Gary Bettman spoke with the Winnipeg Free Press’ Gary Lawless this past Sunday and delivered a fairly comprehensive interview about several major aspects of the continuing NHL lockout. Disappointingly: ego, greed, and stubborn posturing were not directly addressed.
We have to give Lawless a good amount of credit here. He didnâ€™t shy away asking pointed, relevant questions that any mostly informed and thoroughly disgruntled NHL fan would love to put to Bettman right now. Some of them are so direct and topical (referencing some of the most universally derided aspects of this labour negotiation) that youâ€™d almost wonder if the entire piece is a calculated ploy by the helpless, desperately floundering NHL PR team to confront the overwhelmingly negative public (and probably at this point, private) sentiment with something approaching candid logic.
Nevertheless, a target for a healthy lampooning has presented itself. As usual luck would have it, weâ€™ve coincidentally obtained a copy of the interview transcript before it was vetted by the NHLâ€™s PR department for publication. You werenâ€™t supposed to see the text they outright removed, or text they kept, but rewrote.
As always, itâ€™s up to the reader to separate truth from fiction. Donâ€™t just assume that what everyoneâ€™s saying is gospel. That would be, yâ€™knowâ€¦
FREE PRESS: At this moment, where do things stand and what is the gulf between the two sides preventing a deal?
GARY BETTMAN: There seems to be a fundamental disagreement on many of the core issues. We have only somewhat recently, and after wasted months of standing on that ridiculous initial 40-something percent players’ share offer, proposed a 50-50 split of HRR (hockey-related revenue) which has not been agreed to. We have raised issues with respect to how the system we created and sort of forcibly implemented works and the adjustments we think need to be made, and there doesn’t seem to be agreement or even a willingness to agree on them.
FP: The players say, “We gave to get to 50-50. Why should we give any more? There’s nothing in this deal for us.” What do you say to that?
GB: Twofold. One, we want to make sure the system works well and continues to work well. There are certain trends and issues that have arisen that we believe need to be adjusted in order for us to have the competitive balance that we want and need to enable us to continue to grow the game. What’s in this deal for the players? Less money than they would have received under the old system, which is rollback defined no matter how you say it. Give or take $14 billion over the next seven years. See what I did there? Framing the issue trick. If I present that total in a tone that suggests it’s something new (as if, y’know, they wouldn’t get a similar amount money otherwise) it makes it seem more generous. Even though they’re the only reason people pay that money in the first place. So my twofold is really kind of onefold.
FP: The league has 30 teams. Not all are stable and the league remains in flux. There are franchises that don’t work. The players say revenue sharing should fix those problems. But meaningful revenue sharing historically comes from league-wide revenue such as national TV rights, and there’s not enough in that pot right now to fix all the league’s woes. It’s hard to get markets like Toronto, or even Winnipeg for that matter, to subsidize teams like Phoenix or Miami that don’t generate substantial gate revenue. Is this the crux of why there is a lockout?
GB: It’s not the main reason, but it’s a major complicating factor Not completely. It’s not wholly inaccurate, but it’s more inaccurate than not. Oh, man, I miss getting to say lawyer-y spin like that every day. Vaguely quantifying completely qualitative concepts FTW! The fact is, we have revenue-shared, we do revenue-share and we’ve offered to increase revenue sharing by more than a third. Our revenue sharing as a percentage of HRR is at least comparable, if not more, than either baseball or basketball. Because all sports leagues have identical numbers of teams, franchise values, revenue totals, and fan bases. So they should be built on identical CBA philosophies, right? This notion that we’re not prepared to revenue-share in a meaningful way is not true. Perhaps more importantly, revenue sharing alone does not fix what we believe needs to be corrected. We know believe all 30 franchises are not viable and likely won’tcan be successful. We think all 30 franchises are important, even though a few could probably die tomorrow without ESPN evening noticing. Each franchise counts for lots of player jobs and other jobs and is important to its community. Most important, this notion that clubs are not willing to help other clubs is simply not true. We are simply at a percentage under our old deal where our player costs, for a whole host of reasons, are just too high in our opinion. If you look at the experience in the two other sports where revenue is shared with the players, namely football and basketball, the players in those sports acknowledged exactly what we’ve been saying. I wonder how many readers noticed I quickly changed my “two other sports” revenue sharing examples from baseball/basketball to basketball/football. I realized halfway through that paragraph just how terrible a comparable baseball is, given the lack of salary cap which completely changes the game’s economics. Whoops.
FP: Revenue is growing, but there’s an imbalance from franchise to franchise. If the weaker franchises can’t compete from a revenue standpoint, why not contract?
GB: Because it would make too much sense We believe all of our franchises are important and can be viable and can be successful. And frankly, if we’re going to continue to grow the game and grow what you refer to as national revenues, you need to have a truly national footprint, not just in Canada but in the United States. The Toronto Truculent/MLHS guy mocking this piece won’t want to admit it, but that was actually a good point. And TV rights!
FP: When are you going to cancel the season?
GB: December 25th seems like a good day to shatter the remaining dreams of starry-eyed children That’s not something we’re focused on. We very much want to make a deal. On Oct. 16th we made an offer to save an 82-game season which the union summarily rejected. But we’re going to stay at this because nobody wants to be in that position. So we’re not focusing on that sort of deadline right now, because we need to focus on inventing all the other arbitrary pre-cancellation deadlines the league is going to try and create as leverage in this process. What are we up to, now? 7?
FP: If you have to cancel the season, what would you do to the system?
GB: Start recruiting. Always two, there are. A master, and an apprentice. Any answer I give you to that question would be terribly misportrayed and misconstrued.
FP: There was a report out of Philadelphia on Saturday that says you are losing the support of the owners.
GB: Oh, probably. They’re smart people It was a fabrication. Ed Snider is the one who told me about the article when he found out about it and he was terribly upset. He’s in Europe and it was his idea to put out a statement. Anyone who doubts the resolve of ownership is either uninformed or (being) intentionally misleading. Or starting to acknowledge, like they might be, just how arrogant and cheapskate-y this whole thing was and realizing the horrifying impact a needlessly prolonged struggle is having on their respective bottom lines.
FP: Was the aggressive nature of your first offer to the players a mistake?
GB: Look, I’m smart and you’re all idiots I think the view some have of our first offer is fairly naive as it relates to collective bargaining. A sophisticated negotiator, which I obviously am, would have looked at it and said, ‘Obviously they want a 50-50 split.’ If we’re at 57 and they propose 43, they must be telegraphing where they want to end. If your intention was to use it in an inflammatory way, you could do that. If your intention was to make a deal, you could pretty much chart out what the course should be. Let me explain this even more clearly: we wasted MONTHS with a ridiculous offer on the table because we anticipated the NHLPA not liking any of this (aren’t we geniuses?) so that we could APPEAR to be giving a concession when we went to 50/50, even though that’s still technically a rollback. Go to business school. Look up “preserving the integrity of the game.” I’m pretttty sure that’s the definition beside it.
FP: Don Fehr is a union leader. A negotiation is his raison d’etre. It’s been suggested a protracted lockout keeps him in the spotlight and he enjoys that. Do you see it that way?
GB: I will not comment on the union leadership or union tactics. I’ll leave it to others. But it’s probably 100% true.
FP: Do you enjoy this? What’s happening right now?
GB: Do I ever! I try and do it as often as I possibly can! No. It’s horrific for the simple reason that we as a business are in business to put on our game and engage with our fans and to grow our game. This entire process (which we 100% started and are responsible for) is absolutely inconsistent with that. Having said that, any sports league needs a system that works and makes the game and the business of the game healthy. And we totally had one, which was working relatively fine, but it wasn’t optimized. See? We don’t just shut down an entire sport to re-bake the cake of fundamental economics that is the game. We shut it down to write fine print messages in the icing, too.
FP: What damage has been done to the game?
GB: We know exactly how much money we’ve lost We won’t know that until it’s over. Plus: everyone hates us, hardcore fans are disillusioned, the league itself has all the legitimacy of some backwater amateur rec sport, and we’ve vastly overestimated our ability to retain fans/customers through all this arrogant nonsense. Obviously what we’re going through is damaging. We can estimate the dollars and cents of what’s been cancelled and what we’re hearing from business partners and what it’s doing to their businesses. But we won’t know the long-term and short-term effects until this is over. But it’s not good. No, really. Read that again. I’m actually kind of indirectly suggesting we should wait for this to be over before we seriously start considering the consequences.
FP: You were quoted as saying the business bounced back after the last lockout because NHL fans were the best in the world. But this is the second lockout in under a decade. What will you do for your fans and your sponsors when you do get back on the ice?
GB: Nothing out of the ordinary. Certainly not lower exorbitant ticket prices in major markets We’re going to have to make it right. That’s something that is important and vital and will have to be judged over time. The manner in which we do it and the way it ultimately plays out isn’t something I can comfortably discuss until this is over. Just so you know, every answer I give to a fan support-related question from this point on will be some variation of “Pfft, let’s worry about that later.”
FP: Because you ultimately believe you have the best fans in the world and they’ll be back no matter what, is that a crutch that allows you to have frequent work stoppages?
GB: Absolutely. It has nothing to do with that. Even though I literally ‘effing said it sort of did. It has everything to do with we have to have the right deal going forward. In the absence of an agreement, you have to examine the situation uniquely to determine if a work stoppage is even necessary have to have a work stoppage. The union has shown an unwillingness to uniformly accept our overall demands negotiate. So certainly, if they’re not negotiating in a meaningful way now, what would they be doing if we were playing under the old system? (Besides helping maintain a functioning league that would make fans happy and be generating us billions and billions of dollars while we quarrel out-of-sight over a tiny percentage of it, of course). The entire strategy appeared to be an attempt to maintain what the union had under the expired CBA, which is something they’re not entitled to. Think of it as: an expired agreement means an opportunity to try and screw them just slightly, so why not give it a shot? We’ll be having this exact conversation again sometime around 2019.
FP: Winnipeg isn’t an artificial market. They pay NHL prices for NHL hockey. But they had unexpectedly robust revenue last year, they paid bottom third of the league in salary and they made money. But had they spent to the cap, they would have lost money. Under the old agreement, being competitive was going to be a challenge for Winnipeg. Can you address that?
GB: We believe the fundamentals of the system we sacrificed a season to force on the NHLPA created eight years ago are sound and have given us great competitive balance. But the system needs to be adjusted. Think of it as grounding a 747 to discuss how we should organize the drinks on the beverage cart. It needs to take into account the realities of what’s taken place over the past seven seasons. And I mean the somewhat unexpected windfall that we now desperately want a larger slice of that on a macro-economic basis. We’re committed to having a system that works for our clubs and our league and ultimately our players and our fans. Like the one we have now, only…with more money for us.
FP: Last week stories broke to the effect that you told Don Fehr it was time to take a two-week break from negotiations. Now you’re set to talk on Monday night. What happened to change things?
GB: What happened is that conversation happened exactly as described. Allow me to me explain in detail was clearly misportrayed and mischaracterized. Don called me on Tuesday to have a conversation. It wasn’t a negotiation. It was nothing more than a simple conversation. In the course of that conversation he said he didn’t know what to do or how to proceed. I said maybe we should take a little downtime, a couple of weeks, especially since we had just five sessions in six days and nothing was produced. Which is pretty much the exact definition of “saying it was time to take a two-week break from negotiations.” In light of that fact he didn’t know how to proceed, I said that as a suggestion. (Apparently, if I call it a “suggestion”, that’s not the same as “saying it”, hence the misportrayal and mischaracterization). He gave it a long pause and then said, ‘I don’t think so.’ I said OK. So this notion that we proposed a moratorium is pretty much exactly what happened nothing more than union rhetoric. We were always willing to go back to the table. The lines of communication are open. They know they have the our best offer we’re willing to admit to at this time, which is a 50-50 sharing and the other superficially nonsensical but actually secretly camouflaged ways to give clubs additional leverage against players during contract negotiations issues that we’ve proposed to them. They proposed 17 issues last week and we agreed to 13 of them. We know where the negotiations led to, they know they have our best offer. We’ve always said if they have something to discuss, we’re always available to meet.
FP: Is there room for give and take on the contracting rights issues?
GB: Ha. I know, it’s a particularly ridiculous component of our position. Since the owners’ behaviour itself dictates how well the contract system works, and now they’re feigning solidarity as victims of themselves. I’m not going to get into the specifics of negotiations other than to say there are contracting issues that need to be addressed and we’ve said we would be happy to discuss how those issues are addressed.
FP: How much longer do you want to be commissioner of the NHL?
GB: Until I can get enough investors together for my second Death Star. That’s not something I focus on. I generally love my job on a day to day basis and I love taking of advantage of fans of the game. Nobody likes going through a situation like we’re going through. It’s not what we do and not what we want to do. Which is funny, because we did this, and we’re in total control of it. We exist as a league and as a game to be playing. Yes, I’m aware that wasn’t really a point.
FP: Are you worried you might lose another season?
GB: Pffft, old hat. The thought of that is something I don’t even want to consider because we obviously don’t want to be in that situation. But we have to have the right agreement and the system has to work well. Otherwise, the long-term consequences of not having the right agreement, are more difficult to deal with than short term consequences. Even though long term consequence is what every day of this greed-fueled disaster creates. Wow, I’m coming dangerously close to contradicting myself. Next question.
FP: A player called you an idiot the other day. Do you take these bullets gladly because you work for the owners and that’s just part of the job? How do you feel about the players?
GB: I work for the owners but I work for the game. What I do transcends what I do for the owners except in situations like this, where I’m literally killing the game to serve the owners’ interests almost exclusively. I do work for the game and I try to do the best I can for the game. You’ll find in the course of labour disputes, there’s always a lot of rhetoric. Most of it is just noise. Most of it is misinformed. There’s propaganda. It’s just a fact of life that you live with. By the way, I love the players. NOTE: That parodies itself. I’m not even going to try. Nobody should think for a moment that I don’t. If I didn’t I wouldn’t do this job. I couldn’t do this job. I believe in the players. I don’t believe in what’s going on right now even though, again, I’m the one who literally caused it by locking players out. It’s part of the business of the game. The least attractive part of the game.
FP: Do you understand where the players are coming from?
GB: The fact of the matter is everybody ultimately does what is best and what they think is right. Everybody has to make their own judgments. It’s very easy to critique what the union is doing or what we’re doing. I assure myself on a daily basis that whatever the union is doing they think (it) is the right thing. I hope the fans can respect that what we’re doing, we believe, is ultimately the best thing for the game long term. Because sometimes, in order to nurse a perfectly healthy something back to even more awesome health, you need to beat it unconscious for a little while first.