By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — When running a professional sports league, a commissioner must always balance the best interests of the players, the owners, and the overall health of the league. In that regard, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has decided that it would be best if NHL players are not allowed to participate in the 2018 Olympic Games in South Korea.
Suffice it to say, this is a decision with which the players vehemently disagree.
That much was never clearer than on Wednesday, when ESPN ran a story in which Emily Kaplan asked 30 NHL players what rule they would like to see changed in the league. The idea was to focus on rules on the ice, like the two-line pass, or the size of goalie pads, and so on. But seven of the players made it clear: NHL players should be going to the Olympics.
The quotes, from the story:
Jamie Benn: “Let players go to the Olympics.”
Erik Karlsson: “I would have liked to have gone to the Olympics. I don’t think that’s a rule, but I think that’s the one.”
Tyler Seguin: “Let the boys go play in the Olympics.”
Seth Jones: “Go to the Olympics. That’s the first thing that came to my mind.”
Mark Scheifele: “Go to the Olympics. I was definitely disappointed at that news last year. It’s almost like the next best thing. Obviously, we all dream of winning a Stanley Cup, and then the next is literally right there: winning a gold medal for your country.”
Kevin Shattenkirk: “Play in the Olympics. That’s probably my No. 1. There are different ways to change the game and make it different or better, but the Olympics are the best way to grow the game and I think that’s what we need most right now: to increase our footprint on the world.”
Christopher Tanev: “Let players go to the Olympics. I wouldn’t be on [Team Canada], but I’m sure a lot of guys would like to be there.”
Of all the cases, the one made by Shattenkirk is the strongest — especially in the United States. Team USA captured the country’s attention during the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver by beating Canada in group play and later taking Canada to overtime in the gold medal game. Four years later in Sochi, T.J. Oshie became a national sensation for his performance in beating host Russia in an unforgettable shootout.
International hockey captured the attention of American sports viewers at a time in the sports calendar where the American professional leagues certainly leave open a void. For the NHL — whose already-bad ratings dropped to abysmal levels in the U.S. last year — to pass up an opportunity to boost attention to the sport and the players is unmistakably a poor decision.
Yet throughout the course of his near-24-year-run at the helm of the NHL, Bettman has been no stranger to those. He’s overseen three — THREE — lockouts that cost each team 154 regular-season games, yet he can’t find “a compelling reason” to put the NHL season on hold for two-and-a-half weeks in mid-February to try to build an audience and grow interest in the NHL as the league enters its final regular-season stretch leading up to the postseason.
Instead of making plans for the Olympics, Bettman is “focused on the Winter Classic,” an “event” which has seen ratings drop in each of the last three years, hitting a dreadful 1.5 rating in 2017. This year’s Stanley Cup Final drew an average 2.7 rating across the six games. By comparison, the NBA Finals enjoyed its highest ratings in 20 years. MLB is coming off a 12.9 average rating in the World Series, the highest in a dozen years. The NFL suffered a drop in ratings from the 2016 season opener to the 2017 season opener, yet the Patriots-Chiefs last week still garnered a 14.6 rating.
And there’s Bettman and the NHL, “focusing” on its Winter Classic (and its slate of outdoor games that have lost all elements of novelty and, thus, national interest) instead of focusing on the fact that more than 6 million people tuned in to watch Oshie in that memorable shootout. Perhaps there is no directly quantifiable way for the NHL to measure the benefit of having so many Americans tuned in to the sport of hockey on a Saturday morning, but the NHL simply cannot argue that it needs as much attention as it can possibly get.
This is the same Bettman who has spent time this summer complaining, “Historically, we have been underserved by traditional media.” Looking up and down his list of decisions, from costing the league essentially two full seasons of games and not allowing players to partake in the largest international tournament in the world, it’s not entirely difficult to understand why the media might not be “serving” the league as Bettman would hope.
If only Bettman were more focused on serving the players and the sport, the media’s attention might follow.