Hello. Welcome to another edition of our NHL Explainer series, where I talk to myself about hockey news that might seem complex to most people. Including myself.
This week, we’re going to discuss everyone’s favorite topic: the Arizona Coyotes arena saga in Glendale.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and the Coyotes ownership started a war of words with the Arizona state legislature this week. Essentially, they threatened to leave the state if taxpayers don’t pay for a new downtown Phoenix arena.
Watching the Coyotes leave Arizona is the last thing anyone involved in this whole drama wants. But it’s worth resetting for those new to the situation. This Glendale-Coyotes struggle has gone on for almost a decade, and now it’s rearing its ugly head again.
Could the Coyotes really move? And to where? And why? Time to call myself to talk through this.
Yes, self. This again.
Ugh. So let’s start with the basics. What is Glendale, and why do the Coyotes and NHL want to leave it?
Glendale is a city of 226,000 people, nine miles north of downtown Phoenix. It’s also the home of the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals. The NBA’s Phoenix Suns play in downtown Phoenix, and the Coyotes wish they could join them. The Coyotes play in Gila River Arena, 12.5 miles northwest of Phoenix.
That sounds like a long drive, but it’s not. It takes 30 minutes to drive from downtown Phoenix to Gila River Arena, about the same drive a lot of Dallas Stars fans have to make to get from their suburb homes to American Airlines Center.
Of course, the Dallas-Fort Worth area has a rapid transit system that drops you off right next to the arena. The Phoenix area has no such system.
Also, like any main metroplex freeway artery, traffic is garbage during rush hour.
OK, but you’re assuming ALL of the Coyotes fans live in Phoenix.
Right. They don’t. The team and NHL think most of their fans and corporate sponsors live in the East Valley, making a drive out west to Glendale a real road trip.
The Coyotes can opt out of their Gila River Arena lease after next season.
When did this latest spat start?
On March 7, when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told the Arizona state legislature that the Coyotes “cannot and will not remain in Glendale.” That seems random until you realize that Senate Bill 1149 is not going to get enough votes to pass.
What’s Senate Bill 1149?
A bill that would grant the Coyotes $225 million in public financing for a new arena either in downtown Phoenix or the East Valley. They want out of Glendale, they want a new arena, and they want taxpayers to pay for it.
How old is Gila River Arena, or whatever they’re calling it these days?
13 years old.
Yeah. And taxpayers and local media aren’t buying what they’re selling.
The team claims it’s losing tens of millions of dollars on the franchise each year and blames Glendale for it.
It sure does. Consider the fact the Coyotes have failed to make the playoffs in eight of the last 11 seasons. No wonder the senate bill doesn’t have much support behind it from lawmakers or taxpayers.
And Glendale’s former mayor weighed in with a long letter this week, blaming Coyotes leadership for the team’s financial woes:
The facts are easy to verify. Before the Coyotes moved out of downtown Phoenix they ranked 29th in attendance out of the league of 30 teams. Their first year in the Glendale Arena they ranked 19th in attendance. Attendance stayed in that tier until the floundering team started losing their disappointed fans’ support.
She also noted that the team didn’t start complaining about wanting a new arena until the city of Glendale stopped subsidizing the franchise through a $15 million arena-management deal in 2015.
So why is Bettman making threats to leave?
His legacy is at stake, and he’s running out of options in Arizona. The Phoenix Suns don’t want to share a stadium with the Coyotes, and they don’t seem interested in a brand new arena either.
Think of the Coyotes as a roommate. An unproductive roommate who doesn’t help out around the apartment or get a job and for some reason blames it on you. Coyotes roommate goes to other people he kinda-sorta knows and asks if he can live with them. They say no.
Coyotes roommate, rejected, calls his father, Gary. Gary stands in the middle of town and screams “IF YOU DON’T FIND MY SON A PLACE TO LIVE, HE’S GOING TO LEAVE THIS CITY!”
Coyotes roommate and Gary are met with strange looks and indifference.
OK. Can...can you give me a sane version of that explanation?
That’s why Bettman chose to lash out at the local legislature. He knows that options are dwindling, and losing an eight-year battle to keep the Coyotes in Arizona will reflect very poorly on his vision and his long-term branding of the NHL.
But sports fans in the Valley are smarter than they look. The Coyotes have failed on their end of the bargain, running their franchise on the cheap while depending on handouts to survive. If this team had consistently exposed Arizonans to the majesty of playoff hockey over the past decade, this conversation would sound much different.
That seems to get at the heart of the issue!
It really does, doesn’t it? Put simply: If the Coyotes were consistently good, then they might find more public support for financing a new arena. Hardcore hockey fans know they’re going to be really, really good in a few years. The franchise boasts the deepest pool of elite young prospects in the league.
But casual fans (the ones being asked to pay for a new arena) don’t see that. The Coyotes utterly fail the “what have you done for me lately?” test. Five years is a long time for the team to keep losing money at high rates while they wait to prove they’re going to be an elite NHL team.
So are they going to move?
It’s on the table, at least. Losing an Arizona franchise would be a huge hit to Bettman’s legacy of growing NHL hockey across the country. It’s why he stepped in when the team went bankrupt a few years ago. He badly wants this to work. And I think he’s right in believing it can work.
But his fiery comments to the state legislature indicate he’s feeling the pressure.
The good news is the league will probably keep working on the Arizona situation until the Seattle arena situation sorts itself out.
What’s that situation like right now?
Well, reports surfaced in February that an NHL team had toured the Key Arena in Seattle recently. The Coyotes denied it was them.
If and when Seattle becomes a real option, the NHL could move the Coyotes there. But the league will exhaust every possible option you could imagine to keep the Coyotes in Arizona before it waves that white flag.
For now, the war of words between the NHL and Arizona is just posturing. But it’s meaningful posturing.
Well, it gives me a headache.
Us a headache, you mean.