September 26, 2009
Gary Bettman, sharing the stage with Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis at the "Capitals Convention" at National Harbor, made a call-to-action for disgruntled fans caught in the DirecTV/Versus standoff -- one that threatens to keep the opening of the NHL season on the cable network off of the satellite service.
"Call DirecTV and tell them you're not happy," the NHL commissioner instructed. So it's pretty clear on which side of the battle-lines the League resides.
Bettman danced through a few dozen topics in front of a massive crowd at the fan convention, whose 5,000 tickets sold out for the orgy of autographs, merchandise and enlightening panel discussions. ("Dropping the Gloves" with John Erskine(notes) and Alan May, coming up at 4:30 p.m.!)
He spoke at length about the Phoenix Coyotes ownership/bankruptcy mess, restating the NHL's positions and relating the situation to when the Capitals were on less-solid footing as a franchise.
Later, I asked him about the Coyotes deeply discounting their tickets for the home opener -- $25 for the lower bowl, $15 for any seat upstairs -- and whether the team could recover from a public relations perspective if the game didn't sell out.
"Frankly, I don't think anything that happens in the short term in Phoenix indicates what the fan support will be. This team has been dragged through a very turbulent time. These fans have been dragged through a very turbulent time. We need to get the right things in place before we can even think about recovery" he said.
"There's no litmus test, at this point, on whether or not this team has a long-term future. We believe it does."
Coming up, a transcript (minus some overly Caps-centric questions) of Bettman's media scrum after his on-stage Q&A.
Q. On stage, you made a pretty strong statement that people should go home and contact DirecTV. I know the NHL hasn't been involved with the negotiations; is it time to start acting as a mediator in this?
BETTMAN: I think, in final analysis, the parties are going to have to resolve this themselves. We're aware of what's going on, I've been in touch with both parties. But I do think if fans make clear what programming they want, it will have an impact.
Q. Is this you throwing the League's support behind Versus on this?
These things are never crystal clear or easily determined. Versus is a good partner. A terrific partner. They do a good job covering the game, they've built up their distribution. We want as widespread a distribution as possible.
Q. Despite what's happening in Phoenix right now, what is the financial state of the NHL?
We're coming off of four years of record attendance, record revenues, and we think we're going to do the same thing again this year, despite a challenging economic environment. I think we're holding our own. I'm not saying we're not impacted. But I think, as a function of how great our fans are, we're hanging in there pretty well. Probably better than most.
Q. Do you see a resolution of the Phoenix situation soon?
It's in the judge's hands and it's up to him to determine a timetable that's appropriate.
Q. It's a shame that Wayne Gretzky was collateral damage in this whole thing.
Well, I don't like that term. I wish Wayne would have continued with the club. I respect his decision, and I'm hopeful that if we can ever be in a position to get control of the franchise, we can begin to do all the things that we need to do, that need to be done. Including addressing Wayne's situation.
Q. To what degree do you think [the Phoenix mess] being on the front page has hurt the NHL's momentum coming out of last season?
Actually, other than a few places, most fans don't care. They're excited to get on with the season, so are we.
I think it was a great series. Everyone says it was a great series. Obviously, that shows NHL hockey in as extreme a positive light as you can. It was exciting. Except for Game 7.
Q. With 5,000 people here today, is Washington a hockey town?
Washington's always been a hockey town. It might have been a little dormant around the edges for a few years.
The fact is, you're making the point [about] why we work with teams to try and fix problems, and we don't run out on cities.
Q. Are you concerned about long-term contracts?
Some of them will work our great, some of them won't. I think over time we have to continue to look at them. I've always been a fan and a proponent of shorter-term contracts, except in the extraordinary case, because it gives you more flexibility. But when you look at Alexander Ovechkin signing the contract he did to ensure he was always going to be a Capital, I don't think anybody has said anything bad about that contract.
Q. What's the thinking for the 2014 Olympics, and the NHL participating or not?
I think it's a decision we don't have to make at this time. Let's get through Vancouver, and we'll look at all the factors with the players. There are challenges, as far as the disruption to the season and competitive balance, because certain teams will be more well-rested for the stretch run. It's something we'll have to look at. But not now.
Q. Are there any plans to look at the divisions and move the Capitals back with their rivals like Philadelphia or Pittsburgh?
And who is it that would move? (Laughter)
Q. Is there any thought for expansion in the future?
Well, we're not talking about expansion, and hopefully we're not talking about relocation.
• • •
Bettman also had an interesting comment during the on-stage chat about Russian ownership of the New Jersey Nets in the NBA, saying the foreign ownership of NHL teams would be a "case-by-case" situation -- but that having an owner who spends most of his time overseas would not automatically disqualify them from consideration.