Coyotes’ Arena Saga Takes a New Turn

“The Arizona Coyotes cannot and will not remain in Glendale.”

Those were the words used by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman on Tuesday in his open letter to the Arizona State Legislature. Bettman penned the letter to ask the Legislature to support Senate Bill 1149, which, if approved, would allow for the construction of a new arena elsewhere in the Phoenix area that would enable the Coyotes to end their failed marriage with the City of Glendale once and for all after years of relocation rumors, arena drama, and uncertainty.

Broken Promises

Although there has never been more uncertainty surrounding the Coyotes franchise than there is now, there was a time not long ago when it appeared as if the team’s future in Arizona was finally set. On July 2, 2013, Glendale City Council passed the Professional Management Services and Arena Lease Agreement by a 4-3 vote, meaning that the City of Glendale and the Arizona Coyotes had agreed to terms on a 15-year arena lease agreement that would have kept the team in Gila River Arena until at least 2028.

All seemed settled – the Coyotes were staying in Arizona and finally had some stability after former owner Jerry Moyes filed for bankruptcy in 2009. However, this newfound stability proved to be short-lived. Following the conclusion of the 2014-15 NHL season, Glendale mayor Jerry Weiers suddenly announced that the City Council would not honor the initial contract that was signed in 2013 and would renege on their word and cancel the team’s fairly-negotiated 15-year lease agreement after just two seasons.

The City of Glendale publicly stated that they wished to renegotiate the agreement to create more favorable terms for the City, but their vote to cancel the existing agreement was seen by many as a breach of contract. Indeed, the Coyotes felt the same and took Glendale to court, which resulted in the team and City revising their agreement that would keep the Coyotes in Gila River Arena on a short-term basis.

Since the City canceled the team’s lease agreement in 2015, the Coyotes have failed to turn a profit and remain competitive due to the uncertainty surrounding the franchise. In his letter, Bettman stated that the league has tried everything possible to help the Coyotes stay in Glendale, but admitted that the team’s current location “is not economically capable of supporting a successful NHL franchise,” and that a move is necessary to secure the team’s long-term future in Arizona.

An Environment Unconducive to Success

While it’s true that the Coyotes likely would have been more successful financially in Gila River Arena over the past few seasons if they had managed to put together winning seasons, the City of Glendale has hampered the team’s efforts to put a better product on the ice by failing to provide an environment in which the team could succeed due to their unprofessional handling of the lease agreement and failure to perform even the most basic maintenance on Gila River Arena.

As a result of Glendale’s refusal to maintain Gila River Arena to a standard that would be considered acceptable for an NHL team, the ice conditions inside have deteriorated to become among the worst in the league, while the arena’s roof is prone to leaking and the concourses are prone to flooding during rainstorms.

While the leaks from the roof and flooding in the concourses serve only as an inconvenience and do not have a direct impact on the game itself, poor ice conditions can and do affect the outcome of games, and Gila River Arena has been roundly criticized in recent years for having some of the worst ice in the NHL. Many opposing players have voiced their concerns this season, and many Coyotes, including goaltender Mike Smith, have done the same.

The Coyotes already struggle to earn the respect of the League as it is, and being forced to play in a leaky building with subpar ice likely hasn’t done much to help the team’s reputation with opposing players, visiting media, and team executives.

A Public-Private Partnership

As a result of the City of Glendale’s failure to honor the 15-year lease agreement that was signed in 2013, the Coyotes have been forced to explore options outside of Gila River Arena in order to remain in Arizona long-term. While Downtown Phoenix, Tempe, Scottsdale, and Mesa have all been suggested as potential arena sites, the viability of constructing a new facility could rest on the successful passing of Senate Bill 1149.

Many Arizona voters and taxpayers have taken to social media over the past few days to voice their displeasure with the possibility of the state using tax dollars to fund a hockey arena instead of schools, roads or public services. However, a quick look at the bill itself reveals that the arena plan will not require any state tax increases nor will it use any existing revenue from the state’s general fund.

In addition to the arena deal not requiring any state tax increases, the Coyotes have offered to contribute $170 million towards any arena project should SB1149 pass in Arizona’s Legislature. However, it appears as if support for the bill among state lawmakers is lukewarm at best, so the team must continue to explore other options while awaiting a decision from the Legislature.

Easier Solutions?

Should SB1149 fail in the Arizona Legislature, the Coyotes still have multiple remaining options for staying in Arizona. Late last year, the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community announced that they were looking into constructing a 20,000 seat multipurpose arena south of the Scottsdale Pavillions area that could serve as a new home for the Coyotes and the NBA’s Phoenix Suns.

Partnering with the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community would have many benefits for the Coyotes, the most significant of which being that they would no longer require support from Arizona lawmakers or voters since the arena would be privately funded and built on Salt River land. As was previously mentioned, Arizona taxpayers and lawmakers have not been enthusiastic about building a new arena, so not having to deal with any sort of government officials would make any arena deal much easier for the team.

However, if the Coyotes do not manage to come to an agreement with the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, there is one more option – Downtown Phoenix. Talking Stick Resort Arena, which currently houses the Phoenix Suns, was the Coyotes’ first home when they moved to Arizona in 1996 and is still capable of supporting NHL hockey.

However, the problems with the arena that forced the Coyotes to move to Glendale in 2003 still exist today. Since it was designed primarily for basketball, many seats in the arena have obstructed views of the ice surface and the arena likely could not serve as the team’s permanent home for very long without renovations.

However, Suns owner Robert Sarver has been hesitant to share this venue or any other proposed new downtown arena with a hockey team which could put a damper on the Coyotes’ efforts to remain in Arizona. Working in the Coyotes’ favor is the position of Phoenix mayor Greg Stanton, who has expressed his desire to have both the Suns and Coyotes share any new arena in downtown Phoenix should one be built.

Stanton’s wish for a new multi-sport arena in Phoenix could leave Sarver with no choice but to stand hand-in-hand with the Coyotes if he wants to leave Talking Stick Resort Arena and move into a new downtown facility. However, even if the Suns manage to get their own arena built, their departure from Talking Stick Resort Arena would leave that venue completely unoccupied. If that should happen, could the Coyotes move into their vacant former home and renovate it to be a hockey-only building? Will they get a new arena built elsewhere in Arizona? Will the Suns and Coyotes agree to share a new arena in Downtown Phoenix? Only time will tell, but do the Coyotes have enough time left to wait?