Gary Bettman repeatedly has stated throughout the years his belief that all 30 current NHL franchises can be financially successful in their current locations.
Thursday, the NHL commissioner received assurances – privately and publicly – from David Freeman, head of the Nashville Predators’ ownership group, that the local franchise will not lose money this season.
“(Freeman) indicated that the franchise is going to break even this year,” Bettman said. “In this environment, and with all the work they’ve done I think that’s a very telling statistic, in terms of people not having to worry about the franchise.”
Bettman spoke with local and national media in a 30-minute question-and-answer session at the Sommet Center prior to the start of the Predators’ game with the St. Louis Blues.
Earlier in the day he met with Governor Phil Bredesen and with Nashville Mayor Karl Dean. He also had lunch with the Predators’ ownership group and discussions with franchise staff members.
It was all part of what he termed typical activities when he travels to NHL city to “touch base with people who are important to the franchise and to whom the franchise is important.”
Bettman also hosted his show on satellite radio and had Freeman, Predators’ general manager David Poile and coach Barry Trotz as guests. It was then, Bettman said, that Freeman, whose group assumed ownership of the team on Dec. 7, 2007, publicly declared the franchise is on solid financial footing.
“I think, if there was an expectation that just because the franchise changed hands to a local group that things were going to change overnight … that’s unrealistic,” Bettman said. “Running a franchise is hard work. Being a part of the community is something that continues to evolve over time. I think they’re doing a good job with it and I think the franchise is heading in the right direction.”
Of course, any discussion of the Predators’ finances includes significant subsidies in the form of the league’s revenue-sharing plan, which is tied – in part – to attendance.
Bettman dismissed the notion that ownership might have to resort to purchasing seats in order to meet the directives necessary for the team to enjoy maximum benefits under the revenue-sharing arrangement. Nashville played before a sellout crowd of 17,113 last Saturday against Boston and had exceeded 14,000 in attendance in five straight contests prior to Thursday.
“Based on the information I got (Thursday), and based on how the attendance has been – particularly for the last nine games – they have every expectation they’re going to meet the threshold on their own, without any problem,” Bettman said.
He was similarly, and predictably, optimistic in regard to the league’s overall financial health. He said the league projects “real growth” of slightly less than the seven percent initially expected and that overall there will be record attendance and record revenues in the 2008-09 season.
He did note, though, that potential warning signs could be evident in the next few months.
“Going forward to next season … impossible to predict,” he said. “The way the economy is, I have no doubt it will affect every industry and every business. For us, the first indicators what season ticket renewals look like and what playoff ticket sales look like. I think we’ll get a better handle on those factors in the next few weeks.”
Whatever does happen, he stressed that he expects the Predators to remain in Nashville.
“I think everybody’s feeling pretty good about the franchise here,” Bettman said. “ … Everybody is committed to Nashville, to this franchise and we think long-term it’s going to work.”
Bettman touched on a number of other topics as well. Among them:
--The status of the team’s and the league’s involvement with forward Alexander Radulov, who signed with the upstart Continental Hockey League (KHL) in Russia despite the fact that he was under contract with the Predators.
“Radulov is in breech of his contract. … Until there’s a demonstrated respect for contracts, then we have nothing to talk about. If this situation means that we’re not cooperating with the KHL or the Russian Ice Hockey Federation, then so be it.
“He owes the Predators a year under his contract. So if he wants to play in the NHL, he’s going to have to deal with the Nashville Predators.”
--The effect of the financial and legal troubles of William “Boots” Del Biaggio, originally a member of Freeman’s ownership group, on the Predators.
“It’s probably an annoyance and a pain to deal with. … (but) it doesn’t entitle anyone to control the franchise. … It’s unfortunate that it happened. We wish it hadn’t, but these are crazy times when you see all the defrauding going on and the scale on which people have been able to do it in a variety of places.
“For the owners, it’s something they’ve had to deal with. For the fans and the club, it hasn’t been an issue.”
On the potential that fighting could become outlawed in the NHL.
“I don’t see a point where fighting, as a part of the game, is simply eliminated. It’s not an important part of the game; it does act as a bit of a thermostat to the non-stop physical action that we see.
“I do think we’ll have a discussion on what you can classify as the rules of engagement: how fights start; what happens when the helmet comes off; the role of the takedown. Those are things we need to look at … to perhaps make fighting a little safer.”