Bettman ’74 Receives Lifetime Achievement Award
Gary Bettman ’74, the longest-tenured commissioner in the history of the four major North American sports leagues, was honored with the Sports Business Journal's 2023 Lifetime Achievement Award at the 14th annual Sports Business Awards on May 24 in New York City.
“This is a surreal, overwhelming out-of-body experience, and I'm not used to that,” Bettman said in his acceptance speech. “I've worked with, or learned from, or admired all 13 of the individuals who … have received this distinction in previous years … I am honored to join them.”
In his 31st year as commissioner of the National Hockey League, Bettman, who recently had an ILR scholarship endowed in his honor, has been instrumental in the NHL's growth. He increased the NHL's revenue twelvefold, according to the Sports Business Journal, while both driving and reacting to the evolution of sports business and technology over the last three decades.
All of which is a far cry from the NHL Bettman knew as a young hockey fan growing up in Queens, N.Y.
“I attended my first NHL games in the 1960s at the old Madison Square Garden,” Bettman said. “When I was in high school, you could get a seat in the balcony, general admission, for 50 cents … I'd bring a sandwich for dinner and do my homework, waiting for the game to start … At the time, any notion of digital dasher boards, a coach's challenge video review from a central location, or puck and player tracking would have been perceived as sheer science fiction or nonsense.”
Under Bettman’s leadership, NHL media partnerships and sponsorship deals have grown over the past three decades. Most recently, the NHL signed innovative, landmark deals most with ESPN/Disney and Warner Brothers-Discovery/Turner covering TV, streaming and media rights through 2028. More than 70 sponsors backed the league for the 2022-23 season. They include Apple and Amazon, Honda, Discover, Tim Horton’s and Scotiabank.
Market expansion will likely be Bettman's legacy. When he was hired, the NHL had 24 teams, with the Florida Panthers and Mighty Ducks of Anaheim committed to join for the 1993-94 season. U.S. expansion helped bring the number of NHL franchises to 32 with the most recent addition of the Vegas Golden Knights in 2018-19 and the Seattle Kraken in 2021-22.
The NHL has expanded its international footprint under Bettman by featuring games, both exhibition and regular-season contests, in locations including China, Czechia, England, Finland, Germany, Japan, Sweden and Switzerland. The League also pioneered the concept of outdoor games by introducing the first Heritage Classic in 2003, the first Winter Classic in 2008 and adding the Stadium Series in 2014.
It was also Bettman who introduced one of the great traditions of any sport, giving each player on the Stanley Cup-winning team the opportunity to spend a day with the world’s most iconic and revered trophy.
“When I sat in the balcony of the old Garden, I never thought that the first time I would see the Rangers win the Stanley Cup, I would be the one presenting it. The 130-year-old cup is ageless and timeless, and the experience of presenting it never gets old, even if I do.”
- Gary Bettman
Bettman joined the NHL following a 12-year stint with the NBA. He served as the NBA's general counsel and senior vice president and worked with David Stern to craft the first pro sports salary cap.
His tenure with the NHL surpasses the length of service of other professional sports leaders, including Kenesaw Mountain Landis (MLB, 24 years), Pete Rozelle (NFL, 29 years) and Stern (NBA, 30 years).
“I'm not retiring yet,” Bettman said as he concluded his speech. “There is plenty left to do, and I look forward to the challenges ahead as we strive to make the NHL more inclusive, more welcoming and more popular than ever.
“I consider myself lucky to be a part of [the NHL]. And without hopefully being presumptuous, everyone in this ballroom is lucky to think about what all of us get to do. So, let's all continue every day to serve our constituents in the most creative and fun ways possible. Let's strive to honor our temporary custody of the public trust called ‘sports,’ to inspire our communities to teach life skills to our young people and to leave each of our sports organizations in a far better place than the one in which we found it.”