Gary Bettman Is Talking About Record Revenue, but a Single Tweet Shows Where the NHL Still Needs to Improve

Ahead of every year’s Stanley Cup Final, Gary Bettman gives his ‘state of the NHL’ update. While the past several hockey seasons have been a bit unconventional, this year’s media availability brought some good news. The league, thanks in part to new TV deals, is projecting record revenue. 

Although that’s significant for a league that’s often overshadowed by its larger competitors, everything isn’t perfect on the NHL’s side of things. A single tweet, which hit the Internet shortly before Game 1, underscores that reality.

Gary Bettman had some good financial news ahead of the NHL Final

Compared to the NFL and NBA, the NHL isn’t exactly raking in money hand over fist. During the 2021-22 season, however, the league apparently took a step in the right direction.

As reported by the Associated Press (h/t Sportsnet), commissioner Gary Bettman “estimated revenue will surpass $5.2 billion” in revenue this year. While there’s still room for that total to change – the Stanley Cup Final has only just begun – Bettman indicated that number was only a conservative estimate.

We were able to stabilize the business and power through,” he explained. “Didn’t mean that at times there weren’t challenges, didn’t mean at times we didn’t have to adjust. Some of you on occasion said we were making it up as we went along, and we were, but we did what we had to do to get through it.”

Although $5.2 million may seem like a drop in the bucket – for context, the NFL is potentially on track to break the $25 billion plateau by 2027 – it still represents some progress on the NHL side of things. The league’s previous high-water mark was $4.6 billion during the 2018-19 campaign.

Ticket sales and in-arena attendance largely returning to normal did play a role in that revenue increase, but the NHL also deserves some credit. The league left a relatively disappointing TV deal with NBC to sign with ABC and Turner. That’s not only brought the game more visibility but has also provided some additional cash.

Gary Bettman may not be a fan favorite, but some credit is certainly due here.

Those positive NHL numbers were juxtaposed with a less-than-ideal tweet 

On the whole, those numbers are a positive. Hockey fans want the game to grow, and increasing both revenue and viewership will help accomplish that aim. That NHL, however, can’t rest on its collective laurels just yet.

Ahead of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, the NHL’s official Twitter account shared a data visualization of how Colorado’s two goalies fared against shots from different locations. While that may seem like a solid way to make use of the league’s proprietary data, the content wasn’t well received.

Setting aside the social copy – with all due respect to Pavel Francouz and Darcy Kuemper, you wouldn’t “dream” of starting either of them ahead of Andrei Vasilevskiy – the visualization simply fell short. Each zone was ‘graded’ in relation to the goalie’s save percentage within other zones rather than the league average, which is just unintuitive. That creates some unclear situations, like how Kuemper has a dark green zone around the left faceoff dot, despite performing worse than the league average on those shots.

It’s also worth noting that red and green aren’t ideal colors for a data visualization since they can look the same to people who are colorblind. A graphic from the league’s official account should consider that reality.

While an iffy graphic might seem like a minor misstep, especially when compared to record-setting revenue, stats and data have been a long-simmering issue in NHL circles. When I wrote about the realities of running an advanced stats site for VICE Sports in 2016, Travis Yost said that the league’s “entire stats database is either randomly generated, incorrectly calculated, or a combination of the two.”

The landscape has changed a bit since then, but similar bugaboos remain. The league’s on-ice tracking has become somewhat of a joke within hockey Twitter, with fans wondering if it will ever truly arrive and suspecting that, if it does, we’ll be fed nonsensical tidbits like how fast a forward skated rather than meaningful data.

The fact that this visualization was called out as “save analytics powered by [Amazon Web Services]” makes those jokes seem a bit closer to reality.

Revenue is obviously important, but tweets like these can do real damage. If the NHL is promoting data visualizations that are worse than what the likes of Micah Blake McCurdy and others are already producing, why would anyone take them seriously? Or, if you want to pose the same question from a negative perspective, why wouldn’t some fans view the league as a joke?

Needless to say, that’s probably not ideal from the NHL’s side of things.

At this point, the NHL needs to grow its fan base as much as possible; hockey has remained a niche sport for far too long. That base-level expansion, however, can’t sacrifice depth to cast a wide net. An iffy graphic might seem like a niche topic that only irritates a handful of fans on Twitter, but it’s emblematic of a larger reality.

You can’t talk about growth solely in terms of revenue and TV numbers. If Gary Bettman wants to keep boasting about record-setting revenue, the league can’t botch the little things that tank its legitimacy among the people who are already invested. 

Growing a league without that trustworthiness is like building a team without a solid goalie. You might earn some wins along the way, but it’s tough to make it over the hump without a good foundation.

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