jobingcom

In October of 2009 I had lived in Phoenix for about six weeks before I was given the neat opportunity to write a column for the Arizona Republic, the major paper in town. I wrote a piece explaining why I thought the attendance at Coyotes’ games was so bad. The theory: they had sucked, and watching sucky teams sucks. Not a complex idea, all told.

The piece was largely terrorized in the comment section (it is the internet, after all), and was brought up years after the fact by local fans after handshakes. I also suspect it was part of the reason I was so coldly received by the old PR team when I’d attend games in the pressbox, and came to prefer sitting in the crowd.

I lived there for three years after that column, and realized it was probably a bit of a miss. Not quite a strike out, but certainly not a hit. Having since moved out of the state and re-located to Toronto, I wanted to look back and reflect on where I went wrong. Since then, a lot of people have come to assess and understand the real issues.

The team recently secured ownership going forward, and has adopted the slogan HERE TO STAY for the upcoming season. So y’know, high five to that, ‘Yotes fans.

Now: why aren’t there more of you?

***

Upon learning I would be pulling in somewhere around $150 to $200 for an opinion piece in the Arizona Republic, I wanted to make a splash. In my freelance world, that was pretty darn good cheese. I didn’t want to write something I didn’t believe or anything – the aim wasn’t to troll for hate clicks – but I really wanted it to be something noteworthy. My honest feeling was that attendance in Phoenix was bad because the team was, and I figured a frank assessment from a then-outsider might start some conversation. The simple answers are often the ones people seem to take to most, after all.

I proposed the topic, and it was not just accepted, it was encouraged. I submitted it. I was never asked to write for them again.

That failure seemed to make me hyper-aware of why fans didn’t go to games in town. I talked to a number of people about it, and I’ve asked a couple to explain what they think the issues are in this post (my own conclusions will follow).

We’ll start with an excerpt from my original piece on October 1st, 2009.

I wrote:

My goal isn’t to persecute the team; it’s to vindicate the hockey fan base in Phoenix. Put together an exciting team (like the Cardinals did last year), and people will love to be a part of the ride.

So what are hockey fans to do after a solid dozen years of bad hockey? Buy another season ticket package? How much do you have to hate yourself to sit through 41 games of cheering for B-level stars taking A-level beatings?

It’s not that this city couldn’t have a successful, beloved hockey team. They just haven’t been successful enough to deserve that love. What’s been the big highlight of the history of the Coyotes? Watching Gretzky hold a clipboard?

The attendance average in 1996-97, when the team showed up with a good squad and mild star power was 15,604.

Somehow last season, the team claimed it issued nearly 15,000 tickets a game – half of which, apparently, were purchased to be expensive bookmarks. Jobing.com Arena was rarely more than half-full.

For the most part, you can kick my original theory “If you win, they will come” in the pants.

Coming off a 2011-12 season that saw the team advance to the Conference Final, the Coyotes finished 29th in league attendance (by percentage of seats filled in the building, joining Columbus as the only teams under 90%). They tied for fourth in the Western Conference in 2010-11 with 99 points, and finished last in attendance in 2011-12 by a fairly sizeable margin (83.2% capacity, nearly 700 less fans per night than the 29th place New York Islanders. The Isles percentage of capacity was 88.8).

The Coyotes fanbase saw a moderate uptick with their recent success (and it is important to acknowledge that in terms of Phoenix fans vs. Phoenix fans, the numbers went in the right direction following those good years), but the connection between straight winning and pure attendance wasn’t as strong as I originally thought.

Below are two guys that are around the team and others fans nearly every available day, including the practice rink. They have a good grasp why attendance numbers have stayed near league bottom despite fielding a successful team.

First up is the reasoning of Jaime Eisner, the managing editor of the Coyotes blog Five For Howling:

The two main factors in the recent poor attendance revolve around ownership uncertainty and arena location.

Because of the never-ending ownership drama, there has been a reluctance to re-up for season tickets in advance. Many are willing to wait it out and buy a 10- or 20-game pack once the season begins. For example: post-04/05 lockout at Jobing.com Arena, average attendance by year: 15,582, 14,988, 14,820 and 14,875. Then the team was put into bankruptcy and the numbers looked like this: 11,989, 12,188, 12,420 and 13,923. The numbers were not great in the past but were certainly better than the post-bankruptcy numbers even with a far worse on-ice product. The team has also sold out every playoff game in Jobing.com Arena. Yes they played Chicago and Detroit, but they also played Nashville and LA. There are enough people who will pay to see hockey, the trick is getting them to do it in the regular season.

Arena location is the other issue. Looking at last year’s numbers, here is the breakdown of attendance by day:

Monday:        12,807
Tuesday:       13,990
Wednesday:  11,299
Thursday:      14,394
Friday:          16,011
Saturday:      15,012
Sunday:        17,363.

Capacity is 17,125.

The numbers are clearly better when people are off or don’t have to work the next day. A lot of the money (middle to upper-middle class and above) in the Phoenix metropolitan area is in the North and East parts of Phoenix (which include Scottsdale, Paradise Valley, Cave Creek Chandler, Mesa, etc.). The commute from those areas of town is high, especially for this market. People are not accustomed to travel like folks in New York and other places back East. Out here, even a half hour drive is considered fairly long and many people from the East side of town drive more than double that to get to a game after work.

Jaime also sent a follow-up email regarding the utter lack of marketing done by the team in recent years, which is also mentioned below.

Next is commentary from Ryan Bohlander, a Coyotes season ticket holder who I got to know while living in town.

In the beginning, the NHL in Phoenix was a hot ticket. The transient and fickle Phoenix sports fans directed much of their attention to the new team in town. The game was novel and exciting, the arena was conveniently set in downtown, the team had star power (Tkachuk, Roenick, and Dallas Drake), and was a playoff participant right from the start. All of these elements made for a great fan experience…except that America West Arena (now US Airways Arena) had a large proportion of “limited view” seats that make live viewing arduous. Sure, the seats were $15 but games lose their luster (and can be frustrating) when you can only see 2/3 of the rink…and one net. This issue effectively made AWA the second smallest NHL arena and it became lear that the Coyotes needed to move.

Through a series of complex and bizarre political and business maneuverings which I won’t pretend to understand, the Coyotes ended up in Glendale. Glendale is a heavily populated and aspiring suburb located on the western edge of Phoenix area. With all due respect to Southern California, Phoenix is a vast and sprawling community. In fact, it is the sixth largest city in the United States. With the hockey arena located on the Western edge of the city, it literally takes 30-40 minutes from central Phoenix and anywhere from 45 minutes to over an hour from the eastern middle class and more affluent suburbs of Mesa, Chandler, Gilbert, and Scottsdale.

The Coyotes moved to Glendale in 2001…incidentally the same year that the Arizona Diamondbacks won the World Series. With the prominence of the Diamondbacks at this time, every other sports team in town (NFL Cardinals, NBA Suns, NCAA Arizona State, and the Coyotes) took a backseat.  The Coyotes were also bought by the owner of Swift Trucking company…a dubious owner who some believe used the Coyotes to help write off and defer trucking losses. Over the course of a few short years, top (i.e. expensive) talent was traded, marketing budgets were cut (Coyotes fans remember with horror the puppet snowman “Pierre” bantering with Wayne Gretzky trying to sell season tickets), questionable free agents were signed (Gretzky was paid around 6 million a year to coach and Ed Jovonovski was paid around 5 million), and key talent was passed in the draft. Man we sucked. I bottomed out as a fan when my buddy and I sat in an empty 200 level section on a Sunday afternoon in 2007 and watched Columbus completely terrorize the Coyotes in a 6-1 loss. Who would want to see that team? Golf can be expensive in Arizona, but really there is no better place to golf than Arizona in the winter…so lets go spend our money on that. Or maybe we don’t have any disposable income for golf, hockey, or anything since we are all losing our jobs and the housing market in Arizona is crashing.

I am not going to go into the ownership mess. I will just say that the uncertainty of the team staying or leaving, coupled with unrelenting criticism of “hockey fans” from the Canadian media was hard to take. However, with a chance hiring of Coach Dave Tippett and GM Don Maloney, something unexpected happened…the team began to win. When you don’t make the playoffs for several years, but then suddenly you are in, that can catch the attention of a fickle and neglected fan base. And even causal hockey fans in the desert know that playoff hockey is intensely better than regular season hockey…especially when it is OUR team. So amazingly, in spite of ownership uncertainty and the subsequent subset of casual sports fans refusing to invest in the team, attendance and the season ticket base has grown over the last four years.

Coyotes fans have been verbally shredded in every direction over the years, but the team has made it near-impossible to be one. The team was transported from a great location to rural Glendale, was put into bankruptcy, has been constantly close to moving out of town, and didn’t have any real success before the nightmares began. They may never have a base of support that the teams in cold climates have, but I do think things can get better.

***

I can attest first hand to the location issues. I was a true hockey fan living in Phoenix and I probably went to 10 games in three years. That is not a good sign.

Glendale isn’t just flat-out far away from where I lived (which was the fairly-central Chandler/Tempe area, 10-15 mins south of the airport), it was also a direct drive through the city of Phoenix. Traffic-less, the drive probably took me 30-40 minutes. I use a wide time range there because “traffic-less” isn’t really a thing when you consider hockey games start at seven, meaning if I left an hour before the game, I’m running smack into rush hour traffic.

There’s also no realistic public transit to games. A casino a few minutes from my place offered a shuttle for awhile (apparently), but that stopped at some point. So that means having a beer at the game is not an option for a 26-29 year old dude without kids, which is less than ideal (have you seen Sheriff Joe’s Tent City Jail? It doesn’t look fun). So now you’re not only missing concession sales, you’re also limiting people from coming who would like to make a night of it. These seem to be permanent issues that won’t go away any time soon.

Once you are there, the current environment is…curious. I saw a few playoff games and they were absolutely rocking, but outside those special nights, they often lacked your typical “home” environment given Phoenix role as a destination for largely-western “snowbirds.” People from hockey hotbeds like Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Chicago, Detroit and more are around all winter and love the opportunity to see their favourite teams play for comparatively cheap (I have a friend in Calgary who found it cost the same to fly to Phoenix and see a game). You can’t blame them, but it really is bizarre being at an NHL game with a 50/50 fan split. It certainly wouldn’t inspire a kid to make the Coyotes his favourite team.

Growth of the local fanbase, which now appears possible given their “permanent resident” status, could help do away with a few of those invaders.

In the past few years they’ve had to give away so many tickets to get butts in the seats that paying for them seemed silly for a lot of people. Some gas stations gave you a pair when you bought $10 worth of soda, so you end up with a number of “fans” there because “hey, why not, the seats are free.” This will shock you, but those are not the most passionate, loud fans in the building. Again: I do think the environment issues can improve, but it’s going to take some time.

With the on-ice success over the past few seasons and the resolution of the ownership drama attendance should finally be on the grow. The pesticide-ridden soil seems to finally have been shoveled out. You can’t change the location of the team now, but at the very least, fans know where the team is going to be, and can feel comfortable committing their time and money to a team that’s more interesting than the last time they had “real” ownership.

I’d be lying if I said that after being there and seeing how it really is my conclusion is that the building is going to be full most nights in the immediate future. I suspect they’ll stay near league-bottom for awhile – it’s simply always going to be a grind – but any fanbase that can see growth in their numbers while the team gets dragged through the mud as the Coyotes have has hope for the future.

And for the first time since before I wrote that 2009 column, “hope for the future” was used in a column involving the Coyotes that wasn’t written by a blogger in Quebec City or Seattle. If you’re a fan in Arizona, that has to make you consider pulling out your wallet, and at least heading to the convenience store for 10 bucks worth of Mountain Dew (or whatever the current promotions are) to give the Coyotes another shot.