Gary Bettman has always seemed comfortable playing the role of the villain.
Every few years, the NHL commissioner is blamed by hockey diehards for “hurting the game,” and yet he remains willing to put on the black hat.
That’s the case once again after the NHL’s announcement that it plans to sit out the 2018 Olympics.
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The response from fans and players has been almost universally negative, and the International Olympic Committee is predictably displeased as well.
“I understand they are not in the business of Olympic hockey,” says longtime IOC member Dick Pound. “But in terms of growing the game, making it more popular, why not take advantage of this?
“The costs are covered, and the risk of injury is far less with a much bigger ice surface and referees willing to use their whistles.”
Pound feels the NHL never really wanted to go to South Korea next year.
“It was like dealing with North Korea — you just keep offering things but you never get anywhere,” Pound says. “My understanding is that the NHL never made it clear what they wanted.”
But is it possible Bettman is right? Does it no longer make sense for the NHL to shut down for three weeks to allow a relatively small segment of its players to play a few games at the Olympics?
‘A massive blow’ to the IOC
University of Delaware professor Matthew Robinson, who writes about the business of the Olympics, says the power dynamic has shifted in the NHL’s favour.
“In 1998 the NHL needed the Olympics, but now you could argue that the Olympics needs the NHL,” Robinson says. “You’re telling me to shut down my business in season for three weeks, put my assets at risk and we don’t feel we benefit to the point where it’s worth taking those risks.
“At one point it may have made sense but not anymore.”
Nick Jones, who writes about the Olympics for Inside the Games, says the IOC will miss the NHL.
“The Winter Olympics are in a bad situation in terms of finding countries who want to bid,” he says. “NHL players are obviously [some] of the big stars at the Olympics, so I think this is a massive blow.”
Throughout their prolonged negotiations, the IOC offered the league and its players sticks but few carrots.
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This dispute was always about more than having players’ insurance and hotel rooms covered, which became apparent after the International Ice Hockey Federation offered to pay those bills and it didn’t lead to a deal.
It was also about the IOC not wanting to allow the NHL into its tightly guarded club, where Games sponsors are given elite treatment in exchange for a hefty payment.
The NHL wants to actually let people know its best players are playing in the Olympics. In requesting “top sponsor” status from the IOC, the league was looking to gain the chance to showcase the Olympic rings (and certain Olympic-owned content) on its own platforms.
Not an outrageous ask.
“[The NHL is] taking financial risks and they are trying to balance it by saying how can we make it worth our while?” Robinson says. “Are there marketing rights and opportunities to present the NHL brand there?”
In a statement released after the NHL’s decision to bail on 2018, the IOC said it “distributes 90 per cent of its revenue for the development of sport in the world and obviously cannot treat a national commercial league better than not-for-profit International sports federations which are developing sport globally.”
But wouldn’t the NHL’s presence at the Olympics only drive up the Games’ value, giving the IOC more money to develop amateur sports globally?
“The hockey tournament increases the value of broadcast rights,” Robinson says. “The NHL is saying we understand that and we need to be better compensated for contributing all that good that goes toward developing sports around the world.”
For now, broadcasters who paid millions to show these Games are saying the right things.
“Canadian hockey fans will be cheering for our women’s team and our men’s team, whoever is wearing that jersey,” the CBC, which owns the Canadian media rights to the Olympics, said in a statement.
Added U.S. rights holder NBC: “We’re confident that hockey fans and Olympic viewers will tune in to watch the unique style of play that occurs at the Olympic Winter Games.”
But nobody can really be happy with how the IOC played its cards. This isn’t what broadcaster were hoping for and, especially in Canada, it will impact what they will be able to charge advertisers and sponsors. No matter how it’s spun.
As for the NHL, what is it actually losing? A chance to grow the game internationally? Maybe, but there’s little evidence the NHL’s participation in past Olympics has done much to move the needle on the league’s global popularity.
“We went to Japan in ’98,” Bettman told reporters. “We tried to seed the market in advance of the Olympics with some regular-season games and they were sold out and there was interest.
“The day after the Olympic tournament was over in Nagano they ripped the ice plant out of the building.”
The NHL clearly feels it can extend its reach into Asia without the IOC’s help.
The IOC’s threat of no NHLers in Beijing in 2022 without participation in Korea didn’t faze the league. It has forged ahead with plans to play a series of exhibition games next year in China. And the Chinese government — the ultimate power player — has vowed to build hundreds of arena and pour millions of dollars into promoting hockey in the country ahead of the Games in 2022.
Looks like the game may grow just fine, with or without the Olympics.