Coyotes work to improve standing, local ties
Over their 21-year history, the Arizona Coyotes have been more associated with dysfunction than on-the-ice success. It’s a tumultuous history not lost on Chief Operating Officer Ahron Cohen, who likens it to a scene from “Entourage.”
“When Vinny Chase was thinking about leaving his agency and was meeting with others and getting pitched on why he should choose them, their message was that he was an iconic brand and should be mentioned alongside brands like that — ‘BMW, Coca-Cola, Vinny Chase,’” Cohen said. “A lot of the name recognition for us in the past has been ‘Coyotes, bankruptcy, ownership uncertainty, relocation.’
“We need to create a new narrative that gets away from that noise.”
In the last six months, the Coyotes have made several moves to do just that. Owner Andrew Barroway bought out all nine of the team’s minority investors this past summer, a move he says allows him to “streamline the decision-making process and operate more efficiently and effectively as an organization.” Barroway acquired 51 percent of the team in 2015 for an estimated $152.5 million.
Barroway then hired Steve Patterson, who has spent more than two decades as a sports executive and who brings a familiarity of the market after serving as athletic director at Arizona State.
“Any time you go through the uncertainties with ownership and the challenges this franchise has had over the years, it makes it tough to do the little things you have to do to grow the game, particularly in a Southern market,” said Patterson, the team’s president and CEO. “There’s not one thing that’s going to fix this, but bit by bit we have to take incremental steps and become a successful franchise.”
|The Coyotes see Steve Patterson’s experience with facility development and ties to the Arizona community as positives for the franchise.
“We recognize this situation that we’re in, where we’re toward the bottom of the league in a lot of key categories,” Cohen added. “It didn’t happen overnight and we’re not going to get out of it overnight.”
That has led to Patterson and Cohen to spend much of their time out in the community looking to build, or reaffirm those relationships, as well as stress that this regime is approaching things differently. Rather than attempt sweeping changes, Cohen said the franchise’s efforts have been on a “lot of singles and doubles,” focusing on a wide range of small, but hopefully effective, improvements.
The Coyotes have looked to deepen their connection through youth hockey, highlighted by a $2 million investment in programs aided by the NHL and NHLPA, and other efforts to spread not only ice hockey but inline and ball hockey to schools. The team is using its American Hockey League affiliate, the Tucson Roadrunners, who launched last season, to also spread the game to the southern part of the state.
Cohen and Patterson both referenced the success of other NHL Sun Belt markets in recent years, such as Nashville and Tampa, and how they’ve found success through deep community commitment led from the top of the organization down.
“Our message internally is, ‘Why not us?’” Cohen said. “By any metric there’s no reason why Phoenix can’t be better or just as good as any of those cities.”
The Coyotes also saw massive change on the ice this summer as well, replacing their head coach and making several aggressive free-agency and trade moves while maintaining their course as one of the youngest teams in the NHL. The summer saw the departure of the franchise’s most popular and longest-tenured player, Shane Doan. However, those moves haven’t led to success thus far, as the team is currently last in the NHL standings.
However, it has seen improvement off the ice. Attendance was up nearly 2 percent despite its win-loss record. Merchandise sales are up 8 percent, and food and beverage revenue is up 9 percent. Patterson noted that suite sales are well ahead of where the team was at this point last year, that they are tracking to hit their sponsorship budget and are already in discussions with several new partners that he said “are in categories where people didn’t want to talk to this team a year ago.”
Barroway said the team is financially stable and that “the remaking of our organization over the past year has the Coyotes in the right direction.” The team did not comment further on its balance sheet.
But Patterson’s a realist given the franchise’s history.
“You can’t blame people for a certain level of wait-and-see or skepticism,” Patterson said. “All you can do is sincerely go about your efforts to deliver on your promises and be a good member of the community and let the chips fall where they may.”
Patterson said those numbers could be even better with a different arena location other than the Gila River Arena in Glendale — long suggested by the team and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman as a key reason for its struggles. Patterson said that for weeknight games, when traffic can cause it to take more than an hour to get to the arena from central Phoenix or the East Valley, attendance and food and beverage revenue are significantly lower compared to weekend games.
Uncertainty and dissatisfaction around its stadium situation has long cast a dark shadow on the team. The Coyotes say the current arena is too far away from the team’s fan base, premium ticket holders and corporate sponsors for it to be a success. Those struggles, along with the turnover in ownership, have helped flame rumors of relocation.
In March, Bettman wrote a letter to Arizona legislators asking them to back a bill that would have provided $225 million in public financing for a new arena in downtown Phoenix or the East Valley, in which he wrote that its Glendale location was “not economically capable of supporting a successful NHL franchise” and the team “cannot and will not remain in Glendale.”
The controversial remarks rankled many legislators and in a letter to Arizona legislators, former Glendale Mayor Elaine Scruggs wrote that “the Coyotes position at the bottom of the standings is a leadership problem, not a location problem.”
While there are clearly fissures in the relationship, the team hopes Patterson’s background in facility development and deep ties to the community help remedy the issue. Patterson was with the Houston Texans as the team planned its stadium, and also oversaw the development of ASU’s 425-acre sports facility district. He has extensive facility experience, and the Coyotes also have brought on arena consultant Mitchell Ziets to assist with the search for a new site.
Patterson said his focus has been establishing relationships in the community that would allow the team “to have more focused conversations on arena solutions.”
Karina Bohn, chief operating officer of Arizona State’s Global Sport Institute and former vice president of marketing for the Arizona Diamondbacks, said the turnover among the ownership group, the executive ranks and overall operational changeover have made it difficult for the Coyotes to establish consistency.
“In Phoenix, you need to show results for a long period of time, but once you do fans will strongly rally behind you,” she said.
From the league office, Bettman remains confident, and said all that has been done under Barroway’s watch shows the Coyotes “are working hard to strengthen, stabilize and provide a future for the club in Arizona — which is something I believe they are all committed to.”
“I would certainly hope that when they get to the point when they break ground and there’s a new building, all of the rumor and innuendo of the future of the club will stop because it will showcase a commitment that is backed up by bricks and mortar,” Bettman said.