I might be one of 12 or 13 hockey fans who doesn’t actively hate Gary Bettman. To most, the game is a sacred pastime that shouldn’t be interfered with in any way. Every time the Commissioner speaks, it’s a grim reminder of the truth: that the NHL is a business, first and foremost.
There are 30 teams in 30 cities across North America, and Bettman wants you as a fan for one reason.
There’s nothing wrong or unholy about that, and as far as commissioners go, hockey fans are pretty lucky to have Bettman. Just look at the other major sporting leagues for all the proof you need. While the 62-year-old has an excellent business sense, he doesn’t always seem to understand the entertainment side of things. At least not from the perspective of your average Joe-schmo or Holly-nolly fan.
This started to come to light when the NHL unveiled it’s advanced stats section a few months ago. While this was viewed as a positive (if mildly misguided) step for the league, Bettman made comments about player salaries that came across as out of touch. When asked if the NHL would begin providing salary cap information at some point in the future, the commissioner boggled minds by saying that fans aren’t interested in those kinds of things.
Capgeek was such a big hit among fans, it makes Gary Bettman look incredibly stupid for saying fans don't care about salaries.
— Andrew Bensch (@ViewFromBensch) March 20, 2015
Some wrote this off as a savvy attempt to protect his owners. General managers and ownership groups frequently come under for their handling (or mishandling) of the salary cap, so perhaps this was Bettman’s way of deflecting interest while keeping the heat off of the people he’s charged with representing.
Today’s comments about the draft lotto seem incredibly obtuse though, even for a lawyer that makes millions upon millions of dollars a year.
Commissioner Gary Bettman on why the league isn't making a bigger deal about the draft lottery: pic.twitter.com/KYd3Dbbl8a
— Craig Custance (@CraigCustance) April 17, 2015
It wasn’t created to be an event? Fair enough, but that doesn’t mean this line of thinking makes a lick of sense.
The truth is there are 14 fan bases out there that care about the draft lottery results very much. Even if the year wasn’t 2015 and three potentially generational talents weren’t available, the offseason is a time of hope for fans that can’t watch their teams in the playoffs. To someone like Bettman, he should hear the word hope and get dollar signs in his eyes.
For people that support teams like the Edmonton Oilers, Phoenix Coyotes and Buffalo Sabres, April 18 of this year will arguably be more meaningful to them than when the Stanley Cup is hoisted. In the opening of one single envelope, the fortunes of an entire franchise can be and will be dramatically changed.
When it was Sidney Crosby that was available as the uncontested No. 1 pick in 2005, three other teams had just as much of a chance to select No. 87. What would the New York Rangers, Columbus Blue Jackets or Sabres look like with Crosby in the lineup? It’s impossible to know a decade later, but odds are good that they’d be very different teams with a center like him to build around.
There’s drama, there’s intrigue and there’s a number of reasons for even the most casual fan to tune in. If Bettman thinks that the league can make the NHL awards entertaining, why can’t they make the same effort for an event that actually has an impact on the on-ice product?
It will be on television, and if last year was any indication, it will be a bland affair with a handful of team representatives in place to react in real time. No cake or watermelon. Just the opening of an envelope. Why is this such a stripped down event though? It could easily be morphed into an multi-night special, with in-depth reports on the top prospects, interviews with team executives, stories of older draft lotteries and more. With the playoffs in full swing, maybe dedicate two minutes of intermission time to different prospects and frame it as a way to get to know the future stars of tomorrow.
Brian Burke will be the first to tell you that hockey is an entertainment business. Perhaps Bettman could take a page from Burke and try to understand that as well.
There doesn’t need to be a parade of fireworks—though fireworks would be awesome—but the NHL is missing a great opportunity to brand future stars right out of the gate by locking the draft lotto in a 30-minute time slot. It wouldn’t be difficult to sell sponsorships to an event-isized version of the lotto, and it’d be a fantastic way for casual fans to get to know incoming players before they pull a sweater over their heads.
Creating awareness and generating revenue is the name of the game for all pro-sports leagues, and Bettman is missing a golden opportunity to sell the game of hockey by downplaying the draft lottery.