They say a picture says a thousand words. In that case here are 3000 words.
Cute girl though. She almost masks the globs of burgundy seats behind her. Almost.
I couldn’t help but react to a blindly written article in USA Today a few days ago. Kevin Allen writes with the optimism reminiscent of one of Gary Bettman’s State Of The League addresses. What he fails to discuss is the true dire straits the Phoenix Coyotes are in right now, and have been in for some time. In fact they were doomed from the day they left Maroons Road at Polo Park in city that now lets the Vancouver Canucks farm club call home. Granted, things weren’t all that great when they left Winnipeg, but it had nothing to do with the fans or corporate support. Never did.
The pictures above, taken this season at a Saturday night game no less, tell a different story. So do the books in the ‘Yotes offices. And they are very closely correlated. No fans equals no revenues. In fact quite the opposite. In the 13 seasons being in the desert, the Coyotes have endured multiple owners and over a half billion dollars in losses, including over $30 million this year, prompting league life support to keep them above water. No pun intended. These are levels unimaginable if the team were to still reside in Manitoba’s capital. Yes, Winnipeg is always deemed a small market. But that is population wise. What about hockey fan wise? What does raw population have to do with selling hockey tickets? All that matters to the NHL, or all that should matter, is how many hockey fans there are in a market, not people. Under that mentality, why not put a team in Sydney or Hong Kong? Oh boy, I better not give Gary any ideas. And you can’t say the reason is TV revenue because anyone in the US that tries to find NHL hockey on TV will bellow a collective laugh at that reasoning.
Winnipeg has more hockey fans per capita than possibly any market in North America and no other sport that ranks above it to compete with. No NFL, MLB, NBA, NASCAR or any number of NCAA teams. Nope, hockey is front page news in Winnipeg, even the AHL’s Manitoba Moose, who by the way draw 6,000-8,000 fans on a regular basis. For those of you wondering, that’s roughly how many paying customers the Coyotes are drawing when you subtract how many tickets are freebies or discount tickets. And as for actual attendances, the photos above were from a game on Saturday, November 1st against the Wild. These are not pre-game photos but rather during play. They announced a crowd of 14,817. Now look at the photos again. Now 14,817 wouldn’t be great, especially for a Saturday night anyway, but the actual attendance is clearly more in the range of 9,000-10,000. Wouldn’t want to see a Tuesday night.
Now I’m not attacking Phoenix for any particular reason other than they are on the radar to relocate at some point and that interests many peolpe where I come from. The reality is that 6 or 7 teams are in similar dismal situations. Namely Nashville, Atlanta, Miami, Tampa, Columbus, Raleigh and even the New York Islanders. Although their issues are unique in themselves, they still pose the questions: has the NHL finally come to terms that the sun belt experiment has failed miserably and if so, how do they intend to fix it?
It’s not easy by any stretch of the imagination.
Lets go back to Phoenix. They cannot simply pack up and move to the highest bidder. They have a building that was constructed almost entirely contingent on the existence of the Coyotes as the NBA Suns still play out of US Airways Center. There are rumoured penalties of in excess of $700 million to bail out of Phoenix. The only option is Chapter 11, the most dreaded term in any entrepreneur’s vocabulary.
But what is the alternative, really? I’m sure to get hate mail, but there is no long-term hope in Arizona for NHL hockey. They are currently ranked dead last in value by Forbes magazine, they have crowds like the ones seen above on a Saturday night, and they can’t ice a good hockey team. Ironic how many times Wayne Gretzky used to beat up on the Jets through the 1980’s only to possibly end up sinking with a ship called Jobing.com Arena. I’m in Arizona frequently. Phoenix included. I know the announced attendance vs. the real attendance. I know the atmosphere. I know the media coverage. In Phoenix it’s all about the Cardinals, and until this year they’ve been dreadful. In Tucson it’s all about Lute Olsen and the Wildcats.
Kevin Allen may want to see things with rose coloured glasses but some of his main points for why there is no reason for concern in Phoenix are ill-founded. Firstly, Gary Bettman saying the league has no plans to contract or relocate any franchise is like believing Pacman Jones doesn’t plan to go to a niteclub ever again. Secondly, some added parking revenue is not going to turn the buckets of red ink into black ink. Thirdly, yes Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Ottawa received financial assistance but they all have something in common. They are all established hockey markets with a proven track record…and…well…snow!
If moving a franchise is Gary Bettman’s last resort, well then that time has come, or at the very least is right over the horizon.
Winnipeg will regain an NHL franchise. I don’t know if it will be Phoenix, in fact likely not as that would be far too embarrassing for Gary Bettman to handle. Afterall, where was the life support for the Jets in 1995? But the inevitable is coming and no matter how much Kevin Allen or anyone else wants to think some parking revenue will save the day….it won’t. Sad actually, for the fans that do exist in Phoenix. Believe me, up here we know the feeling.
(photos courtesy of Alex Snell)