Bettman’s Olympics Brinkmanship

by | Feb 5, 2017 | Soapbox | 1 comment

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman seems to be in a staredown with the IOC & IIHF over Olympic participation.

The National Hockey League continues to play coy over allowing its players to take part in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Some observers suggest the likelihood is growing dimmer after a recent “courtesy” meeting in New York involving officials from the NHL, the NHL Players Association, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF).

For weeks, league commissioner Gary Bettman has repeatedly claimed there’s “strong, negative sentiment” toward Olympic participation by the team owners. Various factors, from shutting the season down during the Olympic period, to travel accommodation and insurance costs for the players, to rumored league-wide unhappiness over a lack of revenue from the Olympics are cited as the chief concerns.

So if the NHL isn’t keen on taking part in the 2018 Games, why this ongoing slow dance with the IOC and the IIHF? Why hasn’t Bettman firmly stated that the league won’t be sending its best players to South Korea?

I believe it has to do with money, as it always does. 

Despite the overall feelings of the NHL team owners, Bettman is the one who rules the roost. The league commissioner may represent the owners, but he has the final say in these matters.

Some of the owners are likely openly hostile to the notion of future Olympic participation, but I believe Bettman has an eye on the future. He knows the NHL has pretty much tapped out the North American market. If the league is to continue “growing the game” – and by that, I mean generate more revenue – it must turn to the international market.

The NHL has already made inroads in Europe by attracting that continent’s best players. It’s only rival is the feeble Kontinental Hockey League, a money-losing venture propped up by Russian oil oligarchs.

Next season, the NHL intends to stage a couple of regular-season games, possibly involving the Colorado Avalanche and Ottawa Senators, in one of the European hockey nations. The league has staged regular-season contests in Europe before. If the latest excursion goes well, more regular-season match-ups could be in store down the road.

The possibility of an NHL franchise or two has long been kicked around. While it’s no closer to a reality, the league can cash in by attracting more eyeballs through broadcasting and advertising.

China is considered the biggest untapped market. The KHL is attempting to garner a foothold there. The NHL is already involved in sponsorship programs in China, and apparently have an eye on staging preseason games in the near future. 

While the NHL isn’t keen to get into the 2018 Games, there’s a belief its preference is to take part in the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing.

Bettman is a savvy negotiator. He sees the possibilities of expanding the NHL brand into the Chinese market by having its best talent skating in the Beijing Games. It’s likely a key reason behind his willingness to chat with the IOC and IIHF. Perhaps he’s hoping those organizations will bless the NHL skipping South Korea next year to return in Beijing in 2022.

That’s not the only money Bettman could be looking at. His concerns about travel and insurance already prompted the IIHF to step up and say they’ll cover those costs. Perhaps he’s hoping the same tack will squeeze the IOC for more broadcasting and advertising revenue. 

The IOC and IIHF can make do without the NHL’s participation. But both organizations know the 2018 Men’s Olympic Hockey Tournament will be a better sell to a worldwide audience with NHL stars taking part. Otherwise, the IOC wouldn’t be travelling to New York for a “courtesy” visit and the IIHF wouldn’t have agreed to cover the players’ travel and insurance.

Bettman also knows the players really want to take part in the Olympics. That’s why he recently offered to extend the current collective bargaining agreement by three years in exchange for a robust schedule of international competitions with the Olympics as the centerpiece.

The players, of course, balked at that notion because of their unhappiness over the hated escrow clawbacks from their paychecks under this CBA. However, the presence of PA director Donald Fehr at the meeting with the IOC and IIHF suggests that window isn’t fully closed yet.

A decision will be required soon from the league in order to prepare its schedule for next season, plus the IOC and IIHF will also need to be informed in order to update their own plans. Brinkmanship plays a significant role in Bettman’s negotiating style. He likes to take things right up to the deadline in order to hammer out an agreement with favorable terms for the NHL owners. 

How this ultimately plays out will keep pundits and hockey fans guessing. But if the league decides to take part, I believe it’ll be due to the PA, IOC and IIHF making significant concessions to Bettman.

1 Comment

  1. Really appreciate, and agree with, your take Lyle. Bettman can claim whatever motivators he wants, but it’s pretty easy to see what they’re trying to do.

    I really hope NHL caliber hockey remains part of the Olympics, but don’t want to have to hear all of the media rhetoric every four years leading up to the event. Lockouts already hurt my perception of the league enough as is.

    I think they just need to decide if they’re in or out and stick with that decision. The decision to participate shouldn’t hinge on the location.