What Bettman really meant

Originally Published: September 30, 2004
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

Early in the lockout, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman sent a letter to the league's season-ticket holders. His message was familiar, because it essentially repeated the same messages -- in many of the same phrases -- he has been delivering for months, in news conferences and other appearances.

The Real Bettman Letter
Dear Season Ticket Holder:

The National Hockey League enjoys and appreciates the support of the greatest fans in the world. We acknowledge that by not starting the 2004-05 season as scheduled due to the lack of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, we are disappointing this loyal and passionate group -- and for that, we sincerely apologize.

This is a situation that we hoped would not occur and, in fact, have been working very hard to avoid. I want you to know that I am committed to fixing the problems that face our league and to delivering an economic system that will bring you exciting, world-class NHL hockey at ticket prices you can afford.

The CBA that just expired made it very difficult for most teams to be competitive, both economically and on the ice, as approximately 75 percent of all the dollars generated went to player salaries and benefits -- by far the highest such percentage in all of professional sports. Our objective is to negotiate a CBA that will provide a partnership with our players, will provide them with more than 50 percent of every dollar of revenue, including an average salary of $1.3 million (U.S.) and will assure a stable business while giving your team the opportunity to compete for the Stanley Cup every season.

Our mandate at the league is to do everything possible to reflect our respect for your connection to NHL hockey and to the commitment you make to your favorite Club. We thank you for your continued support and understanding. While there is no way to know how long it will take to continue this negotiation, we sincerely hope your team will be back in action soon.

Gary B. Bettman

It was fine as far as it went, with the stipulation that he didn't get into much detail and he was calculatingly predictable and bland.

Here's what we believe he could have written if he had dared to be blunt about his true feelings in some areas, didn't waste everyone's time with the league's most ridiculous arguments and also had his finger on the pulse of fandom:

(Timeout. Before we get to that, we have to add the disclaimers in the Internet, modern-media age. THIS IS NOT GARY BETTMAN SPEAKING, SO DON'T GO POSTING THIS ON SOME BULLETIN BOARD, SAYING: "Wow, did you see what Bettman said!" This is our perception of what he COULD say.)

Dear Season Ticket Holder:

There won't be any NHL hockey for a while. Maybe for quite a while. Maybe for over a year.

We've locked out the players because the past Collective Bargaining Agreement wasn't working. But we don't have to tell you that, right? Most likely, when the invoice came from your tickets, your eyes popped out farther every year and you asked yourself how -- or even whether -- you could justify this kind of expense, to your spouse, your comptroller, or the credit-card company that has been stubborn about raising your limit. But you stuck with us and with the game, which has the most passionate, loyal and knowledgeable fan base (well, in most of our markets, at least) in all of professional sports.

Actually, we understand that a lot of you aren't brokenhearted if we have an extended stoppage, and a resumption of play in January, as happened in 1995. That way, you get significant refunds, you don't have to watch teams sleepwalking through a game on a Tuesday in November, and you get to watch a season featuring a unique urgency -- and our real season, the playoffs.

It might go longer than that, though.

It might go longer because a minority of ownerships can scuttle any deal. (Between us, a couple of them still think a unanimous NHL vote is 6-0.) We have owners who don't want to play this season unless the players association completely capitulates. Sitting out a full season would eat up a year of existing contracts, and that doesn't sound bad to some ownerships.

Of course, despite our united front, we also have ownerships hoping to play as soon as possible and want us to aggressively negotiate with that in mind. There aren't enough of those to guarantee the success of, or even allow for, genuine give-and-take negotiations. Not in the near future, anyway. Of course, as the lockout continues, there will be financial pressures and fissures in the players' ranks, as well. We're counting on that.

Absolutely, some of this mess is our own fault. Nobody forced certain teams to sign players to huge contracts that raised the benchmarks and the bar for all, so even teams trying to mind their p's and q's and budgets were affected as those contracts rippled through the system. And the numbers kept getting higher and higher. In free-agent signings. In arbitration. In re-signings of stars and rank-and-file players alike.

We won't insult you by saying that free spending buys championships because over the past few years, it's been proven that teams in the middle or even near the bottom of the payroll list can compete. The folly of just throwing money around has been demonstrated. Yes, even some of our front offices have noticed that and a market correction was under way.

But it's too late to simply let it happen.

We have to make sure it is guaranteed to happen through the terms of the new CBA. A majority of our teams are losing money every season. We could debate until we're blue in the face about whether 30 teams is too many, but it has been proven that even teams in "non-traditional" markets can become hot tickets if they win -- and, conversely, that teams in "traditional" markets can have tons of empty seats when they lose.

But not everyone can win in a 30-team league. Owning a hockey team should not be a license to print money, but it shouldn't be a virtually guaranteed money-loser, either.

This also should be clear by now: As much as we love this sport, it isn't ever going to be a hot television property in the United States. (Ignore the rumor, by the way, that the owner of the franchise in a Windy City asked me the following when this subject was broached: "Aw, television's just a fad.") We hoped for those huge television deals in the U.S., but it isn't happening -- witness the new contract with NBC, which is similar to the revenue-sharing deal that was such a springboard for the XFL.

The NHLPA has to accept all of that. We're not asking them to save us from ourselves, though many of our media critics want you to believe that. It doesn't take a law degree to figure out that we're eventually going to have some kind of system that creates a de facto salary cap with punitive luxury tax provisions for exceeding specified payroll thresholds. In this league, owners will treat that as a virtual cap, or if they don't, the recent past has shown that they likely will be throwing their money away rather than building a champion. But because of all the cross-currents among both factions in this, it might be a long time before significant bargaining on the terms of that settlement take place.

We're asking the NHLPA to accept reality and to help save the game. Because it's not as if they're going to have to be standing at the bottom of freeway ramps holding cardboard signs if their average salary drops to $1.3 million.

Please keep the faith.

Your pal,
Gary

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of the just-published "Third Down and a War to Go," and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming," recently reissued in paperback.

Terry Frei

ESPN.com contributor
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."

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