Melissa Brown, a longtime Arizona Coyotes season-ticket holder, was just happy to be back in the stands with a pair of friends for her favorite club’s first two home games of the season.
A paralegal from the Phoenix area, she sat in the lower bowl of Gila River Arena in Glendale, her usual Section 118, a few rows back from her regular seats, which are tarped off close to the ice for obvious health and safety reasons. There was adequate spacing between parties no larger than four, and staff members were constantly cleaning surfaces with antiseptic in this era of the coronavirus.
“I felt very comfortable,” she said, while standing near the rear of an adjacent multi-tiered parking structure after Saturday’s game, a 5-3 Coyotes win over the nomadic San Jose Sharks.
Brown was among 2,384 spectators in a building that seats 17,125 for hockey, but is limited right now to 2,600. She was wearing one of the team’s black jerseys with Kelly green shoulders, a red stripe and the traditional abstract logo of a coyote on skates wielding a stick. The Coyotes plan to wear those colors for most of their 28 home games this season.
“The arena staff and whoever’s in charge did a pretty good job,” said Coyotes forward Conor Garland via a Zoom call after last Thursday’s season opener, a loss to the Sharks played in front of 2,274. “The way they had everybody spread out, it looked like a pretty good crowd. It’s like going back to my Tucson [minor league] days and junior days with the crowd mostly in the lower bowl, so I liked it.”
The team had originally planned for 3,450 fans, about 25% capacity, but the club said it has scaled back for spacing concerns, considering the recent rise of cases and deaths in Arizona due to COVID-19. The Coyotes are one of three NHL teams—along with Dallas and Florida—allowing spectators on a limited basis.
For a league awash in red ink and a financially struggling Coyotes franchise that is under only the second season of ownership of Alex Meruelo, fans attending will help offset some expenses. Ticket sales alone will generate a minimum of $10 million in gross revenue and could increase accordingly if more people are allowed into the arena. The Coyotes intend to work with community health officials on a monthly basis to determine expanding capacity.
To accommodate the current configuration, the upper bowl has been closed off by sheer black curtains. Fans can sit in very small groups in the lower bowl or in luxury suites on two side levels just below the upper bowl. Plastic ties rope off rows of seats to make sure that fans don’t roam from their assigned areas.
“The health and safety of our fans, players, coaches and staff has been our top priority throughout this process,” first-season Coyotes president Xavier Gutierrez said in a statement. “We have been working diligently to ensure that we have a safe environment at Gila River Arena. We are confident that the innovative and tech-enabled services we have in place will protect the health and safety of our fans.”
As far as technology is concerned, the arena is now cashless, and parking and all concessions must be purchased in advance through the club’s app. To enter the arena, fans must register before each game via the Clear health app, answering a number of questions about possible contraction of the coronavirus or contact with anyone who may have had it during a two-week period before they are allowed inside. When the questions are all answered affirmatively, a fan is given a personalized bar code, which is scanned to gain entrance.
For any season-ticket holder still reluctant about attending games during the pandemic, the Coyotes instituted a Flexible Spending Account giving them the option of both belatedly selecting games before tickets are offered to the general public, and for those choosing not to attend games this season, the right to apply funds for 2022-23. Tickets are available by month.
Nick Papas, a full-season-ticket holder since the 2010-11 season now on a two-season plan, said the coronavirus will restrict him to seeing only a few games this season. He expects to take full advantage of the account. Papas was reimbursed for the eight games canceled at the end of last season, and he expects to earn credit for a good number of this season’s previously expected 41 home games, plus a 10% bonus. Any way one cuts it, and multiplied by other season ticket holders, that’s a financial bath for the Coyotes, valued at $300 million, last in the NHL.
“I understand the Coyotes need to limit financial losses by having fans in the stands—I get that,” said Papas, a customer operations agent for American Airlines, in a phone interview. “But at this point in time, despite all the precautions, I don’t feel comfortable going to the arena. It’s not a priority to me. It’s not worth the risk. I give the Coyotes a lot of credit for affording me the flexibility to do just that.”
In the arena, the Coyotes are promoting a scaled-down version of their usual game-day production, with no on-ice promotions during intermissions and no one shooting T-shirts into the stands. Crowd noise is being pipped in, but from the upper reaches of the arena that sounds more like static electricity.
“It’s better than it felt in the bubble,” said Coyotes goalie Antti Raanta, referring to the playoff games the Coyotes played this past summer sans fans in Edmonton. “That was a little bit different thing, for sure. It’s super nice to go on the ice and see some people in there, hearing some yells and some cheering for us. It’s nice to see the fans again.”
The Coyotes hadn’t played a home game since last Feb. 29, a 5-2 win over the Buffalo Sabres with a sellout crowd of 17,125 in attendance. On March 12, the NHL took a pause as the coronavirus began to surge across the U.S. and Canada, and the Coyotes didn’t play again until Aug. 2, their postseason lasting nine games. Some of the playoff teams spent nearly two months in the Toronto and Edmonton bubbles with Tampa Bay taking the Stanley Cup from Dallas in six games on Sept. 28.
The Coyotes were 29th in the league in attendance before the pause last season with an overall figure of 481,989 for 33 home dates. Their average of 14,605 was good for 28th.
They long have been a problem franchise in the Phoenix area, having gone bankrupt and been placed under NHL stewardship. A series of owners in recent years have had problems with the community of Glendale about playing in the hockey-only arena, which opened in 2003 at the cost of $220 million in public dollars, and has perhaps the best sightlines of any facility in the league. The arena sits in the west valley about 10 miles from downtown Phoenix and next door to State Farm Stadium, the football edifice where thousands of COVID vaccines are being administered every day.
New ownership came in singing the same old blues in 2019, seeking a new arena closer to the club’s fan base in the east valley and Scottsdale. Meruelo, a business man with holdings in casinos and media, is worth $2 billion, the deepest pockets of any owner in the club’s Phoenix history, which dates back to 1996 when it moved from Winnipeg.
The arena search now is on the back burner. The Coyotes have been on a year-to-year lease that automatically renewed on Dec. 31. It’s a new period of harmony.
“We are in discussions with the City of Glendale regarding a long-term lease,” a team spokesman said, responding to a list of emailed questions.
That’s just fine with Melissa Brown, the season-ticket holder who says on her twitter feed she’s “just a girl who loves sports.”
Asked how she enjoyed her pandemic experience in the arena, Brown said succinctly:
“Great. We won, didn’t we?”
(This story has corrected the spelling of season-ticket holder Nick Papas’ name throughout.)