Bettman pleased with TV deal despite low ratings
RALEIGH, N.C. -- Gary Bettman spoke glowingly about the state of the NHL, hours before the start of a Stanley Cup final very few were expected to watch on television.
"Things are good, our vital signs are strong and we have tremendous optimism about the future of our game," the commissioner said Monday night before the Edmonton Oilers faced the Carolina Hurricanes in the opener of the best-of-seven series.
Considering that the NHL was shut down by a lockout last year, having a game to show certainly demonstrated progress.
But Monday's contest was on OLN, the league's new cable partner that is finishing its first season televising hockey. It's a network that has proved hard to find on many cable systems and not available everywhere on standard service.
The NHL switched to OLN after the lockout when a new deal with ESPN couldn't be reached. Bettman was most pleased with the network's growth from 64 million homes to 70 million over the course of the year, and cited coverage he called saturating as a plus.
"We needed a partner that was going to treat us with greater importance than we were getting," he said. "That's what we're getting with OLN and it will grow. I just think people need to be patient."
After Game 2, NBC -- also in its first year of a deal -- will take over for the remaining games of the finals. The absence of a marquee team, or one located in a major market, severely limited the buzz for the series.
Ratings were down during the regular season and weren't expected to go too high on OLN, which reaches 20 million fewer homes than ESPN.
"We love the fact that with the increased coverage, particularly in the first three rounds of the playoffs with the six-hours-a-night, wall-to-wall coverage, we, in effect, started getting traction," Bettman said "On the cable side we gave up some distribution in order to get better coverage.
"That's a trade that I would make again if I had to or had to make that change again because we love the way OLN is covering us."
Bettman's 30-minute state of the NHL news conference had a few contentious moments. He defended the allure of a finals matchup between small-market clubs even though it won't play to the masses.
Detroit, New York, Dallas and Philadelphia all put teams into the playoffs, yet none made it out of the first round.
"I don't think that people decide to tune in or not because of the population of the markets that are playing," Bettman said. "If big markets are playing and more people are watching in those markets because they are interested in what's going on in their city, that's inevitable. Frankly, I think it's more important to all of our fans that they know that whatever team they root for, they have a shot.
"I'm delighted with the two teams that are here and the ratings will be what they'll be."
Something that is sure to rise is the salary cap. Estimations in the new collective bargaining agreement that ended the lockout put revenues for this season at $1.8 billion and created a $39 million cap per team.
Although all the numbers haven't been calculated, Bettman predicted that next season's cap will fall in the $43 million or $44 million range.
"Nobody had any idea what the revenues were going to turn out to be because nobody had ever been in the situation that we were in," Bettman said. "Revenues will be at an all-time high for this league. So even compared to 2003-04, these revenues will be higher."
Bettman also addressed ongoing NHL issues, such as the investigation into an alleged betting ring that was authorities say was run by Phoenix Coyotes assistant coach Rick Tocchet.
Tocchet is still on a leave of absence while former federal prosecutor Robert Cleary, looks into the scandal that broke just before the Turin Olympics and for a few days surrounded Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky, who was cleared of any wrongdoing.
"It was slowed down dramatically because there were certain people who could not be interviewed until we got approval from the authorities in New Jersey," Bettman said of Cleary's investigation. "He wants to make sure that when he's done, that everybody will be comfortable with what he determines did or did not happen."
Other topics Bettman discussed included:
-- The sale of the St. Louis Blues to a group led by former Madison Square Garden president Dave Checketts. The deal could be approved by the league's board of governors at the end of the month.
-- NHL free agency is expected to begin on time on July 1 instead of being delayed because of the cap calculations.
-- Next season will feature the same schedule that provided more games within each team's division and limited inter-conference play.
Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press
This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index