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Puckin' Around With Spector

Coyotes Need Fan Support To Survive.

After three years of uncertainty, the Phoenix Coyotes ownership issue could be on the verge of resolution.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman on Monday acknowledged a tentative agreement had been reached with an ownership group (led by former San Jose Sharks CEO Greg Jamison) which would keep the team in Glendale, Arizona.

This doesn’t mean it’s a done deal, as the NHL Board of Governors must approve the sale, plus the Jamison group would have to not only work out a new arena lease agreement with Glendale City Council, but one which would pass scrutiny of The Goldwater Institute, a local taxpayer watchdog.

Nevertheless, this news could signal a significant step toward ensuring the Coyotes remain in Arizona.

Critics wonder why the league has fought so hard and for so long to keep the franchise there, pointing to the poor attendance - especially over the past five, when they’ve been either last or second-last in overall attendance - as proof of poor fan support in that market for the NHL.

The consensus among the critics is the Coyotes would be best served relocating to a more “traditional” hockey market.

It was thought the Coyotes would return to Winnipeg (where until 1996 they had been the original Jets), until the Atlanta Thrashers were moved there in June 2011. Quebec City, Seattle, Hamilton and Kansas City have since been suggested as possible destinations

There’s nothing mysterious over the league’s stubborn insistence on keeping the Coyotes in their current market.

Glendale falls into the metropolitan statistical area of Phoenix, which is among the largest (12th) in the United States. If the Coyotes could survive and eventually thrive there, the economic benefits for the league would be tremendous.

That’s why Bettman and the league board of governors fought so hard in 2009 to prevent former Coyotes owner Jerry Moyes selling the team to then-RiM co-CEO Jim Balsillie. Given Balsillie’s recent financial troubles, blocking that sale turned out to be a good thing for the team and the league.

It’s why the 29 other team owners agreed to allow the league to take control of the franchise while Bettman and his aides beat the bushes in search of owners willing to keep the Coyotes in Glendale.

If the sale of the Coyotes to the Jamison group is approved, the wisdom of keeping the team in its current location will continue to be questioned by its critics.

Should the Coyotes fail to see a significant, sustained gain in fan support, the belief an NHL franchise cannot survive in Arizona will not only prove justified, but prophetic.

The Phoenix market has received blistering criticism around the league for failing to support the Coyotes, but there were contributing factors responsible for those poor attendance numbers.

The previous ownership, with Moyes first as a minority owner from 2001 to 2006, then as majority owners from 2006 to 2009, failed to bring in the right people to properly run the team. That includes Wayne Gretzky, who was a part-owner, director of hockey operations, and eventually head coach.

Though Gretzky was the greatest player in NHL history, the Coyotes record when he and his staff ran the team speaks for itself, as the club missed the playoffs from 2003 to 2009, leading to a decline in fan support.

Critics often point to this as a reason why an NHL franchise cannot survive in that market, blithely overlooking the fact attendance in several“traditional” hockey markets (Boston, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Calgary, and Buffalo) also significantly declined when teams in those markets performed poorly.

It was when Don Maloney took over as general manager in 2007, and Dave Tippett came on board as head coach in 2009, that the Coyotes finally turned the corner from perennial also-ran into playoff contender.

Despite the team’s improvement over the past three seasons, the Coyotes continued to rank either last or second-last in attendance, providing further ammunition for their critics.

The constant threat of relocation over that period, however, was a significant contributing factor. It made little sense for Phoenix-area sports fans to support a team which many believed would be gone the following season.

For those who dismiss that as a poor attitude among those fans, consider fans in “traditional” hockey markets in Winnipeg and Quebec City also didn’t turn out in huge numbers during the respective final seasons of the original Jets and the Nordiques.

Should this deal to the Jamison group be approved, the threat of imminent relocation will be gone, as will the excuse not to support the club.

It will then become “put up or shut up” time for Phoenix sports fans to prove they will support a well-run NHL team.

Over the past three seasons, the Coyotes under Maloney’s management and Tippett’s coaching have been a perennial playoff contender, and done so under a tighter budget than other NHL clubs. Indeed, they’ve had more on-ice success since 2009 than the Toronto Maple Leafs, the league’s richest franchise with one of its highest payrolls.

That said, this is a franchise which cannot continue to just operate on a shoestring as poorly supported underdogs forever.

Ownership will do what it can to ice a competitive franchise, but they’ll need strong fan support to over the long run to have a shot at not only climbing out of a morass of debt, but also to stand on its own, without support from the league or the local city council.

Rest assured, if the Coyotes continue to rank near the bottom of the league in attendance over the next ten years, even if they ice a perennially competitive playoff contender over that period, the Jamison group will tire of wasting time and money and seek to rid itself of the franchise.

If it comes to that, the league won’t be as determined to keep the Coyotes in Glendale, and local fans won’t have anyone to blame but themselves should they move.

If the fan support isn’t there over the next decade, the sale to the Jamison group will be merely postponing the inevitable.

Filed in: | Puckin' Around With Spector | Permalink
  Tags: coyotes, glendale, nhl, phoenix

Comments

awould's avatar

The biggest factors contributing to the low attendance are:
1) Threat of leaving PHX
2) Poor record
3) Location of the arena

They can fix 1 and 2, but 3 will continue to be a problem. From my home in Gilbert, it is a 100 mile round-trip drive for me to go to Jobing.com Arena, but I still used to go to 5 or 6 games a year. Now that I have a toddler and another on the way, I go to zero games. It’s just too far and I don’t have the time.

They really screwed up by moving the team that far west. The only sense it made at the time was that Glendale ponied up a lot of incentives and the owner at the time owned all the surrounding land, thus giving him incentive that had nothing to do with what’s best for the team.

The population on the west side is approx 625,000. The population on the east side is approx 1,265,000. That doesn’t even include any of the nearly 1.5MM people who live in the actual city of Phoenix, which would probably be considered to split about 60/40 in favor of the east side.

In addition, most of the money is in the east side as well. So they chose to move the team to a sparsely populated area where the residents made less money. Assholes.

Posted by awould on 05/09/12 at 12:30 PM ET

Chris in Hockey Hell's avatar

I still think they’re prolonging the inevitable.

Posted by Chris in Hockey Hell from Ann Arbor, MI but LIVING in Columbia, TN on 05/09/12 at 12:42 PM ET

James Mirtle's avatar

Good comment awould… what a disaster it’s been having the building there.

It’s too bad because there’s some evidence they’d be okay over on the Scottsdale side.

Posted by James Mirtle from Toronto on 05/09/12 at 12:58 PM ET

awould's avatar

It’s too bad because there’s some evidence they’d be okay over on the Scottsdale side.

I’ve not seen any actual evidence, but common sense says they’d be doing a lot better. One Scottsdale location considered was on the site of a former shopping mall, just south of the Old Town Scottsdale nightlife scene and just north of the ASU campus. Also, 2 miles west of Loop 101 freeway and 2 miles north of Loop 202 freeway. Ideal.

I would probably have gotten to more like 10-12 games in the regular season if they were located in Scottsdale. I’m sure I’m not alone in that.

Posted by awould on 05/09/12 at 01:05 PM ET

Avatar

There have been a huge number of missteps after the Jets relocated to Phoenix.

1. Playing in America West (US Airways) Arena with its obstructed views.
2. Trying to work with Colangelo who patently refused to have AWA updated to support hockey. “You want to see BOTH goal nets? I’m sorry that’s not going to work for me.”
3. The entire new arena saga (Downtown? nope. Tempe? nope. Scottsdale? Almost, but nope) until they finally landed in Glendale.
4. The entire ownership saga (part of #3) with Ellman way over his head in running a hockey team, unable to financially afford it, and dumping it on Moyes.
5. Terrible, boring teams (see #4). I was so glad when Gretzky was dumped.
6. No media presence, no advertising, nothing. There’s more high school sports news on our local channels than Coyotes news.
7. No corporate sponsors, thus no suite sales. I think only 30% of the suites were sold this season.

And don’t forget that the Cardinals play right across the street from the Coyotes and people have been driving from across the valley (and state) to help sell-out that stadium. People will drive to see good teams.

Posted by AZWinger from Phoenix, AZ on 05/09/12 at 03:00 PM ET

awould's avatar

And don’t forget that the Cardinals play right across the street from the Coyotes and people have been driving from across the valley (and state) to help sell-out that stadium. People will drive to see good teams.

I hear that brought up a lot. It’s not a fair comparison. The Cardinals play at that location 8 times a year (most years, ha) while the Coyotes play 41 times. If the Cardinals expected their fans to drive out there even 25 times a year, they’d probably be disappointed with the results. Also, the NFL is a much more popular sport in every American market, not just Phoenix. THe entire experience is different…. most folks I know who go see the Cardinals every game go for the tailgating and the “experience”. Those who go to the Coyotes go to watch hockey. The NHL has never developed culture in the experience the way the NFL has.

Posted by awould on 05/09/12 at 03:05 PM ET

Avatar

Another huge factor in relation to the Cardinals…..they only play on Sunday’s, with the exception of a possible MNF slot, or in rare cases, Thursday night.  With so many ‘Yotes games taking place on weekdays, there’s hardly enough time to get to the arena before puck-drop after getting off work.  Making the trip every other Sunday is no comparison to what we deal with!  Personally, I work in Scottsdale, live in Mesa, and that results in one hell of a long day.  Leave for work at 6:30am, then go directly from work to the game, and usually end up getting home a little before midnight.  I highly prefer living in the east valley, butI intend on moving to the west valley once/if the sale is finalized, solely for the reason of attending more games.

Posted by DrunknRuckus on 05/10/12 at 12:04 PM ET

awould's avatar

I highly prefer living in the east valley, butI intend on moving to the west valley once/if the sale is finalized, solely for the reason of attending more games.

That’s dedication!

Posted by awould on 05/10/12 at 12:08 PM ET

redxblack's avatar

The team loses $25-$30 million a year. How much would it cost to put in a light rail system that ran from the East ‘burbs to the West ‘burbs? $300 million? Light rail might be the best solution to the sprawling traffic knots.

Posted by redxblack from Akron Ohio on 05/10/12 at 12:18 PM ET

awould's avatar

I believe the Coyotes already do a shuttle from the end of the light rail about 10 miles east of the arena. I also think the light rail is slated to be extended west to more like 2 miles from the arena. Eventually, I am sure, it will be extended the entire way. But it takes several years to build something like that.

In addition, the Loop 202 San Tan Freeway will be extended around South Mountain to connect w/ the I-10 somewhere around the Loop 101, which will also greatly ease congestion throughout the system in the southeast valley. But that’s also years away.

Posted by awould on 05/10/12 at 12:25 PM ET

Avatar

I use to live in Queen Creek and would go to maybe 1 game a year. Now that I live 8 miles from the stadium I go to many more games and sometimes take the family down to Westgate during home games just to soak in the atmosphere before and after the game.

We sat outside the arena during game 5 of the Chicago series and watched the game on the screen outside the arena. I was shocked that we were 6 of maybe 14 people that were doing the same thing. Even the bars around the arena were half full and this was a Saturday night.

I can understand the frustration of people driving to the west side but the arena has to be somewhere and the coyotes did have a sweet deal with the city of Glendale. I sure hope that the Phoenix fans get behind this team so they can stay here long term. I come from a city (KC, CHIEFS RULE!) that did not have NHL hockey so I really latched onto the coyotes when I moved here. Tell a friend or 20 about the coyotes and let’s get 100% behind them for their push to win the Stanley cup and beyond!

Posted by DT from Peoria on 05/10/12 at 03:48 PM ET

Avatar

The reason attendance is poor is because hockey in the desert is not a good combination.  Baseball…yes, Football…yes, Hockey…no.  The team has never ever made money since relocating so why would it now?  If the people of Phoenix are serious about keeping the team, they need to do exactly what fans in Winnipeg did…buy up season tickets for the next 5+ years so the building is full every night.  There is a waiting list of almost 10000 just to get season tickets and only a limited number of single tickets available to each game and good luck getting some of those.  This past February, i went to two games in Phoenix and when you get 10000 people to a game in a 17000 arena, it looks god awful.  Makes you wonder how many would be at the games if it wasn’t for the snowbirds.

Posted by zettsyuk on 05/15/12 at 06:27 PM ET

awould's avatar

The reason attendance is poor is because hockey in the desert is not a good combination.

This doesn’t qualify as a valid comment. No offense, but it sounds like the stock drivel from every Canadian newspaper when talking about the Coyotes. It “just doesn’t work” is a meaningless statement that allows the writer to then spend the rest of the article bagging on them without really making a point. The Winnipeg Jets averaged only 73% attendance in ‘95-‘96, their last season. No wonder they lost their franchise! Nobody would show up to support them after everyone told them their team was leaving. Of course, that was down from about 85% each of the previous five years. I guess hockey just doesn’t work there. Case closed!

Is attendance down in PHX? Yes. Why? For all the reasons that were spelled out in that article and in these comments… Their record, bankruptcy, threat of leaving town, location of arena, total crap local economy.

All are very valid reasons for why attendance would suffer. Definitely the fact that PHX isn’t a hotbed of youth hockey contributes to its struggles to gain a solid fanbase. But if the team were winning, that would help a lot. It has helped a lot. This season had a higher attendance level than both the previous two seasons. The highest since the bankruptcy. What’s caused it? Well, the team is winning more. The economy has turned around a bit in PHX. The ownership saga is still an anchor but I think even the fans have learned to sort of ignore it.

Here’s an interesting article:
http://www.fiveforhowling.com/2010/4/21/1436250/dissecting-the-phoenix-coyotes

And another one:
http://blog.ivanemoore.me/2011/03/do-coyotes-have-better-attendance-in.html

Makes you wonder how many would be at the games if it wasn’t for the snowbirds.

That’s like saying, makes you wonder how many people would go if there were less people. The snowbirds are a fact of life in PHX. That they supplement the attendance in the arena is a good thing, but I doubt they really make up a sizeable chunk. I wonder what the average attendance in Columbus would be without Red Wings fans filling their arena 3x/year.

My prediction is that if this most recent deal rumor ends up getting done and the team finally has ownership stability and a long-term future here, attendance will spike big time and everyone in Hamilton or Quebec will move on to trying to poach some other team.

Posted by awould on 05/15/12 at 07:16 PM ET

Avatar

Not a meaningless statement…an accurate statement.  The team has never made a profit since they became the Coyotes and you can give me whatever reason you want but there is not enough fan support there and there never has been.  In a huge city, where you can’t even find a an NHL game on tv during a month long stay in February…but plenty of basketball (blechh)....it’s pretty clear that hockey is not #1 out there.  I was only able to watch hockey during my stay this year because the couple i rented the house from had cable from Canada.

I guess hockey just doesn’t work there. Case closed!

Obviously you don’t know why the jets left in the first place. Attendance had nothing to to do with it. They left because of the direction the league was going towards higher salaries and being a small market team, there was no way it would work.  There was also no firm commitment to revenue sharing in the NHL. Having an old arena didn’t help either.  It was called “the barn” for a reason.

Bottom line, the fans stepped up here.  Sold out the building for many years to come with thousands on the waiting list for tickets.  There’s corporate sponsorship and every single suite is sold.  Not bad for a population of 660,000.  If it can be done here, it can certainly be done there!  There’s also no $15, $30, or $40 tickets here either like there is there and it wasn’t an issue.  Bottom line, if enough Coyotes fans really want the team to stay, they will step up. That’s also assuming the latest deal with this new owner actually goes through without a hitch.  Previous prospective buyers of the team always wanted to move the team, and for good reason.  Who in their right mind would purchase a team and keep it where it has never prospered?  Hmm…spend millions upon millions for a team and never see a dime profit.  Yea, makes sense.  Greg Jamison is somewhat nuts.  Good on him if it works out and he can figure a way to turn things around, but wow, talk about risk..

I wonder what the average attendance in Columbus would be without Red Wings fans filling their arena 3x/year.

What’s your point?  The wings fill Phoenix’s arena twice a year as well.  And the team makes even more money by charging the fans a premium for tickets when the wings are in town!

It’s too bad the fans aren’t willing to fill the seats regardless of which team is visiting.

Posted by zettsyuk on 06/05/12 at 01:26 AM ET

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About Puckin' Around With Spector

I’m Lyle Richardson. You might know me from my website, Spector’s Hockey, my thrice-weekly rumor column at THN.com, my weekly column at Eishockey News (if you read German), and my former gig as a contributing writer to Foxsports.com.

I’ll be writing a once-weekly blog here with my take on all things NHL. Who knows, I might actually find time to debunk a trade rumor or two.