I've been percolating on the idea of this article for several months (pretty much since the middle of the summer), but it just kept getting pushed off. Now, however, as the Diamondbacks season has come to a merciful close, the Cardinals are wallowing in the basement of the worst division in the NFL, and the Suns are hovering around mediocrity, it seemed like the right time to get my thoughts on paper...er screen. Also, the recent Puck Daddy article questioning whether Phoenix is truly a hockey market helped finally push me to get this thing done - at least the first part.
The first challenge to the Phoenix market, is Phoenix itself and the residents therein. We've been through the discussions in the past, ad nauseum at times, that the Phoenix sports fan generally is a fleeting creature, like Chinese Great Pandas - rare in nature and not necessarily thrilled at the prospect of mating in captivity. And this really shouldn't surprise anyone - Phoenix, for a very, very long time was nothing more than a very large retirement community. People moved to Phoenix from any number of cities where they were from, most notably Chicago and Detroit. Heck, of the three primary contributors on this site, two of us are from the east coast originally and trace our hockey fandom (and perhaps our underlying loyalties) to teams from the Prince of Wales Conference.
And this problem is compounded in another very prominent manner - the Phoenix sports teams are, with the exception of the Suns, fairly young franchises. The Cardinals arrived in the valley of the sun from St. Louis in 1987, the Diamondbacks were a product of MLB expansion and played their first season in 1998, two years afer the Coyotes made the move from Winnipeg, although Arizona was already home to spring training baseball and thus had some easily transferable fans. There's little, if any, history with these teams - certainly no stories from father's about bygone success dating back to the 1960s and earlier.
For instance, I grew up on Long Island and my dad grew up in the Bronx, so I was born a Yankees fan and still have a soft spot for them deep down (or at the very least a hatred for the Red Sox). My favorite thing about the Yankees has always been to hear my dad's and grandfather's stories about games when they were kids in the 1950s and 1930s, respectively; or my grandfather giving Joe Dimaggio a ride in his taxi. To me that history was so much of what being a Yankees fan was about, and I still love to talk to my dad about his time sitting in the Yankees bullpen during a matinee game and talking to Whitey Ford.
My point is that there aren't a lot of father's telling stories to their sons about great moments from Phoenix sports' yesteryear. Now the Suns are a slight exception here because they have been around since 1968 and you do have that generational fandom. That being said, the Suns have never won an NBA title - the lone Arizona championship belongs to the Diamondbacks in 2001. That winning season brought out fans, and perhaps there was some carryover to 2002 and 2003. But since then, the Diamondbacks have not been able to draw huge crowds in Phoenix, despite a stadium right in the heart of downtown.
No, the only Phoenix team that draws consistently large crowds is the Suns, and even they have struggled over the past two seasons when they did not look like title contenders. One might say that this just proves the point that Phoenix isn't a viable market for a hockey team, especially because you cannot expect a team to win a title every season. But I don't think that is what it will take to gain the fan base here. Phoenicians are starved for sports entertainment and want to go see their teams play, particularly if the team is competitive.
And that's been the primary problem for the Coyotes from 2002 until last season. They were bad...really, really bad. And it wasn't just the product on the ice that was bad. The front office was run poorly, they drafted poorly, they advertised poorly, and generally ran a franchise as poorly as possible - as evidenced by their bankruptcy prior to last season. And when you combine the general nature of the Phoenix fan base with that level of incompetence, and sprinkle in the prospect of a team that just won't be here in another year, well that's just a recipe for fan apathy.
However, it's something that can be overcome and the Coyotes are in a prime position to become the focal point of Phoenix sports fandom...with a bit of luck, a bit of help, and a bit of success. Phoenix is most assuredly a viable hockey market, the proof just may be a little ways off. In the next installment, we'll delve into a bit more detail regarding Phoenix sports fandom in general with some specific attendance figures that I don't currently have available. I will note, however, that tonight's loss to the Ducks saw a crowd of 12,708 in attendance. It's not earth shattering, but it's definitely a step in the right direction already.