Bettman Receives Lifetime Achievement Award from Sports Business Journal

It has been his goal, his passion and his priority for the past 30 years.

“The world is evolving, and if you don’t move forward, think big, then you’ll fall behind,” Bettman said. “It’s about finding new ways to connect. It’s about looking to use the things that are part of our world now that weren’t part of our world when I started in sports, and that gives you the opportunity to use the platform that sports represent to do more than ever.”

It is because of this belief and vision that Bettman received the Sports Business Journal Lifetime Achievement Award on Wednesday. He was featured during the National Trade Weekly Magazine’s 2023 Sports Business Awards at the New York Marriott Marquis.

“I’ve always tried to never make that about myself,” Bettman said. “It’s about the owners, it’s about the fans. It’s about the people who work here and at the clubs and if I reflect all that effort then I’m fine with that.”

Bettman celebrated his 30th anniversary in office on February 1, and surpassed the late David Stern, who was commissioner of the NBA from February 1, 1984 to February 1, 2014, as the longest serving commissioner of the four major men’s professional sports leagues in America From north.

Bettman was a senior vice president of the NBA and general counsel to Stern before being elected the NHL’s first commissioner at age 40 on December 11, 1992.

“The specifics of basketball versus hockey were not what I learned,” Bettman said when asked about his time in the NBA. “What I learned was the importance of relationships, the importance of being thorough and doing your homework. The importance of focusing on your goal and the importance of making decisions for the right reasons, which means you do your homework, as informed a decision that you can and do not do it for political reasons, because political and popular reasons can change at the moment.

“You have to do what you think is right because if you’re wrong, at least you did it because you thought it was right. And that’s how you sleep at night.”

The Sports Business Journal listed among Bettman’s accomplishments growing the NHL during his tenure from 24 to 32 teams and an increase in League revenue from around $400 million per season to a record $5.2 billion last season. Bettman confirmed on Wednesday that that number had risen to $6 billion.

“It was over in the blink of an eye,” Bettman said of his 30 years in office. “I have a hard time understanding how this can happen so quickly, but my job is to care about playing a game, and is this a business? It doesn’t get any better than this and not just for the sake of the game but for everything we can do with our platforms to make a difference.”

Bettman presided over 55% of games in NHL history, and over 600 million people watched games during his tenure.

The Sports Business Journal also credited Bettman’s “penchant for creativity” through expansion and relocation to establish thriving teams in non-traditional markets, with the Dallas Stars, Nashville Predators, Carolina Hurricanes and Vegas Golden Knights as prime examples.

The NHL became the first major professional sports league with a team in Las Vegas when the Vegas Golden Knights joined the League in 2017-18. The Seattle Kraken joined the NHL in 2021-22 as its 32nd team.

The NHL Winter Classic, the annual outdoor game launched in 2008, has become a major regular season tentpole event, and the League’s willingness to sign media rights deals with nontraditional broadcast partners, starting with Fox Sports in 1994 and later with Comcast’s OLN, led to a long-term relationship with NBC Sports and, since last season, partnerships with ESPN and Turner Sports.

The League announced on April 11 that it will appear in Australia for the first time when the Arizona Coyotes and Los Angeles Kings play preseason games in the 2023 NHL Global Series in Melbourne from September 23-24. It will be the NHL’s first attempt at hockey in the Southern Hemisphere and the furthest from North America after playing in Europe and Asia.

Australia represents the fourth continent to host an NHL game. The Coyotes and Kings will play at Rod Laver Arena, home of the Australian Open tennis tournament, in a rink that the NHL will build with many of the same parts used for outdoor games.

Will venturing into the Down Under be the NHL’s boldest move yet?

“No, how about selling 70,000 tickets in 20 minutes to play in the snow, which if it had been two degrees warmer it would have been rain,” said Bettman, referring to the 2008 Winter Classic featuring the Buffalo Sabers and Pittsburgh Penguins at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, New York. “I don’t see things in terms of risk or not. I look at it in terms of ‘Is this an exciting opportunity?’ and ‘Do we think we can do this?’ understanding that not everything you try to do turns out the way you plan to do it.

“I look at what we could do, what we’re not doing, what we could do better and that’s how we move forward. It’s about what we can do to continue to connect with our fans, to grow the game and to make this game as exciting, fun and engaging as anything else you can do in your leisure time.”

Although the Sports Business Journal noted the three work stoppages under Bettman, it pointed out that the commissioner scored “significant victories for the League at the negotiating table”. This included achieving long-term cost certainty for owners in 2005 “with the establishment of a salary cap, on-ice product improvements and greater parity between teams in large and small markets”.

Bettman said, “I love the game and I love everyone associated with the game, and it’s challenging. Every day is different and you’re not just dealing with the problems of the day, but trying to focus on what we want to do to move forward, and we did a lot of things to move the game forward.

“Working here and doing what I do is part of the ultimate team effort in the ultimate team sport. And that’s why I think with everyone working together, we grow as much as we grow.”

NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said Bettman’s award was “delayed but well deserved”.

“I see the leadership qualities he has all the time, so every day I work with him I see him in every situation,” Daly said. “In tough times – the pandemic is one of them – some of the shutdowns that we’ve been involved in and some of those negotiations, even some of our media dealings… That’s where it really rises and separates itself from the pack.”

The Emmy-winning actor and St. Louis Blues, Jon Hamm, who introduced Bettman at Wednesday’s ceremony, said of the commissioner: “It was nice to get to know him across my fandom, actually. And it was impressive to see what he was able to do with just the League…. I’ve been a fan for most of my life. The Blues franchise is, I think, 54 years old now or something like that (56) and I’m 52, so that’s a few years older than me, but kind of I grew up with this franchise, it was nice to meet Gary and it was really nice to see what he did.

Also during the ceremony, the NHL won the Sports Newcomer of the Year award for its Digitally Enhanced Displays, advertising technology that debuted this season.

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