fI have seen my fair share of hockey venues in areas where the ice only happens indoors. Places like Tampa, Nashville, and San Jose are all amazing hockey markets in cities that are known for weather that juxtaposes the conditions needed for hockey. So, why isn’t it working in Arizona? I wanted to see for myself, and after a visit to their arena and some conversations with locals, I have an idea.
First, I want to preface this with I enjoyed my time in Glendale. The entertainment district around the arena is modern and offers a lot of food and drink, and the fans inside the stadium were friendly. There are some serious fans in Arizona. The fans who do show up are passionate about the team and the sport. Not enough credit is given to them, and often times the conversation doesn’t even mention them.
At the game, they tried with all their might to rile up the home team crowd with “Let’s Go Yotes!” chants and making the noise of a coyote howl. When you talk about the team moving, it is easier to ignore the people who care, because it moves blame to the them instead of the larger issues at play.
I can’t pretend to know what they NHL’s actual plans were for the Coyotes. However, it wouldn’t surprise me that the same league who announced it’s new franchise name before confirming the name’s trademark also didn’t have a solid plan in place when they put a hockey team in the desert. If they did, we wouldn’t be sitting here discussing why, after 20 years, the team can’t seem to fill the stadium.
Every local I talked to wished that hockey saw more success. You don’t want to be known as a city that doesn’t have passionate fans, right?! If they want it to be successful, then why isn’t it? There are a couple of factors at play:
- Location – The Coyotes home, Gila Riva Arena, is in Glendale. For many, the drive out to Glendale is more than they can handle for 41 home games. While their NFL stadium is right across the street, fans only have to drive out there for 8 home games a season. Asking the majority of your fans to commit to an hour commute both ways 41 times is asking a lot. The team needs to be in downtown or in Tempe; neither of which are happening anytime soon.
- History – As if asking number 1 wasn’t enough, the team’s history is average at best. They have been in Arizona for 20 years. In that time, they have seen very little success. It is one thing to ask your fans to continue to stand by the team that has a long history like Montreal or Edmonton; it is another to ask them to stand by you when they have only been to the conference final one time and have never made a Stanley Cup Final appearance.
- NHL’s culture surrounding “non-traditional” markets – I love hockey culture. I also hate it. Hockey fans are a tough bunch, and there is a whole segment who have it out for “non-traditional markets.” These are the same people who hate on Tampa and Las Vegas when they have done nothing (quite literally for Vegas as they haven’t even played a game yet) to deserve such disdain. When you combine the location and the history with this, how do you expect new fans to show up? Or, why would you expect current fans to continue to care?
The future doesn’t look bright in Arizona, and I hate that. I hate that so many fans around the league will revel in seeing them move. I hate that nothing will change with the NHL. I hate that a team will be ripped from those fans I met who love them. That said, I can’t ignore the fact that when I visited Gila River Arena, it felt like something was missing.
Driving out to Glendale, I got my first taste of just how far away this arena is for many fans. I was driving on a Saturday afternoon; I imagine rush hour traffic would make it much worse. From where I was staying, it was a solid 45 minutes away. For many people, this would be about the normal commute or even slightly shorter. Once I arrived, I saw the impressive entertainment district they built-up around the stadium. The Cardinals stadium is also in Glendale. It reminded me a lot of Channelside Bay Plaza in Tampa, except the entertainment district in Glendale is right outside the Coyotes arena. Numerous bars, restaurants, and shops in a bright and modern venue. I arrived about 30 minutes before puck-drop, and I expected to feel that energy you experience outside an arena shortly before game time. That moment never came. I thought maybe it’ll hit me inside the arena, and that quickly turned to, maybe once the pre-game hype video, to hopefully when they score a goal. It never came. And, it isn’t for a lack of fans trying.
I want to stress that this isn’t because they have no fans or that the fans they have aren’t passionate. However, the feeling to me was that this was an area and fan base that has seen constant abuse from around the league and even their own home. It felt cautious; like they are just waiting for the news to come that they will move. Without a new home in downtown and/or some success for newer fans to buy into, hockey in desert may only exist in Las Vegas.