Coyote Fugly

Gary Bettman grew up in Queens as I did, where I can assure you there is not a preponderance of readily available ice to play impromptu hockey games on.  When the weather gets cold, Queens tended to get dirty slush and muddy pastures rather than frozen ponds.  And as someone who spent his career prior to his lengthy tenure as commissioner of the National Hockey League as an executive with the NBA, he’s likely more than familiar with the appeal of Southern markets, and I know he knows the value of larger ones to media deals.

So it’s almost understandable that while virtually everyone in the Phoenix metropolitan area who still cares about the game is assuming that tonight’s season finale will be the final one that at least the current incarnation of the Coyotes will be playing in the Valley of the Sun, Bettman is still being exceptionally coy and perhaps overly hopeful that somehow, some way, tonight may not necessarily be a conclusion to a clearly failed franchise, but merely a speed bump in a quixotic pursuit to maintain a presence in what he sees as a crucial market.

Local media headlines certainly point to tonight being a franchise finale.  Per the ARIZONA REPUBLIC’s Jeremy Cluff:

When the Coyotes moved to Arizona from Winnipeg, they brought the tradition of wearing white for special occasions with them, appropriately called a “whiteout.”

The franchise’s final game in Arizona amid reports of relocation to Salt Lake City, Utah certainly qualifies as a special occasion.

Fans are calling for one final whiteout for the Coyotes in the team’s 2023-24 regular season finale against the Edmonton Oilers on Wednesday, which also appears to be the franchise’s last game in the state.

And as Cluff added in a separate story:

Ticket prices….are surging in cost amid the rumors, speculation and reports that the team is being sold and relocated to Salt Lake City.  People want to be there for the franchise’s possible last game in Arizona, and that is driving up the cost of tickets, even for the most inexpensive seats in the arena.  As of Tuesday morning, the least expensive tickets for the game were listed for $391 on resale sites, with most going for much more.

Another key reason for those high prices is simple supply and demand.  The Mullett Arena has just 4500 seats and was always intended as a stopgap one way or the other.  And as SPORTS BUSINESS JOURNAL’s Alex Silverman reported yesterday, Bettman and the league has stepped in to do what they can to ensure that those that overpay tonight might one day regret it:

SBJ has confirmed reports the NHL is brokering a deal that would see Meruelo sell the Coyotes franchise to the league for $1 billion. The league would then sell the franchise to Jazz owner Ryan Smith for between $1.2 billion and $1.3 billion — any amount more than $1 billion would be considered a relocation fee to be split among the other NHL owners. Meruelo would potentially be able to bring a new franchise to Phoenix if he is able to satisfy certain conditions — such as building the team an arena — in the next five years. While the complex transaction is still in the works, an announcement of the Coyotes’ relocation to Salt Lake City is expected before the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs on Saturday.

But Bettman, ever displaying Queens logic, did what he could to maintain a poker face presence:

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman didn’t let the cat out of the bag regarding the potential relocation of the Coyotes from Arizona to Salt Lake City during his one-on-one interview at the CAA World Congress of Sports but did address the challenging situation in the team’s current home market.

Just two weeks ago, the team unveiled owner Alex Meruelo’s proposal to build a $3 billion mixed-use development in Phoenix to serve as the team’s long-term home in the region. Bettman said today that even in a “best-case scenario,” the Coyotes would be “looking at another three to five years” at Mullett Arena.

When presenting their plan, the Coyotes said the new arena would be ready for the start of the 2027-28 NHL season.  Several individuals familiar with real estate development in the area, however, characterized that timeline as very ambitious. Bettman pointing to a three-to-five-year range rather than the firm three-year timeline put forward by Coyotes ownership suggests he also thinks it would take more time.

So in Bettman’s version of utopia, this would allow the league and Meruelo a time out and capitalize on Smith’s zealotic appetite to add to his growing sports empire.

But in looking back at the track record of not only Meruelo and his predescessors, there’s ample reason to be skeptical.  As Wikipedia recounts, even on the heels on one of the only successful eras in the Coyotes’ history–a three-season run of consecutive 40-plus-win seasons that saw the only two “true” playoff series wins (aside from the qualifying round asterisk of 2020) in the nine times the Coyotes qualified for the post-season, its financial woes were omnipresent:

Due to the team’s bankruptcy status since 2009 and the annual revenue lost each year, the NHL planned to move the Coyotes should a deal with the city for a new lease and new ownership not be decided by July 2, 2013. The plan was to move the franchise to a new city, likely Seattle.[18] On July 2, 2013, by a vote of 4–3, the Glendale City Council approved a 15-year lease agreement with Renaissance Sports and Entertainment (RSE), which would purchase the team from the NHL for US$225 million by August 5, 2013.[19

And this followed a five-year run where not even Wayne Gretzky could bring the franchise success.

Adding it all up, this means that two out of every three Coyotes season ended the way this one will–without a playoff appereance, in a league that has rewarded at least half of its teams with one.

But hey, that weather.  That top 15 DMA.   For everything you think about Atlanta, a market you’ve failed twice in already, Phoenix is all of that and more.

You gotta at least keep dangling the carrot in front of horse, right, Gary?

Even if the horse is inarguably a dead one.

And a quick visit to the website INTERNET CENTER FOR WILDLIFE DAMAGE MANAGEMENT underscores one of those most common times one is actually like to see a coyote:

While coyotes frequently are blamed for losses of domestic animals, they often scavenge animals that perished by other means. The observation of droppings and tracks of coyotes near a carcass is insufficient to prove predation by coyotes.  

Somehow, that’s gonna be an appropriate metaphor for what’s going down tonight, and likely for the balance of the decade.






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