The Arizona Coyotes have been in the forefront of re-opening arenas and ballparks to fans, beginning with their first home game of the regular season at Gila River Arena in Glendale, this past Jan. 14. They were one of only three National Hockey League teams to open the season with folks in the seats.
Since then, they’ve been playing to about 20% capacity in a building that seats 17,125 for hockey, save for four Saturday nights during which they opened the upper bowl and entertained in excess of 3,100 masked, socially distanced fans who paid $25 apiece to sit in the outer reaches of the 17-year-old facility.
“We’re excited that we’ve been able to have fans and people have felt safe,” club president Xavier Gutierrez told Sportico in an recent exclusive interview. “That was our biggest priority to put things in place so they’d feel great about being back in the stands. It’s been great for the players. It’s been great for the community to have a sense of normalcy.”
The Phoenix Suns followed suit, leading the way to the 10 spring training facilities in Maricopa County hosting Cactus League games at 20% capacity. The Arizona Diamondbacks plan to open their home schedule on April 9 against the Cincinnati Reds at 25% capacity of 48,519-seat Chase Field in downtown Phoenix, after a 30-game abbreviated local season sans fans last year. That’s about 12,130 a game to start.
D-backs president Derrick Hall said he looked at what the Coyotes have done to make plans for the coming season.
“We’ve been to Coyotes games,” he said. “They’re doing a phenomenal job. We’ve been able to share best practices. I have common conversations with my counterparts at the Coyotes and all the other teams. In baseball, the 30 of us always get together to discuss how we’re going to go about this so it’s all very safe. It’s all different everywhere. It’s not universal.”
For a league awash in red ink and a financially struggling Coyotes franchise in the second year of ownership of Alex Meruelo, even the reduced numbers of fans attending help offset some expenses. Ticket sales alone will bring in a minimum of $10 million in gross revenue and could increase accordingly if more people are allowed into the arena. The Coyotes are working with community health officials on a monthly basis to determine expanding capacity, which Glendale has asked be maintained at 20%.
While the NHL opened with fans in only Arizona, Dallas and Florida, the league is now playing at limited capacity in 10 of the 31 arenas. The Coyotes are proud to be one of the trailblazers.
Gutierrez, who took over as president this past July after managing many of Meruelo’s other business interests, says he walks the concourses to talk to season-ticket holders between periods of each game to get the pulse of his most ardent customers. The Coyotes are on the road now and play 12 of their next 16 games away from home, having already played 17 of their 28 home games.
“They’ve been appreciative that we’ve certainly made the investment,” he said. “It was a pretty significant investment in order to have fans. And it’s been great for us to be top of mind as a team and as an organization in Arizona.”
Gutierrez didn’t want to divulge detailed financial numbers of bringing the arena up to health and safety specifications, saying only that “it was in the millions,” and the ticket sales really don’t offset that.
“Really, the losses this year are pretty large,” he said. “It wasn’t the offsetting. It was the fact that we wanted to remain relevant. We wanted hockey to be played not just on television, but in person, and show that the Coyotes are here and engaged as an organization.”
Finances held little sway in the decision. “There was just nothing we could have done to defer the losses we are incurring,” he said. “That wasn’t the driver at all.”
Last year, the Coyotes were 28th in the league in average attendance before the NHL season paused last March 12 because of the pandemic, averaging 14,605 a game.
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 were underfunded and had problems with the community of Glendale about playing in the hockey-only arena, which opened in 2003 and has perhaps the best sightlines of any facility in the league. The arena is located in the west valley about 10 miles from downtown Phoenix and next door to State Farm Stadium, home to the Arizona Cardinals pro football team, where thousands of COVID vaccines are being administered in the parking lot every day.
The current Coyotes ownership came in last season seeking a new arena closer to the club’s fan base in the east valley and Scottsdale, among other things.
The plan right now is for the Coyotes to shift from the NHL West to the Central Division next year, when they’ll be displaced by the expansion Seattle Kraken, commissioner Gary Bettman confirmed during a conference call with the media last week. The shift stirred rumors of relocation by the Coyotes, but that’s not going to happen, say sources with knowledge of the situation.
Meanwhile, the local arena search now is on the back burner. The Coyotes have been on a year-to-year lease that automatically renewed on Dec. 31 and are discussing an extension.
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 a move from Winnipeg in 1996. They are valued at $285 million, dead last in the NHL.
He’s serious about developing pro hockey interest in an area, which has three practice rinks, numerous youth boys and girls hockey programs, and is home to Toronto Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews, who was born in San Diego and grew up playing his youth hockey in Scottsdale.
Despite struggling to make the playoffs in the reconstituted West this season, they’ve come pretty close to the NHL salary cap of $81.5 million and still have about $1.7 million to spend to improve the team with the trade deadline ahead on April 12. The top four teams in each division qualify and the Coyotes with 28 points are currently sixth, five points out.
But two seasons affected both artistically and financially by the coronavirus is not the way this ownership wanted to come in. If Meruelo can survive all this, he can probably survive anything.
“Alex and I have certainly had a number of conversations that there’s no way to go but up here,” Gutierrez said with a laugh. “It has been difficult. It has been a challenge. But even in the midst of that, he’s invested in the team. He spent to the cap. This idea that he somehow either doesn’t have the commitment or doesn’t have the resources is just not true and is belied by his actions.
“He’s invested in what it will take to really have an organizational turnaround. The commitment has been there. His portfolio is there.”
And so far, the fans have been there. There’s no mistaking that.