In National Hockey League history, the Cleveland Barons franchise, which lasted just two years in the late ’70s before folding, became known as “The Mistake By The Lake.” Today, the league has the Arizona Coyotes, a franchise that seems to be every bit as unsuccessful, unpopular, and inept as the Barons. But unlike the Cleveland franchise, the NHL’s current “Disaster in the Desert” is much like the desert itself; it just goes on and on.
Since relocating to Arizona from Winnipeg (RIP Original Winnipeg Jets) in 1996, the Coyotes have been beset by bad ownership, bad management, bad teams, bad attendance, and really bad arena deals. As history has taught us, this is the point where a pro sports franchise makes noises about moving elsewhere in an effort to leverage a new, larger arena (paid for by the taxpayers, of course). But the Coyotes, true to their history, are doing the exact opposite.
Because you really can’t make this up, the Arizona Coyotes, an actual major league franchise in the National Hockey League (I looked them up on the NHL website to be sure), are, being run out of their existing arena (the Gila River Arena in the Phoenix suburb of Glendale) for effectively being a delinquent tenant. True to the opposite nature of this saga, the arena announced it would renovate after the Coyotes leave.
But surely, the Coyotes are moving into a bigger facility that’s actually in Phoenix, right? Of course not! While they have “plans” to build a new arena (in the area where no city or entity has been willing to build them a new arena since they moved to town), the Disaster Dogs will instead spend the next three years playing at a new arena on the campus of Arizona State University with a capacity of… 5,000 people!
That’s not a typo! The Arizona Coyotes, an actual major league franchise in the National Hockey League (I checked again to be sure), are moving into an arena that’s smaller than most minor league venues. And that arena won’t even be completed before December, which is fine, save for the fact that the NHL season begins in October.
Well, at least the Coyotes will have the satisfaction of being the prime tenant of that new arena at ASU, right? Of course not! According to a recent article in The Athletic, “Arizona State will take precedence on all schedules. ASU will retain name and sponsorship rights. The Coyotes will only have game-day revenue. The Coyotes will also not practice at the arena.”
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is the man who championed hockey in Arizona and, like the gambler who keeps doubling down on a losing hand, he refuses to push away from the table. Any other major league would have cut their losses and tried their luck in another city salivating for a major league team. Instead, Bettman seems to be blindly committed to whatever version of hockey in the Sunbelt he can get, no matter how much humiliation and ridicule it brings to the league.
While there’s no telling how much lower the Coyotes can go as a franchise, we’ll have three years to find out. That’s the length of the lease the team signed at Arizona State, which will ostensibly give the team time to develop those plans for a new arena fit for a major league team. Until then, what few Arizona fans there are will pay major league prices to see a minor league hockey team. And, the Coyotes howling at a 5,000 seat arena will mean reduced revenue streams and generate tons of red ink for the team. But, for everyone else, the NHL’s Disaster in the Desert will also generate howls of laughter for years to come.