Frank Seravalli: A tale of two commissioners

NBA commissioner David Stern (left) can be considered a mentor to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
NBA commissioner David Stern (left) can be considered a mentor to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Posted: October 26, 2012

LET'S PLAY a little game.

Since 1993, Commissioner "A" of a major professional sports league has:

* Been at the helm for four work stoppages.

* Facilitated the relocation of six different franchises.

* Increased yearly television revenue from $68 million to $366 million.

* Increased player salaries by 459 percent ($1.090 million average to $5 million).

Since 1993, Commissioner "B" of a major professional sports league has:

* Been at the helm for three work stoppages.

* Facilitated the relocation of five different franchises.

* Increased yearly television revenue from $5.5 million to $200 million.

* Increased player salaries by 536 percent ($466,666 average to $2.5 million).

Without knowing the numbers or the identity of either man, what are the chances that you would have guessed that Commissioner "A" is the NBA's David Stern and Commissioner "B" is the NHL's Gary Bettman? It's true.

The public perception of both men will shift on Friday.

For Stern, 70, it will be his first day as a lame-duck commissioner, after announcing Thursday that he will step down from his current role on Feb. 1, 2014, after 30 years on the job.

For Bettman, 60, it will be the day that the NHL likely announces the cancellation of a third set of games this season, with a significant chunk (if not all) of November's contests getting the axe.

It is so interesting to compare Bettman - who cut his teeth in professional sports under Stern as an NBA senior vice president and general counsel in the 1980s - and his mentor. Where Stern has led, Bettman has almost always followed.

That leaves many hockey fans begging the question: "When will the door hit Bettman in the butt, too?"

Neither man has been particularly well-received by his sport's players or fan base, yet both are considered wildly successful business leaders by their bosses - the franchise owners. Both seem to be well aware of their flaws and shortcomings throughout their outrageously long tenures. Bettman will be on the job 20 years this February.

"Life is a journey and it has been a spectacular journey," Stern told reporters at his retirement announcement. "Each step along the way, there are things that you have to do, things that you maybe wish you hadn't done. But I don't keep that list, and so I'm totally pleased, and I'm particularly pleased with the transition of which we're now embarking."

Through it all, you certainly could make the argument that Bettman has been dealt a tougher hand than Stern.

He took over a league that many thought could not earn a national network television deal. The NHL's TV deal in 1991-92 was worth a reported $5.5 million. Through the years, Bettman has brought annual television rights fees from $31 million (1995) to $120 million (1999) to $200 million.

Their total league revenue in 1993 was $400 million. In this lockout, the players and owners are haggling about how to divide a $3.3 billion pot annually.

Like Stern, Bettman was forced to retool a product many considered unwatchable during the "dead puck" era of clutching and grabbing. The NBA is a league driven by superstars. Unlike Stern, Bettman has watched a crippled Canadian dollar nearly bring the league to its knees.

Player salaries have skyrocketed. And for all the hell Bettman has caught for bungled Southern expansion, consider some of the teams that have skated in and/or won the Stanley Cup final since 1996: Florida, Tampa Bay, Dallas, Carolina, Los Angeles and Anaheim.

Bettman's only job is to please his bosses. Not the fans. Publicly, that is how he will be judged as a commissioner who has authorized the cancellation of 1,833 games (and counting).

Stern lost 704 games due to labor unrest during his tenure - and he had two separate lockouts (1995 and 1996) that didn't result in the loss of any games. Compared to the NFL (one preseason game lost in 2011) and MLB (948 games lost in 1994-95 strike, followed by 18 years of labor peace), the NHL and NBA have struggled in labor relations.

Even with relative peace, neither Roger Goodell nor Bud Selig remains an overwhelming fan favorite.

How much do NHL owners appreciate the job Bettman has done? Look no further than his executive board-approved salary, which more than doubled from the last lockout in 2004 to a reported $7.98 million in the fiscal year 2011.

Ed Snider has to love Bettman. According to Forbes Magazine, the Flyers spent $73 million in player salaries in 2003-04 before the last lockout. In 2005-06, salaries were capped at $39 million per team - and ticket prices largely remained the same.

Last season, the Flyers spent approximately $71 million in player salaries - still not above the pre-2005 lockout levels. Throw in two Winter Classic appearances and a 2010 trip to the Stanley Cup finals, a somewhat limited revenue-sharing plan, and the Flyers have made money hand over fist.

Stern waited a year until after his lockout ended to step down. But watching Stern take a seat on Thursday makes you wonder how long his protege, Bettman, is for the job.

Even with fan grumbling for his head growing louder and louder every day, my gut says Bettman has made these billionaire owners enough money to call his own shot - whether that is next year or 10 years from now.


Contact Frank Seravalli at seravaf@phillynews.com. Follow him on Twitter @DNFlyers.

For more Flyers coverage and opinion, read his blog at philly.com/FrequentFlyers

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