Risk-taker-in-chief: How Bettman has delivered

Risk-taker-in-chief: How Bettman has delivered

By Abraham D. Madkour, Executive Editor


Gary Bettman was the change agent the NHL desperately needed. Named the first commissioner in NHL history in 1993, he was determined to enhance the look, feel and reputation of the rudderless league.

In an interview the day before he was introduced to the public, the former NBA counsel told Newsday that the league’s owners were ready for an aggressive shift in executive leadership. “I think the owners were looking for somebody who could hit the ground running in terms of the operations of a professional sports league,” he said. “I think they felt I had a vision and an agenda to help the sport grow.” He also believed the league’s owners were receptive to a strong commissioner. “I gave up a great job at the NBA in the belief that they’re ready to be led — provided I set an agenda. I’m going to do that.”

Bettman was formally introduced to the media on Feb. 1, 1993, and the Calgary Herald’s Eric Duhatschek wrote Bettman “outlined a comprehensive plan for wrestling the National Hockey League out of the dark ages and into the 1990s” and “made a good first impression.” He “came across as someone with strong ideas in his areas of expertise — television, marketing, labor relations — but he tended to demur on the issues that related specifically to the game itself.”  The Chicago Sun-Times’ Dan Bickley wrote Bettman “sure had a lot to say. And, boy, does he have a lot to do.” Bettman said, “We have to improve the way we’re perceived, the way we’re followed, the way we look. We need to do all aspects of our jobs better than has been done.”

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman accepts the 2014 Sports Business Award for Sports Executive of the Year. In his speech, Bettman said: “This time of year, I’m normally presenting a trophy and getting booed. [The] applause is really quite novel.”

As Bettman approaches his 25th year as commissioner, he’s been incredibly successful in accomplishing these goals.

He has been the driving force in taking a sleepy league and building it into a modern, sophisticated, global enterprise. He grew a roughly $732 million revenue business in 1993 to one that will hit $4.5 billion in 2017-18, pushing a regional attraction to a sport having a healthy position in the global landscape. He’s done it with a mix of relentless hard work, innate intelligence, a demanding yet balanced management style and an eye always on the long term. While many quibble with his style, you can’t argue with Bettman’s results.

When thinking about Bettman’s tenure, another personal attribute stands out to me — guts. Over more than two decades, Bettman’s had a history of making gutsy decisions that went against the norm or conventional thinking: from shutting down seasons to unconventional media deals. Gutsy — and unpopular and controversial — decisions driven by conviction.

When Bettman took the job, he immediately looked to increase the sophistication of the enterprise, and started at the league office. He ended the league’s outsourcing of its corporate sponsorship sales and licensing, and increased the acumen of his executive ranks. Gone were the days of using Del Wilber for sponsorship sales and TWSM for its licensing. He was adamant that executives selling the NHL would have NHL business cards and no third party was going to determine the league’s value.

He knew the organization needed a personnel makeover, and brought in a talented team that included former ABC Sports executive Steve Solomon, Covington & Burling’s Jeff Pash, the Hartford Whalers’ Brian Burke, former MLB and NFL executive Rick Dudley, and Arthur Pincus from The New York Times.

Don’t underestimate how significant both of those moves were.

Following his agenda, he moved quickly on television. I still recall writing about the league’s eye-popping, five-year deal with Fox in our inaugural issue of SportsBusiness Daily on Sept. 12, 1994. The deal was significant for getting the league on broadcast television on a regular basis and aligning it with the hot, hip Fox network. Many cite Bettman’s expertise in both labor and media, and those areas showcased some of his most controversial decisions.

His understanding of collective bargaining has been a game changer,  as his aggressive approach for a more favorable economic system for ownership has been a boon for his 31 bosses and resulted in economic stability. But that confrontational, antagonistic approach also has resulted in a lot of pain, animosity and collateral damage. Shutting the league down three times will always be part of Bettman’s legacy, as it should be, and it’s hard to believe there wasn’t a better way. But something tells me that doesn’t bother him, as it demonstrates his fearlessness by showing he shut down a league an unprecedented three times.

Outside of labor, Bettman’s made other unconventional decisions, whether it was walking away from ESPN for a nondescript network, OLN, in 2005, or going all in with NBC Sports in 2011, or leaving CBC and going with Rogers Communications in Canada in 2014, or turning over all the league’s digital rights to another league, MLBAM, in 2015. Getting players into the Olympics in 1998 was a bold move, as would be possibly walking away from the Games in 2018. His move with John Collins on the Winter Classic was clearly gutsy, as was the decision to be the first major league to hit Las Vegas. He also made the NHL a first-mover in the environmental space with NHL Green and in respect/equality by aligning with Patrick Burke’s “You Can Play” initiative.

Bettman’s moves haven’t all worked or been hailed, but there’s no question the man has conviction to take chances.

But just as interesting as Bettman’s decision-making as commissioner is Bettman the executive.

Talk to anyone who has worked with, for or negotiated with Bettman and they all cite his intellect. An extraordinarily quick read, with the ability to swiftly understand complex issues ranging from technology to currency trends, he possesses a rare, analytical mind that can articulate and command numbers similar to a CFO. He’s also known to be innately curious, and as Winnipeg Jets owner Mark Chipman said, “He takes it personally if he thinks he’s lacking in some area.” Bettman’s known to be incredibly well-prepared, and stories are routinely shared about his organization and leadership of ownership meetings.

With his legal training, he examines issues constantly through a legal prism. He’s deliberate in decision-making, known to acquire reams of facts and data, refusing to make snap judgments. Whenever Bettman speaks to the media, I listen closely for the deeper meaning in how he articulates issues. While cautious, history has shown he’s willing to take chances. He’s certainly been more bold and fearless than timid in decision-making.

As Bettman likes to tell his staff, “Everything is related to everything else” — his message that nothing related to the enterprise is done in a vacuum and he encourages league executives to constantly view issues through the lens of the team. On league issues, his confidence has enabled him to bring in more voices, as Capitals owner Ted Leonsis acknowledged. “He’s relying more now on other people. I think there was a time where it was just him and a few owners, and now it’s much more collaborative.”

But let’s not kid ourselves. It’s not easy working for Bettman. From the David Stern School of Management, Bettman employs an argumentative and challenge-based approach to management that forces staffers to know their facts. Bullshit Gary Bettman at your peril. At times intimidating, people in the early years of his tenure were  afraid to say no to him, fearful of pushing back on the boss. But those who have worked for him admit his approach gets the best out of his people — if they have the thick skin to survive.

Bettman, with wife Shelli, has placed an emphasis on work-life balance, for himself and his staff.
As Bettman has become more confident in his tenure, his management style has changed. Colleagues still acknowledge the tough love, but say it’s more measured, with a high level of compassion. Some say he’s mellowed, as grandchildren have added a new dimension. Bettman’s emphasis on work-life balance has been a consistent focus throughout his career; I was told story after story of his efforts to ensure staffers were there for key family moments.  His closeness to his own family is something I’m familiar with, as we’ve shared stories of family vaction time in my home state of Vermont, or when I witnessed a son’s impromptu visit to his dad’s office result in a beaming, proud father doting over a child.

Gary’s Bettman’s 24-year leadership of the NHL has changed the league forever and for the better. It’s been a journey where the Queens, N.Y., native has stayed true to his character: hard-charging, a control-and-demand leadership style and a man who isn’t afraid to go his own way. He’s a bulldog, not afraid of a fight, and many of the disputes he’s gotten into, no matter how controversial, he’s won. He cares little how he is viewed or his persona. He has his constituency — ownership, staff and partners — who he is singularly focused on, and he has been a very successful steward of the game of hockey on their behalf.

For Bettman, it’s not about style, but results — and it’s hard to argue with those.  He has led his sport to a really interesting place, well positioned for the future.

Gary Bettman grew the business of hockey more than anyone in history through his gutsy and audacious leadership. He is one of the boldest, most fearless commissioners in the modern era, and his legacy in sports business should never be overlooked or underappreciated.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.