Amid an icy divorce with Glendale, the Arizona Coyotes future is still uncertain
The future of the Arizona Coyotes is up in the air
Listen to Part 1
The Arizona Coyotes are in their final days of a messy divorce with the city of Glendale.
After nearly two acrimonious decades in the West Valley, the hockey team’s lease was not renewed and they’ll be moving to a new temporary home at Arizona State University starting next season. The Coyotes are seeking approval to build a new facility in Tempe and are hoping the fans will follow them as they continue their search for a permanent home. But their future is still up in the air.
It’s a Saturday afternoon in March, and the Gila River Arena is about two-thirds full. But it’s hard to tell who the fans are actually rooting for.
“Let’s go Peng-coyotes. Let’s go Coyo-penguins.”
The rally chants after “let’s go” are a mangled combination of Penguins and Coyotes, reflecting a roughly 50-50 split between allegiances and the heavy presence of fans rooting for the visiting team from Pittsburgh.
The reaction is particularly confusing when a goal is scored. Half the arena roars as the Penguins put the puck in the Coyotes net.
It’s a typical occurrence in Glendale, where longtime hockey fan Jason Jacobs has been coming for the past 15 years, driving all the way from Prescott to see the games.
“I gotta tell you, I love this building. I’m so happy the Coyotes are staying in Arizona, but this season is kind of special to me because I really love the feel of this area and Westgate," said Jacobs.
Jacobs says he doesn’t understand the politics forcing the team to relocate next season.
“I wish the Coyotes were able to stay here in Glendale. I want this community to be able to thrive. I wish there could have been a better relationship so they can stay out here," Jacobs said.
That's not so for Melinda Latt, who comes in from the East Valley for the games with her daughter, Mikayla.
“I think the reason it didn’t work here was because when they were in downtown Phoenix, when people were just visiting, or had nothing to do on a Friday night and they were close to the area, it was a viable option,” Latt said. “But you have to be a legitimate hockey fan to get in the car and drive an hour out of your way to go,” said Latt.
'The entire relationship is toxic'
Sports writer Craig Morgan has heard this debate for years while watching the Coyotes icy marriage with Glendale dissolve into a nasty divorce.
“The entire relationship is toxic,” Morgan said.
Morgan, now with the sports news website PHNX, has covered the team for more than two decades.
“It’s a smaller fan base, obviously it’s nothing like some of the major markets, the Canadian markets obviously or Chicago, Detroit or Boston,” Morgan said. “But it’s a very loyal fan base, and I think they’ve been hardened by all the hardship that this franchise has been through both on the ice and off, so they really do stick with the team.”
The hardship he speaks of is the franchise’s quest for a permanent place to play.
After relocating from Winnipeg in 1996, the Coyotes played at the Suns arena in Phoenix before moving to their current home in Glendale in 2003. But the team has never been happy relegated to the less affluent and more distant West Valley.
A previous owner put the franchise in bankruptcy and almost moved it to Portland. Another ownership group flirted with Seattle. More recently, Glendale accused the team of not paying its taxes on time and threatened to lock it out of the city-owned arena. Frustrated with not being able to lock it into a long term deal, Glendale then declined to renew the Coyotes lease after this season, forcing them to relocate.
But not out of state. About 30 miles east to Tempe.
An 'intimate' new facility
“Not only is this a state-of-the-art new facility. It’s going to be intimate. The sight lines are going to be incredible. It’s going to be loud. It’s going to be packed,” said Coyotes CEO Xavier Guitierrez in February when the team announced the move.
Intimate being the key word. For at least the next three seasons, the team is moving to ASU’s new 5,000 seat on-campus hockey arena. That’s less than a third of the capacity of its current home.
“The very first conversation we had was with the NHL to make sure this met the standards of the NHL,” said Guitierrez.
The Coyotes, which claim to have the league’s lowest ticket prices, plan to raise them dramatically to make up for the attendance difference.
As for a more permanent home, that’s still up in the air — literally and figuratively. The Coyotes submitted a proposal to Tempe to build a new arena and entertainment district and are waiting to hear from the city on the request.
Guitierrez says the 46-acre tract of land just east of Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport would be for more than just hockey.
“We are very excited about the proposal that we put forth. It is a privately financed sports and entertainment district, anchored by our arena, that’ll include our practice facilities, hotels. We’re looking at building the Rodeo Drive of retail here in Arizona.”
That proposal not only needs approval from the city of Tempe, but also the Federal Aviation Administration, which is said to be concerned that the complex would be in the flight path of planes, less than two miles away from Sky Harbor’s runway approach.
Either way, the Coyotes and the NHL say they’re committed to keeping the team in the Valley. But Craig Morgan says that could change as well.
“As long as the league believes there is viable path forward with a permanent arena solution, I think they’ll stick with this market-they think it’s very important," said Morgan. "Now, if the Tempe City Council decides they don’t want that arena, then you have a problem because at some point, league executives’ patience is gonna run out.”
Glendale plays the field
Listen to Part 2
A crew stacked flat rectangle boards taken from atop the home ice of the Arizona Coyotes. The pieces made a subfloor of a multi-layer shield put down for Gila River Arena to host the Professional Bull Riders. Soon it was back to hockey.
“To keep ice going, especially here in the hot desert climate, takes a lot of energy. A lot of resources,” said Kevin Phelps, Glendale city manager.
Sitting in a suite high above the ice, Phelps spoke of purging a utility bill more costly than what the Coyotes are supposed to pay to play here.
“So we're getting $500,000 for rent, and paying at least $600,000 out just to keep ice going in the building,” he said.
Phelps came to the West Valley in 2016, when Glendale was looking for a venue manager able to book shows other than hockey so the arena would make money. Finalists were questioned if their pitch depended on the Coyotes staying in town. Replies were unanimous.
“If they were not a tenant, it would likely be financially better for the city and for the arena,” said Phelps.
Glendale will still owe $122 million on Gila River Arena after a divorce from the Arizona Coyotes is finalized. But the city has high confidence the company it pays to manage its venue will book enough events to fill a calendar vacant of pro hockey.
Team owners and the National Hockey League commissioner kept saying the Coyotes were leaving. So Glendale made a plan to replace hockey. Priority one are concerts, which draw a type of consumer also sought by businesses at the neighboring Westgate Entertainment District.
Phelps thinks live shows can help grow foot-traffic at the arena and Westgate next door to 20 million people a year.
“It becomes more of a spectacle around a concert. So the spending there is tremendously different than that of somebody coming in [and] just attending a sporting event,” he said.
Finding the right acts
Glendale and the company chosen to run its arena share profits. Phelps expects the city to get more without hockey. He’s relying on Dale Adams with ASM Global to make it happen.
“The focus is on programming these arenas with or without a tenant. What you're trying to do is bring in as many different types of events as you can,” said Adams.
He has been general manager of Gila River Arena for six years, and has run roughly the same number of venues over his career. Some were home to a professional franchise. Some were not.
“And they do just fine. Our Kansas City building doesn't have a tenant. It's one of our top buildings in our portfolio,” he said.
ASM Global controls more than 300 venues on five continents. Glendale stands to share the benefit of such reach.
“We can go out to certain acts and say, ‘Listen, I'd love for you to play 10 or 15 of our venues,’” said Adams.
An open calendar means a chance for every show to draw a different audience.
“So it's research. It's finding the right promoters, the right acts, the right agents,” he said.
An ad to see a concert by a Canadian pop-rock star Shawn Mendes played from speakers over an entrance to Gila River Arena.
A few steps north of the gate is Westgate Entertainment District.
“I think what's important to our tenants [are] fresh faces. Meaning concerts that bring people out to Westgate [who] haven't been there, or wouldn't have gone there before,” said Dan Dahl, real estate director for YAM Properties.
The company, owned by GoDaddy founder Bob Parsons, bought the hub for dining, shopping and amusement in 2018. Yam Properties supports Glendale’s move to get rid of hockey.
Dahl said gameday foot traffic depends on who the Coyotes play. Seasons ticket holders follow routines and may totally bypass Westgate.
“It's difficult on a Tuesday night game. If the puck drops at 7:00 or 7:30, a lot of people will get there right before the game. Go into the arena. And then at 10:30 leave because they have to go home and go to work the next day,” said Dahl.
Westgate aims to help people make memories. Concerts at the arena draw consumers out for that kind of experience.
Live shows are part of a specific strategy by Glendale under City Manager Kevin Phelps, who spoke inside the arena overlooking the expensive ice that will soon be gone.
“We wish the Coyotes all the luck in the world. But we're not looking over our shoulder. We're full steam ahead,” said Phelps.