your keyboard and going full "online warrior" mode, you may want to slow your roll to gain a better perspective. Here's the interview.

I'll paraphrase a few comments here, but here are Gary's main quotations regarding women's hockey.

1. "We don't have a responsibility to fund the business of other leagues. They have investors. They have a business plan."
Gary is entirely correct here. This would be like asking McDonald's to fund your local mom-and-pop burger joint just because they both sell burgers. McDonald's, like the NHL, has zero obligation to put money into a business they neither own nor control, so they have zero responsibility to ensure its long-term success. The NHL has zero obligation to ensure the CWHL, NWHL, or any other women's league remains in business just as they have zero interest in ensuring the KHL, the SPHL, or any other non-affiliated league stays afloat. The business is NHL hockey which is owned in part by the owners of the NHL franchises, and that is to whom Gary reports and on behalf of whom Gary conducts NHL business.
2. "I don't want to be presumptuous or bully-like and say 'We're gonna start a league and put them out of business.' I don't think that's appropriate."
The NHL could likely crush the CWHL and NWHL like bugs on a floor if they wanted, but that's not going to win the NHL any fans nor would it be good for their brand. No-brainer here.
3. "If the NWHL is successful, great. That's terrific. I understand from Dani Rylan that we're their largest sponsor. I have told her that if she is successful, we will not interfere."
Again, the NHL isn't looking for trouble. They're simply staying out of the way. If Rylan makes it work, the NHL will continue to invest its annual $100,000 into the business. They're not looking to get into women's hockey to compete with anyone.
4. When asked if the NHL being the largest sponsor at $100,000 is concerning, Gary replied, "Draw your own conclusions."
To me, this answer reinforces Gary's statement that he believes the business models of the leagues were unsustainable. He's passively conveying that message by allowing Bob McCown and the listeners to draw their own conclusions regarding that amount of money. I think he made his point.
5. "I'm not here to kibosh that league. If they wanna make a go of it, great. If that suits the players' needs and feasibility-wise, ok. In the final analysis, I believe a sustainable model probably will require the resources and the platforms that the NHL has."
Again, Gary is allowing Rylan to make a go of this, but ultimately he feels that the NHL can give women's hockey the exposure and the resources - money, promotion, media - that it requires to become a self-sustaining model where ad revenue and network broadcast contracts keep the league afloat. He's likely right thanks to the partners and sponsors the NHL already has.
6. When asked about the WNBA-NBA model, Gary replied, "It's not self-sustaining without the NBA's support, and if we get involved we will not have the option of letting it fail. If that's our responsibility, there's a level of control we would have to assume."
Basically, if the NHL does get involved with women's hockey, it's going to work even if they lose money. That's the kind of dedication that one wants to hear with regard to the long-term future of women's professional hockey.
7. When asked about the NWHL's sustainability, Gary replied, "I don't want to cast dispersions on the NWHL. If they can succeed, they should. If they can't, we'll look at our options."
Gary wisely directs the focus off the sustainability by framing the answer as "we hope they are successful". This is smart bit of politicking here by Bettman.
8. "The highest profile the women's game has received in the last few years is because we were involved."
Of all the things Gary said over the last seven minutes, this might be the worst bit of gaslighting I've heard.

His claim of not having the NHLers at the Olympics resulting in the women's game getting more exposure has nothing to do with the NHL being involved. In fact, there were a ton of other sports who directly benefitted with more viewers thanks to the NHL preventing their players from going. This is patently the opposite of involvement, Gary, so strike this one from the record.

Second, the involvement in the All-Star weekend was never supposed to happen as per the NHL's mandate. Yes, the women were invited to demonstrate the events, but they were not supposed to be on-camera at any point in the evening's festivities. Had it not been for Nathan MacKinnon reaching out to Kendall Coyne to replace him in the Fastest Skater event, the women who participated would have been nothing more than a footnote on that weekend. Strike this one from the record as well because what Gary is saying had nothing to do with the NHL and everything to do with Nathan MacKinnon.

Lastly, his claim of helping to get the Rivalry Series up and running has zero evidence at this time so there could be some validity to this contribution, but there's no definitive proof of how the NHL's involvement made these three games happen. At the very best, this one is unproven, so we'll have to take Gary at his word for now.

In any case, he's one-for-three at most on his league's involvement in helping the women's game gain a higher profile.
The inevitable truths that one needs to take away from this are as follows:

  • The NHL is a business first, a business second, and a business third. The sport part makes them money, but the business side is what keeps the sport on the ice. Bettman's comments today leave little doubt that the NHL is all-business when it comes to the sport.
  • The NHL will not venture into women's professional hockey until there is no other option for the women. That means that as long as the NWHL is operating, if Graeme Roustan gets his league off the ground, and if anyone else decides to compete against one or both of these leagues, we're further from having the NHL and its vast resources available to help women's professional hockey than we are closer.
  • Asking, begging, demanding, and any other request sent to or made in reference to the NHL for any sort of financial support will be ignored. Stop demanding that they toss in money to "grow the game" because that's not their mandate. They grow their brand, they market their brand, and they protect their brand. Women's hockey, at this point in time, is not their brand.
The last thing that needs to be said is that Gary Bettman shouldn't be vilified for his comments. He's a businessman looking out for his business that has 31 governors on the Board of Directors who have made it clear that Gary's primary focus is NHL business. Professional women's hockey is not NHL business. As a result, Gary Bettman's statements about staying out of women's hockey until there are no other options falls directly in line with the NHL's view on the subject.

Sorry, women's hockey fans, but help in any form from the NHL simply isn't coming until the NHL controls all aspects of the women's professional league. That's just good business.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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