Hope may be high in the desert right now as the Phoenix Coyotes head toward another playoff berth, but a desert storm may be coming in the form of a lockout.
After a work stoppage claimed the 2004-05 NHL season, the league and its fans rejoiced when talks saw the league, and its players, walk away with a brand new collective bargaining agreement in July of 2005. That agreement was set to end in the summer of 2011, with the NHLPA having the option to renew it through 2012.
The NHLPA renewed, and with CBA talks scheduled to begin again this summer, the fear is another lockout could be coming. With player salaries climbing, some owners looking for additional revenue sharing, and a salary cap floor that is keeping small market teams from making money, it looks as though it could be a long off-season for NHL fans.
For Coyotes fans especially, another work stoppage is cause for concern.
“A lockout would probably kill the team,” said Heather Frackiewicz, a Coyotes season ticket holder and high school french teacher in the Phoenix area.
Another lockout, Frackiewicz said, could potentially drive more fans away. Post-lockout in 2005-06, the Coyotes saw the attendance at Jobing.com Arena, their home building, by an average of nearly 3,000 per game.
While some share Frackiewicz’s mindset, FOX Sports Arizona’s Craig Morgan doesn’t necessarily think it’s the case.
“I think they could survive the lockout,” said Morgan. “You know, one of the original owners . . . told me that one of the best financial years the Coyotes had was during the lockout; they didn’t lose $30 million.”
When it comes to losing money, the Coyotes are no stranger. Matter of fact, the Coyotes have lost money every season post-lockout.
According to Forbes, the four seasons following the lockout, from 2006 to 2010, the Coyotes lost $65 million.
But it’s not only the lockout and financial losses that are worrying the Coyotes and their faithful, there is a feeling that the current lack of ownership could see the team seeking higher ground.
“There are a myriad of factors at work. A stable owner would definitely do well for the club, though,” said Morgan.
The problem with ownership in Phoenix is this: the league haven’t been able to find a suitor to take the reins in Phoenix. However, there have been rumblings of prospective ownership from Greg Jamison, a former San Jose Sharks CEO.
“It’s tough to know what to believe, because the whole thing has been a lot of rumours and discussion, and very hush-hush,” said Frackiewicz. “The lack of ownership worries me, definitely, but if there is a team next year, I would definitely renew my season tickets regardless.”
Morgan agreed, but thinks the Jamison bid may not be the one that saves the franchise.
“I would show some caution with saying it will be the Jamison group, because I don’t think they’re the only ones in the running,” he said. “There’s an anonymous (potential) owner, but the thought is he hasn’t quite done the tire kicking and gotten an understanding of the financials.”
Even with his digging, he hasn’t been able to find the name of the “anonymous” owner, but the league has shown some serious consideration, said Morgan citing league sources.
“He’s got some connections . . . down here, and league sources say that he could be awesome for the league. It could be great, and it’s been said he has deep pockets,” Morgan said. “The NHL really, really likes that possibility.”
It would be in the NHL’s best interest to have the ownership issue rectified, because when it comes to ownership, or lack thereof, some believe it has been the catalyst for the Coyotes attendance woes.
“Because there was no real owner, the team wasn’t able to market themselves the way they may have wanted to,” said Morgan. “Even with low TV numbers, the coverage just hasn’t been there at all.”
Morgan went on to say that FOX Sports Arizona, the Coyotes home broadcast network, doesn’t even have full television rights to the team.
There is also a feeling that with the upcoming labour negotiations, the NHL could position itself in a manner that would help the franchises, like Phoenix, that are struggling.
One option would be lowering the salary cap floor, allowing small market teams to spend less. Morgan didn’t believe it would really help the Coyotes, however.
“Lowering the floor may help the bottom line of the team, but will it help the on-ice product?” he said. “Chances are it would struggle, and with what they’ve been able to do with no ownership, the success they’ve had is amazing.”
Morgan pointed out that if performance was down, the team won’t exactly be able to put fans in the seats. Frackiewicz agreed the team’s performance of late — the Coyotes went 11-0-1 in February — has brought people to the Jobing.com Arena.
“There’s been a few more people in the seats,” she said. “It’s really a fair weather city, and right now (the Coyotes) are the place to be.”
For the Coyotes franchise, consistent success could see the fan base explode in numbers, something that happened in Nashville where the Predators’ continued success has lead to the small market becoming a feel-good story in the NHL.
“The Coyotes have followed (the Nashville) model to an extent, yes,” said Morgan. “It’s really difficult to compare the markets, but I would say they are following a similar path.”
The signs of the “Nashville model” paying off are already beginning to show, too.
“They sold out on a Tuesday, which is usually really hard to them to do,” said Frackiewicz about a game against the Canucks on March 6.
“Usually a lot of other teams’ fans are in the building when there is a sellout, but lately they’ve been able to get people to come out against teams that normally don’t have sellouts.”
Frackiewicz said that focusing on marketing the team could significantly help.
“The team needs to focus on its marketing. There isn’t a lot going on right now aside from ‘Hockey the Hard Way’.”
Hockey the Hard Way shows Coyotes players in a grittier fashion, using the rough and tumble parts of the game to sell it to fans.
Morgan agreed that marketing, especially to those who are winter residents down in Arizona from Canada, could be one thing that helps save the Coyotes.
“Because of the housing market and the prices being so cheap, around 1/4 of the homes being bought in developments are by buyers that are Canadian. While they may not go out and buy season tickets, they need to find a way to reach out to that fan base. Packaging together a Calgary, Edmonton, and Vancouver deal, that could help drive ticket sales,” Morgan said.
While the Coyotes are showing signs that an extended stay in Phoenix could be in the cards, the lockout and the effect it could have on the ownership situation have put fans in a tough spot. If they can’t find an owner, it seems that could be it for the team.
“It wouldn’t be easy to lose the team,” said Frackiewicz. “It’s tough to get connected with something and have it taken away.”