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Bettman's NHL setting the standard

Commissioner Gary Bettman addresses the viewing experience and the innovations other sports are copying.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. (J Pat Carter/AP file)
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. (J Pat Carter/AP file)Read more

THE COMING of free agency was the single most important event in the lives of professional athletes because it gave them a vehicle to play where they wanted and to maximize their salaries.

The invention of the VCR, and its successors, was the most significant change for the coaching profession because it turned every game and every player into a specimen that could be studied and dissected.

For the fan, though, the milestone was when high-definition television became available. It changed everything for the better, and two sports in particular - football and hockey. But the reaction of the leagues has been funny. The NFL is very open about wanting to enhance the stadium experience because, while it doesn't admit it or use these words, the truth is that NFL games are better on TV than they are in person. They just are.

"It's interesting," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was saying. "We come at it from a different perspective. People said you couldn't watch the game on television in standard definition. Now, for HD, the game is compelling on TV. HD enhanced the viewing experience that people were concerned about.

"In terms of in person, our buildings are full. We played to 95 percent of capacity in the regular season. We're over 100 percent in the playoffs. The Flyers have been sold out forever, which is typical for a lot of our teams. People always said that we're the best in person, and I think we are. But in addition to being the best in person, we're now really good on television courtesy of HD."

Bettman was at Game 3 of the Flyers-Rangers series Tuesday night. As he was being driven home, he said he watched the San Jose-Los Angeles game on his tablet. It is the time of the year when his sport is at its best - even people who don't like hockey say they like playoff hockey - and it is the point of the NHL's life cycle when the sport and the available technology pair up perfectly.

Off the ice, there obviously have been issues - problem franchises, relocated franchises, and three long lockouts. The violence of the game troubles some, and there are now concussion lawsuits to defend. It is all there in black and white, and the issues have been real, and the people affected by them have memories.

But at the same time, the games are great, and the players are perceived to be the most accessible in pro sports, and the marriage between the technology and the fan base has been consummated, a fan base that is younger, better educated and more affluent than the fans of the other pro sports.

The league is playing catch-up in many ways - for instance, the national broadcast of every playoff game has only been accomplished in the most recent television contract. The national ratings, while growing, still are the smallest of the four pro sports and a blip in many places that don't have franchises. Bettman says "blip" is an overstatement, and I guess it depends on your definition.

But at the same time, the NHL also has become a center of innovation that the other sports are now chasing. MLB and the NFL both have traipsed up to Toronto to get a look at the NHL's video-review system, and both of those sports are now beginning to adopt a version of the NHL's off-site review model. Why? Because it is the best system there is.

The NFL also has swiped the NHL's All-Star Game model, where it does a kind of fantasy draft to pick the teams. The other leagues have not yet found a way to steal the NHL's other big idea: the outdoor games that play to sold-out stadia and bigger television audiences. But you know they have to be spending time on the concept - that is, of creating lucrative special events within your regular schedule.

"Do I think we're given credit for all of the things we've done that have been leading edge? The answer is, I don't know," Bettman said. "We don't do it to get credit for it. We do it to satisfy our fans and enhance their experience.

"The outdoor game is something we thought, on an emotional imagery level, would take the game back to its roots and would be fun for the players and fun for the fans - and now our clubs and our fans can't get enough of them. Doing the fantasy draft for the All-Stars made a lot of sense - it was a good idea that one of our people had. The fact that we've been doing replay for 20 years - we do what we think we need to do."

But it starts with the games, Bettman said, with "compelling content." We started talking about the debate within newspapers these days - whether to chase page views on websites or, instead, try to create communities and enhanced experiences for readers - and, being a full-service commissioner, he had plenty of theories about running a newspaper. But whether it was that business or the NHL, the theories all came back to those two words: "compelling content."

Or, as Gary Bettman said, "The game has to be great."