Bettman Merely The Owners' Mouthpiece

By Steve Lichtenstein
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After yet another suspension in negotiations between the NHL owners and the Players’ Association, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman can be sure to expect another barrage of blows from fans and the media.

Fortunately for Bettman, puppets don’t feel a thing.

For all the vitriol directed at Bettman, don’t forget that this lockout, on the verge of obliterating a second NHL season in the last nine, was at the behest of Bettman’s bosses.

Bettman may have the title of commissioner, but he is really just an employee. The idea that sports’ commissioners’ primary function is to “look out for the best interest in the game” went out long before Major League Baseball installed Bud Selig, an OWNER, to that once-sacred trust in 1992 (Selig transferred ownership in his Milwaukee Brewers to his daughter to—cough, cough– avoid the appearance of any conflicts of interest).

So believe me, if there was a swell of unhappiness from the owners regarding the job that Bettman has done in this quagmire, rest assured we would have received notice that someone else would be taking over.

I can also infer that the owners are comfortable with the process and not just afraid of incurring a fine for violating their gag order because this is just their standard business practice. Extortion, price gauging, antitrust violations—these guys have gotten away with all of this before.

In virtually every previous dispute, the owners have placed the players across their knees for proverbial slappings. The players caved in 2005, so Bettman has been instructed to wait them out again.

The difference this time is that the players are better prepared. Donald Fehr, Selig’s one-time nemesis, has entered the NHL ring and will not be bullied. He has correctly pointed out that the owners’ proposals have not been in, shall we say, the spirit of fairness in bargaining.

The latest discussions, which centered on contract terms such as free agency rights, back-loading, entry-level deals and arbitration eligibility, were so one-sided that the union had no option but to walk out. No further meetings have been scheduled.

Bettman, under the owners’ script, mentioned how the owners want to be partners with the players. Partners with the players? These guys barely want to be partners with each other. Much of the big market/small market disparity that the owners claim created the need to lock the players out can be accomplished with better revenue sharing.

The owners did offer an increase in their latest proposal, but even a 33% hike is a pittance when you consider that the base was around $150 million of a $3.3 billion revenue pie—the lowest percentage by far of any major pro sports league. It’s especially greedy considering that the vast majority of NHL revenue is generated locally instead of through national broadcast deals.

The problem is that there is not a Mara, Rooney or Halas among this group. Owners like Jim Dolan (Rangers) and Ed Snider (Flyers) do not maintain their fortunes by surrendering their cash to better their industry. On the contrary, those cable magnates squeeze out their competitors and milk their customers dry.

So of course they were willing to over-saturate the league by adding expansion teams. As long as those entry fee checks cleared, the more the merrier. Once those teams were formed, however, they were on their own. Tough luck, Atlanta.

Bettman just happens to be stuck in this thankless (though well-paying) job as the owners’ mouthpiece. I have no idea what is discussed at those Board of Governors meetings, but I believe Bettman at best plays an advisory role. Between the big market hardliners who refuse to sacrifice so that they can have other teams to play and the small market owners who will go bankrupt in the current system, Bettman has to play it this way.

I would hope he wants the game to return to the ice instead of the boardrooms and is not, as was once half-jokingly suggested, merely a minion of NBA commissioner David Stern who was sent to the NHL to destroy the NBA’s competition. Why wouldn’t he want to resume a growing business that left off in 2012 with a championship team in Los Angeles and a thriving pair of clubs in the New York metropolitan area?

In an ideal world, the commissioners’ duties should be restored to looking out for their respective game’s best interests. I’ve always thought that it could be accomplished one day if the players contributed half of the office’s costs. They have the money. The back-and-forth discussions on nominees might get as heated as Supreme Court hearings, but it would be worth it if both sides settled on a person they could reasonably trust. Then it would be fair to question a commissioner’s competence.

That kind of outside-the-box thinking would have to be proffered by the players. When the owners bring their heads together they devise things like personal seat licenses.

Until then, we can demonize Bettman all we want but his next decision in this matter that doesn’t have his bosses’ footprints all over it will be his first. The owners will always be pulling his strings.

Is Gary Bettman just a puppet being pulled by the owners?  Sound off below…

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