NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman attended the Florida Panthers' home opener against the New Jersey Devils Saturday at BankAtlantic Center. He met with reporters before the game and addressed a number of issues including the team's ownership. Read more about the Panthers on Steve Gorten's blog here.
Bettman said the Panthers are not being sold to a public company -- the team had been in talks this spring with public company Sports Properties Acquisition Corp., but an agreement was never reached. However, he expects the precise makeup of majority owner Alan Cohen's ownership group to change. He said that does not mean limited partners will change or be added, but their levels of investment and roles in the group could change. Stay tuned...
Here's how Bettman addressed a number of issues:
On Panthers' ownership:
I think that the group is in discussions to see about making some adjustments among themselves, and I think those discussions are ongoing ... I think the solution here is going to come out of perhaps a rejiggering of the existing ownership group, not necessarily somebody getting in or out, but just kind of a restructuring on the day to day.
On whether he's concerned about the ownership and financial health of the team:
I think the club needs to continue to work to improve its performance ... but they should be OK. Barring something extraordinary that nobody anticipated and I’m not suggesting that’s going to happen, they should be fine.
Performance on the ice?:
Listen it’s no secret the club’s gone eight seasons, nine years with out being in the playoffs. There’s a good fan base here and I don’t think anybody doubts that. I think with improved performance ... By the way, last year was the most points they had since the last time they made the playoffs.
On whether he's confident the team will be successful:
At some point in time, every team’s competitiveness or lack thereof has an impact and teams can go through rebuilding periods, but listen they’re a good core group of players here, good young coach. If they continue to develop the right way... listen there’s a lot of fans of this club that show up, this is a big building and I think with improved performance it will be easier for them to fill it. ... I think this is a franchise that has potential, has an opportunity, I think the issues they’re dealing with can be sorted and out and dealt with going forward ... I think they’re probably closer now to a resolution of the ownership issues than they’ve been.
Since the Panthers opened in Finland, are there other European cities the league is considering for NHL games:
We’ve played in London. We’ve played in Prague. There are a variety of opportunities in Germany, Switzerland, Slovakia and maybe perhaps as we continue this, some more traditional European cities, [but] non-traditional hockey cities, such as Paris, Barcelona. We would like to continue to expand our European presence on a regular basis. By that I don’t mean franchises on the ground, I mean more and more clubs, more and more games to open the season, so maybe we’re in seven or eight cities at the same time, to open the season because if you were there you know there’s tremendous interest in our players and our game.
On other leagues watching what happened in court with ownership of the Phoenix Coyotes:
Everybody was watching what happened in the legal proceedings very closely, because the, and you’ve heard me say this before, two most important issues for any sports league, are who owns the franchises, who’s going to be a partner, and where franchises are located. And the concern those rules could be circumvented, was one all of the sports leagues took seriously, which is why early on in the proceedings the other leagues intervened.
On whether the lockout has improved the financial health of teams:
It has ... We don’t run the 30 franchises, every team has to be accountable for its own on and off ice performance. The system has made it much better. The competitive balance has never been better. There are always going to be situations. Phoenix didn’t belong in bankruptcy ... That was an attempt by two people to circumvent our rules.
On the economy impacting ticket sales:
I think it’s market by market, but our season ticket renewal in this market league-wide was about what it was last year, before the economic downturn. We’re not expecting to be down, based on the preliminary projections we have this year in revenues…We’re flat to up a little bit is my best early guess as to where we’re likely to be. I know over the last few months, there was a lot of speculation the [salary] cap’s going to go down 20 percent. That’s absurd, that’s just made up, it isn’t going to happen. Business is much stronger than that. Our attendance last year, through the recession set another record, our revenue set another record, revenues were up about 5 percent in local dollars, not accounting for the decline in the Canadian dollar ... In real dollars, we think we’ll at least be flat, if not up a little bit. In attendance, including so far this season is at least flat, if not up a drop.Our fans are very connected to the game. I’m not suggesting the recession isn’t having an impact. Like for example, I thought last year I thought we’d be up 7 percent, we were up 5 percent. Listen, I don’t foresee dramatic growth, but a lot of people say the new up is flat. There’s been some erosion ... The speculation of 10, 20 percent decline, I don’t see that at all.
On how the economics have changed since the league locked out players in 2004-05:
We’re not paying out 76 percent of our revenues, on one element of our expenses. Teams by and large, and there are going to be outliers, when you look at competitive balance, everybody can afford to be competitive [with] the combination of the [salary] cap and revenue sharing. Last year it took 1,220 out of 1,230 games to have the first playoff matchup determined, it took 184 out of 186 days of regular season to know who was going to be in the playoffs, and we didn’t know the matchups overall until after the last game was played. When you look at also the range in points between the middle of the pack making the playoffs and who didn’t make the playoffs, I think a handful of points separated whether or not you made it. Virtually, if not all, of every game in the regular season had some impact as to how this is all going to wind up in terms of making the playoffs. You hear players, you hear coaches talking about every game is like a playoff game particularly down the stretch. That’s a function of the way the game’s being played and it’s a function of the fact that teams Feel that they can compete. That there are no easy games any more. While our economic circumstance has changed by about 19 percent what the cost the actually is, which probably equates to about 25 percent, you have the fact, we have a system, where teams are better off and can compete and you’re seeing it.