by Mike Chen on 06/03/09 at 01:00 PM ET
For longtime readers of my hockey writing, you know that I’ve constantly tried to illustrate the point of what Gary Bettman does and what the Board of Governors does. This whole Phoenix situation is putting a bigger spotlight than usual, so it’s important to note that while people will put up websites like FireBettman.com, the actual act of jettisoning Bettman probably wouldn’t have the effect they wanted.
What are Gary Bettman’s actual responsibilities (besides hosting the NHL Hour to talk about his favorite bands)? He’s a negotiator, advisor, and facilitator all wrapped up into one.
The NHL commissioner’s primary responsibility is to ensure that the operational rules and processes of the league and its franchises are followed. In essence, it’s a bit of checks and balances so that the Board of Governors doesn’t implode; at the same time, the BoG puts Bettman in check.
Bettman also oversees the structural operations of the league. Each department’s Chief Officer reports to him, and there’s a flow in terms of how this goes. The BoG dictates the direction they want the league to go, this goes to Bettman who is the focal point of strategy, then he delegates it down to his COs in each department, then they work on their own department level to accomplish the task. Reporting goes in reverse—first on the department level, then the CO level, then to Bettman, then to the BoG.
The commissioner is typically the lead negotiator for a sports league, though in the NHL’s case, Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly seems to have taken over much of this responsibility. This can be anything from CBAs to TV contracts to international transfer agreements.
When the BoG wants to make a move in a certain direction, be it expansion or Olympic participation, the commissioner collects data about options and presents it to the board. If they want his opinion, they’ll ask him, but it’s not his role to present it unsolicited, nor is it his role to act on it without approval. In situations of tie votes, the commissioner can act as a tiebreaker.
In short, a league commissioner is the action man for the Board of Governors. They tell him what they want done and he works to make it happen through his subordinates while making sure that individual franchises play by the rules. As the public’s point of contact to the board (and in essence, the league), his job is to tow the company line and be an advocate for BoG decisions.
Nowhere does his actual opinion come into play. Of course, as a negotiator and facilitator, he’s got to use his business judgment to get things done but he doesn’t drive the will of the league like a dictator. Similarly, in his role as process enforcer, he’s going to fight back against anyone who’s trying to break the league rules. Hence, the whole thing with Jim Balsillie’s relocation clause without BoG approval—it’s not in the league’s governing rules, so Bettman’s job is to squash it.
It’s important to really accent the word “job” there. He gets paid to be the PR-spinning yes man that sports fans love to hate. It goes with the territory, and maybe if you ran into Bettman at a bar and got a few shots of whiskey in him, you might find out what he really thinks about two teams in Southern California or Jim Balsillie. I’m sure he doesn’t agree with everything the BoG does but it’s his role to push that agenda forward.
So let’s take a rough look at how this all comes into play. Theoretically, if the BoG wasn’t satisfied with the Versus TV package, they would task Bettman as the league’s chief negotiator to go out and explore options when the contract is up. Bettman’s subordinates would gather information from FSN, Versus, ESPN, and whatever cable networks might be interested. Bettman looks at the data, then either him or a representative begin negotiating preliminary numbers with viable options. These negotiations go through however many iterations until they’re presentable to the BoG. The BoG sees the top options, then votes on them. The winning option is announced and Bettman puts on the PR spin to try and convince everyone that this was the best move for the league.
That’s the big thing here. We can’t fully judge whether he’s done a good or a bad job because his role is to facilitate the will of the BoG, not dictate the direction of the league. It’s something totally different from what we see as fans and observers. They will know if he succeeded by whether or not he accomplished what they wanted. Until we’re privy to in-house communications and BoG voting, it’s impossible to know. In real life, he may or may not be anti-Canadian (somehow, I highly doubt that), but in his professional role, he can’t let those biases get in the way of pushing forward the BoG agenda. And if the BoG felt he was doing a bad job with that? They’d get rid of him.
In short, if you’re unhappy with the way the league is, understand that there are different people in charge of different things and that it funnels up to Bettman as the mouthpiece but then the final decision goes to the BoG. If you feel like the NHL is ass-backwards and hell-bent on self-destruction, firing Bettman won’t do any good. You’ll need a fundamental shift in attitude from the majority of BoG members in order to make that happen.
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