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Today, we have a special contributor in the NHL department, Dean Pennington of TBIV.net.
The plight of the Phoenix Coyotes has become the league’s biggest, most persistent embarrassment. Jobing.com Arena in Glendale, AZ holds 17,195 people for hockey games. Last night, there were less than ten thousand people in the seats to watch the Coyotes drop the Minnesota Wild, a game that should have been an excellent draw. This is far from limited to one game, however. The Coyotes have unexpectedly turned into a perennial contender in the Western Conference. After a tough stretch earlier this decade, wrapping up with 79 points in 2008-09 (13th in the West), the Coyotes turned things around dramatically. In 2009-10, Phoenix finished fourth with 107 points, a 28 point improvement over their previous season. 2010-11 and 2011-12 saw them finish with 99 and 97 points, good enough for a sixth and third place finish, respectively. Yet, over the same three seasons attendance figures were never higher than 72.5% capacity.
Maybe more embarrassing for the NHL is the fact that attendance has suffered even more in the desert since the start of the current ownership dispute. When the Coyotes were sputtering along at the bottom of the conference in 2008-09, average attendance was a respectable 14,875 per game. In 2007-08, when Phoenix finished with 83 points and 12th in the conference, attendance was 14,820 per game. Immediately following the NHL’s acquisition of the team following previous owner Jerry Moyes’ bankruptcy in May 2009, attendance numbers plummeted. In the first season under NHL ownership, 2009-10, attendance figures dipped to their lowest point ever at only 11,989 paying customers per game. You can certainly argue that a large reason for the attendance drop is that the NHL simply doesn’t know how to run a team, especially a struggling team. In 2008, the Moyes ownership group resorted to literally giving tickets away just to get people in the doors. The giveaways and constant tickets helped the Coyotes build a pretty convincing façade of fan support. Predictably, once the NHL took hold of the team and shut off the discount tap, attendance fell back to its organic, poor levels.
The playoff attendance numbers are more encouraging, although Coyotes playoff tickets start at $40, less than half of the average playoff ticket price around the NHL. Plus, there is a bit of deception in looking at the numbers alone. The Coyotes have yet to sell out a playoff game. To put that in perspective, there have been fifteen playoff games played at Jobing.com Area over the last three seasons, none of which sold out. Of all the remaining playoff games played throughout the NHL over the same time frame, over 200 games involving 21 teams, two have failed to sell out. Two. One was in San Jose during the 2009 quarterfinal, the other was a quarterfinal game in Nashville in 2011. Phoenix ranked 15th in playoff attendance in each of the last three playoffs, 16th by percentage. Only Nashville ranked lower in attendance, but their arena capacity is only 17,133.
Attendance hasn’t improved much to date this season. Phoenix ranks last in attendance through the first ten games of this season, with their average attendance of 11,956 falling below that of 2009. Making matters worse, Greg Jamison, the prospective buyer who came to lease terms with Glendale, missed the strictly imposed January 31st deadline to come up with the funding to complete the purchase. Once again, the Coyotes’ fate hangs in the balance and the NHL has come out adamantly to keep the team in the desert. At this point, hockey fans in Phoenix and elsewhere are struggling to come up with the reasoning behind the league’s reluctance to move the team. What else is left to prove?
Atlanta had substantially better attendance in their final season than Phoenix has over their last three. In that case, the NHL did the right thing and moved the team to a hungry hockey hotbed in Winnipeg. Winnipeg had the infrastructure and the fan base and the league conceded to their incessant requests for a team. Winnipeg has sold out every game over the past season-plus and will likely continue to sell out the comparatively tiny MTS Center. The argument over what cities could support a team has been beaten to death, including by TBIV, but the NHL can’t possibly believe that Winnipeg is the only market without a team that can sustain one. You can argue that Gary Bettman’s Master Plan to have hockey in the south paired with his complete inability to admit defeat is keeping the team there, but Phoenix has become a laughingstock, it’s hemorrhaging money, hasn’t turned a profit in almost a decade and clearly doesn’t have the fan support needed to keep a team long term. They can’t sell out playoff games, they can’t find a buyer and the city of Glendale can’t keep throwing money at them at the request of the NHL. The taxpayers of Arizona shouldn’t be burdened with keeping the Coyotes on life support. In any scenario like this one, there are always true fans that are heartbroken when their team is relocated. But the harsh reality is that moving a team into say, Seattle or Quebec City, and satisfying millions of fans is worth losing, optimistically, a few hundred thousand. Get the team out of Phoenix, there is nothing left to hold on to.