SBJ/March 21 - 27, 2005/Opinion

Gary Bettman, I feel your pain

As you might imagine, televised ice hockey coverage in Australia is limited, so I watched the NHL lockout situation unfold on my computer screen, and it is there I’ve struggled with the heartache NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman must be feeling. To announce a lockout and cancel an entire season is the last thing he ever would have wanted. It undoes so much of what he hoped to achieve. The heartache for CEOs is that many of us are paid to look five to 10 years down the track and make decisions in the short term that fortify long-term sustainability. We are stewards for a generation yet to take its first steps. Yet every decision we make today is immediate and sends ripples across so many neighboring ponds. I would guess that Bettman was asked by his owners to ensure the future of the NHL and what’s hurting him is seeing the local ripple, this dispute, rise into a sporting tsunami.

I write those words with a bit of first-hand knowledge. I left the United States almost two years ago to become commissioner of the National Basketball League, an 11-team competition with teams in Australia and New Zealand. The NBL is finishing its 27th season and many of the issues Bettman has faced, we’ve dealt with here. In my first year, one team ceased operating, and the damage to the league and numerous individuals was immeasurable. Yet financially bailing them out was not the right answer.

A commissioner’s life is full of decisions that must balance the good of the game, the sport, and the business investments of the league’s partners (owners, broadcasters, sponsors, players, vendors, etc.). That goes with the turf, ice or hardwood. Those of us who sign up as CEO, whether of a Fortune 500 company or fledgling entrepreneurial effort, know that we have to handle the high hard ones.

For Bettman to have known this potential impasse was coming, and he knew years in advance, and face the inability to find a solution that works for everyone with a vested interest speaks to the complexity of the matter. Collaboration, when divided groups have dug their trenches, is difficult. Ask anyone who has tried to broker peace between two nations or two people. Time moves oh so quickly and oh so slowly, all at the same time.

Matters held close to the heart, and I would suggest making or losing a lot of money will rank high on many people’s lists, are not resolved overnight, glibly or lightly. They are resolved somewhere in that neutral zone where it’s hard to proclaim victory, that sheet of ice where the challenge is fierce but no goals are scored. That’s where the game is often determined.

For the NHL to rebound will require enormous faith and courage from Bettman and the NHL’s marketing staff in the face of a legion of disbelievers. But keep this next thought in mind: Hockey is one of North America’s true Big Four sports and its legacy, whether it is the legend of the Stanley Cup or the passion of its fans, will prevail. The NHL will return.

We who present pro sports skate on perilously thin ice (or shoot long three-pointers), given our ticket prices and market saturation. Our athletes are worshipped as societal prophets more than many of them would want. We pay them substantial profits in disproportion to what we offer teachers, nurses, policemen, emergency technicians, bus drivers and sewer line repairmen. We pay professional athletes what the market will bear just as we do with actors, musicians and symphony conductors. Not to mention CEOs, lawyers and mediators.

To create all of those paydays, a lot of folks have to work together. And they have to want to work together. My hope from afar is learning the NHL has found its way back onto the ice as soon as possible.n

Rick Burton, former executive director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center, is commissioner of the National Basketball League.

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Hockey, NHL, Opinion

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