‘Our best days are ahead’
Gary Bettman hasn’t forgotten the worst day of his career. It’s the day in February 2005 when he canceled an entire NHL season.
Hundreds of people lost their jobs. Fans became bitter. Sponsors abandoned the sport. The NHL, and Bettman as its commissioner, hit an all-time low. Many openly questioned the league’s future and Bettman’s leadership of the sport.
|NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman accepts the 2014 Sports Business Award for Executive of the Year.
Its rebound and Bettman’s vision were validated last week, when the NHL became the star of the Sports Business Awards by clinching three of the event’s highest honors. Bettman won the Sports Executive of the Year award, while the NHL won League of the Year and the 2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic won Event of the Year.
Walking off stage with the final award of the night, a beaming Bettman was congratulated by the award’s presenter, CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus, who nudged him and said, “You got a sweep tonight.”
“This was about putting building blocks in place and doing the things that had to be done to give the league the right foundation,” Bettman said backstage shortly after receiving his honor in front of a packed Broadway Ballroom at the New York Marriott Marquis at Times Square. “It’s something that could not have been done without the incredible support of ownership. It was something that couldn’t have been done overnight and couldn’t have been done in one year. This is just the culmination [of what we have done] and the beginning of what we will do.”
It was the first time Bettman was honored as Executive of the Year. He joins a list that includes of some of the top executives in sports: Tim Leiweke, Dick Ebersol, Jerry Jones, George Bodenheimer, Roger Goodell and Scott Blackmun.
The recognition may have seemed unlikely just over a year ago. A labor dispute forced Bettman to shorten the 2012-13 NHL season from 82 games to 48 games per team. He faced criticism from players and fans during the negotiations but managed to finalize a deal and start the season in January 2013, setting in motion one of the best years in the league’s business history.
Under Bettman’s direction, the NHL signed a record 12-year, $4.9 billion TV-rights deal in Canada and created a series of outdoor games that generated massive media exposure for the league and millions in profit. Bettman also addressed three of the league’s local market challenges, finding new ownership for teams in Phoenix, New Jersey and Florida. In addition, he successfully realigned its conferences.
“I’ve known Gary for 30 years, and he’s always had the foresight to make decisions that would pay dividends in the long run and had the fortitude to stick with those decisions when the outcome was far from clear,” said Joe Leccese, Proskauer chairman. “It’s that mix of foresight and fortitude that makes him the executive he is. All of the pieces that had to be put into place to do the Canadian TV deal, create the outdoor series and the quality of play, which has been extraordinary, is the result of his foresight, and it’s fitting he was recognized for that.”
Bill Daly, Gary Bettman and John Collins hold the NHL’s awards for Sports League of the Year and Sports Event of the Year and Bettman’s trophy for Sports Executive of the Year.
The NHL’s success seemed to carry over to some of its top partners. NBC, which is the league’s exclusive U.S. broadcast rights holder, swept the media categories by winning Best in Media, Best in Sports Television and Best in Digital Sports Media. It is the first media company to win in all three categories since the awards began in 2008.
The Sochi Games were a major contributor to NBC’s success. The Olympics were watched by 76 percent of U.S. TV homes, and more than 10.8 million hours of video from the Winter Games were consumed on NBC’s digital platforms. The network also produced the year’s top-rated prime-time show, “Sunday Night Football,” broadcast the English Premier League for the first time, and added to its portfolio by landing the rights to the second-half of NASCAR’s season.
“This is quite a night for the NBC Sports Group,” said NBC Sports Group Chief Marketing Officer John Miller. “It’s a remarkable honor. We did have a great year. The Olympics. The Premier League. The growth of the Golf Channel. The National Hockey League with record performance. It was a team effort.”
Of NBC, Bettman said, “They excel in the areas of storytelling and production, which began during the Dick Ebersol era and continues today under the leadership of Mark Lazarus, Jon Miller and Sam Flood.”
The other NHL partner to be recognized was Pepsi, which was named Sports Sponsor of the Year. The beverage and snack food company, which also won the sponsor award in 2008, is the first sponsor to win the award twice. It did so this year in large part because of its success in integrating music and entertainment into its sponsorship of the NFL and the Super Bowl halftime show. It helped arrange Bruno Mars as the performer and promoted the show effectively with its “Get Hyped for Halftime” campaign.
“At Pepsi, sports is part of our DNA, so to be recognized for our work in this space is really an honor,” said Adam Harter, Pepsi vice president for consumer engagement. “The Super Bowl was something special and it was a huge effort. We started planning it before the last Super Bowl and it crossed so many of our divisions. As a team, we’re starting to have fun, and it’s showing in our work.”
The night wasn’t without a few surprises, the biggest of which was the Golden State Warriors being named Sports Team of the Year. The Warriors beat out the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks and the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. The Warriors did so by selling a record 14,500 season tickets and pushing ahead with plans to build a new arena in San Francisco. But just as important was the team’s shift from being seen as one of the NBA’s most moribund franchises to being viewed as a progressive organization driving best practices in social media, ticketing and digital content.
“I always thought that under the right ownership and the right plan, the sky was the limit for this franchise,” said Warriors President Rick Welts.
Another winner that surprised was Excel Sports Management. The 3-year-old multisport agency won Best in Talent Representation and Management following a 2013 that saw it represent 11 NBA draft picks and secure more than $215 million in baseball contract negotiations.
The 2014 Sports Business Awards drew a record crowd of more than 800 attendees, twice as many as were present for the inaugural event in 2008. Arrivals hit the red carpet before having dinner with guests and employees from the 80 finalists for awards.
Many others were there to show support for Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, who received a Lifetime Achievement Award for his accomplishments in sports (see related story). Among them were Steelers Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris, Super Bowl-winning coach Bill Cowher and former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue.
The audience rose to its feet and applauded as NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell escorted Rooney to the stage. The applause died down after several minutes, and Goodell introduced Rooney and captured the sentiment of many in the room when he explained why the Steelers owner was being recognized.
“To commissioners and to everyone else in the league, he really is the one that is the conscience of [the game], saying ‘The game comes first,’ and ‘Do the right thing,’” Goodell said.
The influence Rooney has had on sports was acknowledged by award winners throughout the night, concluding with Bettman, who marveled at the Steelers owner’s leadership.
After the event, Bettman and his NHL executive team celebrated at Langan’s Pub & Restaurant. The small Irish bar sits half a block from the league office in midtown Manhattan, and a host of other honorees from the event wound up celebrating there as well, including Fox Networks President Randy Freer, a finalist for Sports Executive of the Year, and Jon Miller, NBC Sports president of programming, who accepted NBC’s Best in Sports Television award.
The NHL and NBC had enjoyed their best night ever at the Sports Business Awards, both dominating their respective categories, to the surprise of some in the room. At Langan’s, Bettman and Miller toasted a beer in celebration. Around 11:30 p.m., they left the pub together.
With the NHL playoffs in full swing, they had a long day of work ahead of them. The recognition, in their eyes, was overdue, but there was still work to be done. As Bettman said in his acceptance speech, “We think our best days are ahead.”
Ross Nethery, John Ourand, Terry Lefton, Daniel Kaplan, Eric Fisher and Christopher Botta contributed to this report.