Bettman's big bet: Why the 2004-05 lockout actually benefited NHL

Gary Bettman believed that fans wouldn't abandon the NHL, even in the face of a season-long lockout. "I don't have any concerns that the fans will come back," he predicted in 2005. Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images

In Gary Bettman's 25 years as NHL commissioner, his greatest move has been the one he's most reviled for: presiding over the league when it elected to become the first North American sports league to sit out a whole season for a work stoppage.

While the pushback that greeted the move was great, he kept his course and got what he wanted -- most important, a salary cap to make the finances more beneficial to the owners.

Up until the 2004-05 season, it was no secret that the league's owners were relying on expansion-team payments to make their balance sheets better. An out-of-whack system led to the players getting roughly three quarters of every dollar that came in.

Bettman had spent his first 12 years as commissioner telling people that there was a casual fan who would one day embrace hockey, but what he really understood internally was that the diehards loved the game too much to leave it in protest.

When Bettman canceled the 2004-05 season, the hockey world did a collective facepalm. Bettman, to save an average of $500,000 per player, chose to have a sport that was already clinging to relevancy sit out a season.

"The game's just suffered an absolute blow it'll never recover from," said Carolina Hurricanes forward Rod Brind'Amour, on Feb. 16, the day the season was called off. "They're totally underestimating the damage that is being done."

But at the news conference on the fourth floor of the Westin Hotel in New York City to say it was all over, Bettman boldly told the media: "I don't have any concerns that the fans will come back."

The line was greeted with disbelief by many sitting in the room.

But Bettman was right. Helped by rule changes that aided the flow of the game, only one team -- the St. Louis Blues -- saw attendance drop more than 6 percent versus attendance the year before the lockout. Bettman knew, in the back of his mind, that although there was a replacement for baseball, there wasn't any adequate substitute for hockey.

The correction in salaries helped teams become more stable, though it's worth noting that Bettman's promise of teams charging less to fans because they were spending fewer dollars on players never materialized.

In 2004, the average NHL team was worth $163 million, according to Forbes. This season, Forbes put that number at $594 million. That's an inflation-adjusted 180 percent jump. And it's not just estimates. The fact that Bettman's crew could sell the expansion rights to the Vegas Golden Knights for $500 million basically confirmed that number.

But franchise values are only realized when you sell. How does the NHL compare to other leagues on a salaries-to-revenue basis over Bettman's 25 years. The answer? The NHL is now No. 1.

During the first half of Bettman's reign as commissioner, his teams had the worst ratio of salaries to revenue among the four major North American sports. By Year 25, Bettman has the best of the four in terms of a player-spending-to-revenue ratio.

In Bettman's years atop the NHL, revenues have jumped an inflation-adjusted 485 percent, compared to 400 percent for the NFL, 223 percent for Major League Baseball and 116 percent for the NBA over the same quarter century.

While the NHL hasn't led in controlling salaries over this time -- that distinction belongs to MLB, with an inflation-adjusted increase over the past 25 years of 142 percent in team payroll, which is comical because baseball is the only one of the four without some sort of cap -- the NHL has had a reasonable increase in relation to the other leagues. The NHL's rise in salaries over this time period was 198 percent, compared to 149 percent for the NFL and 204 percent for the NFL.

When you compare revenue rise to salary rise, the NHL comes out on top.