With the Phoenix Coyotes enjoying yet another strong season under head coach Dave Tippett, clawing their way nearly to the top of the standings at the dawn of December, the team’s incredible progression continues to be overshadowed by the specter of bankruptcy. The murky ownership situation has refueled fears of impending relocation, even with Winnipeg’s appetite for NHL hockey satiated by the sacrifice of the Atlanta Thrashers. Long suffering supporters of the Desert Dogs, faithful fans who patiently endured their team’s seemingly endless rebuilding efforts, have been rewarded with playoff hockey the last two seasons but uncertainty looms even over this recent rise. Even as the Coyotes prove that they can play with the league’s elite, testing the vaunted Detroit Red Wings in a scintillating, seven-game postseason tilt the 2010 Playoffs, the collective skepticism voiced by a doubtful hockey community has not subsided. National pundits cite the swaths of empty seats seen nightly throughout Jobing.com Arena as solid evidence that hockey’s dalliance in the desert is destined to fail. For observers residing in hockey hotbeds like Toronto, Boston or Detroit, the sight of entire sections shuttered by unsold tickets at an NHL game is certainly a shock to the senses, but a closer look shows that there may be more to the Coyotes’ attendance woes than meets the eye.
On the day after Thanksgiving, with families around the Valley of the Sun entering the traditional holiday weekend of relaxation and leisure, the Coyotes hosted their division rivals from Anaheim. The hometown team had just returned from a very successful five game road trip, one which saw the ‘Yotes post a 3-2 record against stiff competition while pushing perennial powers Washington and Philadelphia to the brink. Nonetheless, when the puck dropped that Friday evening at Jobing.com Arena nearly half of the seats in the venue were left unfilled. Only 9,124 fans made the westward trek to Glendale, good for a laughable paid attendance figure of just 53.3% capacity. Radim Vrbata continued his torrid scoring streak with two tallies, raising his team-leading season total to 11 at the time, and less than 10,000 fans were there to cheer him on. Two nights later a visit by the star-studded Vancouver Canucks, who came to town riding the momentum of last year’s Stanley Cup Finals run, drew a crowd of 14,569 fans, or 85.1% of Jobing.com Arena’s capacity. A substantial jump like this could be seen as a sign of encouragement, with the attendance figure hinging perhaps only on the quality of the Coyotes’ opponent, but the Desert Dogs’ den being buried under a barrage of bright blue Canucks jerseys only exacerbates the problem. Phoenix’s next game, against the division-leading Dallas Stars on Saturday night, likely provided a more accurate barometer of the team’s attendance situation. With no holiday hangover to worry about, and without a marquee matchup involving one of the league’s top draws, only 10,036 fans sat and watched goaltender Mike Smith post his second shutout of the season. This figure of just less than 60% capacity appears to be the norm, despite the ‘Yotes strong and steady play for three years running. With a state-of-the-art arena beckoning from the commercial oasis of Westgate Center, and with a highly competitive and entertaining squad to cheer for, the question remains: why aren’t hockey fans in the Valley taking notice of the Coyotes resurgence?
I believe that fans around Phoenix have noticed the Coyotes revival and other factors have caused them to avoid attending games in person. After arriving in Phoenix to begin the 1996-97 season, the Coyotes called America West Arena (AWA) home and the team tried vainly to overcome the basketball venue’s non-hockey layout. The Coyotes’ initial efforts to attract desert dwellers to the ice rink were hindered by AWA’s obstructed view seating, which consisted of entire sections that were located directly above one offensive zone and only allowed partial vision of the game play. Despite this serious disadvantage, the Coyotes still managed to post respectable yearly attendance averages, drawing 15,604 fans to AWA in their inaugural season and posting 15,000+ averages for the next three years. Featuring a lineup filled with fan favorites like Jeremy Roenick, Keith Tkachuk, Rick Tocchet and Nikolai Khabibulin in those early years undoubtedly helped to boost attendance, but fans continued coming to AWA even after these stars departed. The Coyotes averaged 13,358 fans per game from during the 2000-01 and 2002-03 seasons, their last three full campaigns playing in downtown Phoenix. This number might not sound very high considering the 20,000+ capacity arenas which are home to more established NHL teams, but with AWA’s limited capacity of 16,000 the Desert Dogs were actually averaging an 84.6% attendance rate in a supposedly substandard venue. Nonetheless, a new managerial direction steered the Coyotes towards the greener pastures of Glendale and the suburb’s glittering new arena, shedding the team’s previously motley colors for the streamlined Sedona Red along the way. When you consider how quickly the Coyotes attendance situation has suffered since the move, Shane Doan and the boys may have been better served moving to Sedona instead.
Glendale is located nearly 20 miles from the Coyotes prior home in downtown Phoenix, which means those living in the Valley’s urban center are faced with a 30 minute drive in the best of conditions. With the usual congestion of rush hour traffic clogging the I-10 West every day after 5:00pm, that ½ hour commute to Jobing.com Arena is likely to double on game night. For hockey fans who call the city’s eastern suburbs of Mesa, Chandler or Gilbert home, driving to watch their favorite team battle it out on the ice typically requires 90 minutes on the road, and that’s just one way. With most Coyotes games beginning at 7:00pm local time and ending around 10:00pm, the majority of Valley residents must decide between getting home at midnight, or simply turning the game on TV and staying in. Judging by the 50% increase in ratings for ‘Yotes games on Fox Sports Net AZ, reported last year by Nielsen Media Research, and the steady decline in attendance at Jobing.com Arena since it opened, Phoenix sports fans are doing just that. The team averaged a distressing 11,989 fans per game during their thrilling 2009-2010 tour, one which saw a rag-tag collection of scrappy overachievers nearly topple the mighty Red Wings to claim the Coyotes’ first postseason series. When a downtrodden franchise finally rights the ship, garnering national acclaim from the hockey media as their Cinderella story shocks the NHL, while filling only 70% of its shiny new arena, it should be quite clear that abandoning AWA was not the brightest idea after all.
As a fan of the Phoenix Coyotes, how has the team’s move to Glendale affected your habits when it comes to attending games? Has the team’s increased distance from downtown deterred you from making the drive to Jobing.com Arena? These questions are increasingly relevant because the Coyotes’ have not yet repelled the rampant calls for their relocation. With doubts lingering around the team’s ownership status every day, critics who are unaware of Jobing.com Arena’s distance dilemma discount the likelihood of hockey thriving in Arizona simply because they refuse to believe in something seldom seen: Coyotes fans and a full house. This is why it has never been more important for true Coyotes fans to make it known that we are out here watching; that we are still cheering for our team proudly, defiantly and perhaps even desperately, because, after all, nobody believes in them either.