May 30, 2009

DETROIT -- Given the host city of the first games of this year's Stanley Cup Final, it's no surprise that the economic situation of the league and its teams was a prime subject of Commissioner Gary Bettman's pre-Final talk.

"Despite the economic downturn that ran through the past season, this has been a season in growth and records in attendance, revenue and ratings," Bettman said.

When he addressed media in Montreal during the All-Star weekend, Bettman noted that season ticket renewals and playoff attendance would be the first indicators of how next season will be, from an economic standpoint. He said attendance has been 100 percent capacity and that season ticket renewals were approaching 80 percent.

"It's not even June yet," he said. "That is quite a strong number, particularly in this environment, to say the least."

However, in many playoff cities, those two things went hand in hand. Priority ticketing for the playoffs is often contingent on purchasing season tickets for next season. So, really, that's only one indicator, and it also likely explains why the renewal would be so high by June. Still, Bettman said, the league would likely see four percent real revenue growth, though the salary cap for players will likely remain about the same for next season.

Now, on the matter of the Phoenix Coyotes franchise and the upcoming court date to determine the legality of Jim Balsillie's bid to move it to Hamilton, Ont., Bettman went out of his way to make it clear that this issue isn't personal.

"The issue here is league rules and league processes and procedures, which is why I think it's pretty significant to note that the NFL MLB and NBA have appeared in bankruptcy court to make clear that this is a profound issue in all sports leagues," he said. "This is not just an NHL issue; this is not a Canada versus U.S. issue; this is not a Phoenix versus Hamilton issue; and this is certainly not a personal issue."

He continued when asked about his stance on Balsillie's bid: "That question... seemed to implicate that somehow this is personal. And it's not, at least for me. Now I know that some of you get calls on a regular basis from PR people. I know some of you have heard the rumors of how to cover this story. I can't help that. From my standpoint, it's not personal."

He was so adamant about it not being a personal thing that it just made you think: Well, it sure sounds like it's a personal thing. It certainly sounded like a case of, as Shakespeare once observed, "The lady doth protest too much, methinks."

The tension between Balsillie, the BlackBerry executive who's tried to purchase and relocate two franchises already, and the league's commissioner has been well-chronicled. So if Bettman believes that the characterization of this being a personal battle is off the mark, why wouldn't it be equally misguided to selectively ignore the historical context of the case and its prime characters?

Moreover, the state of the franchise in Phoenix isn't improving, though Bettman said the city of Glendale is prepared to work with the club regarding the lease of Arena, which has been a massive drain on revenue, and he believes that potential buyers are out there, buyers who will keep the club in Phoenix.

"This is a club that needs new ownership and a change in management, and needs to perform better than it has," he said. "As long as there are people prepared to invest in doing that, we think the prospects can be optimistic and should be. And at least some of the people I've spoken to believe that it can be turned around and turned around rather quickly by doing a lot of the right things that haven't been done."

I'd like to know who those people are, and exactly where their bids for the Coyotes are. Balsillie has made his, and so far, that's better than anything else out there, methinks.

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