1-on-1 with Bettman: Future of the outdoor game

Rock out with your tongue out: NHL commissioner Gary Bettman gives KISS's Gene Simmons a piggyback ride as bandmate Paul Stanley looks on before an outdoor hockey game in balmy Los Angeles.
February 10, 2014, 12:44 PM

As the National Hockey League embarks on a two-week hiatus for its stars to compete for national glory in Sochi, we sit down with commissioner Gary Bettman to briefly chat about Steven Stamkos, future outdoor games, the 12-year Rogers rights deal, and why the heck he was giving Gene Simmons a piggyback ride.

Sportsnet.ca: Twelve years is a long time, and there has been plenty of talk about the Rogers-NHL relationship evolving as hockey heads into the future. Where specifically do you see the game going in, say, five years?

Gary Bettman: Nothing is more important to us than the game on the ice, keeping it fast, entertaining, exciting, competitive. As it relates to its distribution through media, we’re going to continue to be in a position, particularly with the platforms Rogers has, to give our fans more and more choice.

Most of the discussion surrounding the 12-year Rogers-NHL deal has focused on the television broadcast. What are your online plans for the next few years?

Online has become and will become even more important than it’s been. Millions are consuming their video content online as opposed to watching traditional television. We’re going to see as the devices continue to evolve – and there are devices going to be created that we don’t even know about yet – people, particularly young, tech-savvy people, are going to consume their media in a variety of different ways, and we’re going to make sure we’re responsive to what they want.

Rogers has its own sites, and the league runs NHL.com. How to do you balance the two, as both try to generate advertising revenue?

I think we agree that the NHL.com site is the principle one to serve hockey fans. When it comes time to promote the content that Rogers has, there’s nothing wrong with being on multiple platforms.

Is there a reason why the league’s website tends to shy away from showing fights or controversial goals?

We don’t shy away from anything. I know people say that and write it, but if it’s there, it’s available. You get it from us; you get it from YouTube. There’s no shying away. I know that’s a perception, but it’s not an accurate one.

Why do you think that perception is out there?

I can’t tell you why an inaccurate perception is there.

How close was TSN to getting this deal?

I’m not going to have that discussion. We have a deal with Rogers. TSN is a wonderful outlet, but we couldn’t be more thrilled with the relationship we’ve struck for the next 12 years.

You’ve said many times that you’re a fan of the game, and Steven Stamkos is one of hockey’s most talented and most marketable stars. Looking at his attempt to recover in time for the Olympics, what are your thoughts?

I focus more on the fact that Steven is a great competitor, a wonderfully skilled athlete who has a long career ahead of him, and his health and well-being is more important than anything else. I’m glad he won’t be doing anything to jeopardize that career because we want him to continue to play for years and years and years.

A lot of people got a good chuckle from the photograph of you with KISS snapped at the outdoor game at Dodger Stadium. What was your reaction?

I’ve known Gene Simmons for a number of years, and he is a consummate showman. My guess is that when he got me into that pose, he knew it was going to be widely circulated – as it was. He’s a very good guy, and you’ve got to admire all that KISS has accomplished over the decades.

Did you get a kick out the photo? Were you at all embarrassed?
No. I was absolutely fine with it. My guess is, people are amused because people who think they know me from a distance really don’t.

How many outdoor games can we expect next year?

Don’t know yet. It’s not something we’ve focused on. We still have two more to go this season, after we come back from the Olympics, in Chicago and Vancouver, and then we’ll take a deep breath and figure it all out.

Is there anything you’d like to improve about the outdoor games? Any area of execution you need to work on?

The outdoor games were great. We played to over 100,000 people in the snow, in 13-degree [Fahrenheit] temperature in the snow in the Big House in Michigan; two games at Yankee Stadium with over 100,000 people [combined]. It couldn’t have been better; and the game in L.A. at Dodger Stadium was magical. We’re having an extraordinary month.

Can you see a scenario where you increase the number of outdoor games in 2014-15 and host more than six?

The popularity of the games, particularly for fans that get to go in local markets, probably could sustain it, but I don’t think in terms of execution, we could do an unlimited number of games because putting on these games is enormously complicated and complex, and there’s only so much that Dan Craig – the world’s greatest ice maker – and our events department can do in any one period of time. The more you do, the more likely you’ll have a weather issue.

How likely is it that Toronto hosts the 2017 Winter Classic, when MLSE president and CEO Tim Leiweke wants it?

All teams are aiming for one. At this point, nobody has the edge over anyone else. It also depends on having a suitable facility, and at the current point in time, while I know Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment has a vision for a bigger stadium, at the present time it doesn’t exist.

I understand Coors, your headline Stadium Series sponsor, wants an outdoor game in Denver. Is that correct?

Everyone wants one. And after we did one in L.A., that “everyone” extended to places you wouldn’t have thought of before. [laughs]

So when everyone wants one, how do you decide who gets one? Is venue the biggest factor?

It’s based on a whole host of factors: the market, where the team is in terms of its competitiveness, the venue, where we’ve been and where we haven’t been. There’s not some magical formula that you pop in. Some of it has to do with timing and what makes the most sense.

Is there a particular outdoor game or outdoor moment that moved you on a personal level?

The first game in Buffalo [at Ralph Wilson Stadium in 2008], when I walked on the field in the snow and looked up and marveled at the fact there had never been that many people [71,217] at an NHL game before. We’ve subsequently broken that record in Michigan, but the magnitude of the event the first time we did it struck me.

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