It appears the Arizona Coyotes have a new savior. The question is what kind of saving he intends to practise. Does it mean digging proper roots into the franchise’s existing spot on the map – or pondering relocation?
The Athletic’s Craig Morgan penned a detailed report this week on billionaire Alex Meruelo, who, according to league sources, is in the advanced stages of purchasing a majority stake of unknown percentage in the Coyotes from Andrew Barroway, who will retain a minority share. The arrangement appears to be similar that of the Carolina Hurricanes, in which Tom Dundon purchased a majority share with Peter Karmanos staying on with a smaller piece of the pie. A vote to approve the Coyotes sale is expected to be part of the agenda when the NHL Board of Governors meets in Las Vegas next week before the NHL Awards.
As Morgan’s story details, Meruelo has a successful history of turning around struggling assets and was close to purchasing the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks in 2011. On the surface, he certainly looks like an exciting hire, especially because he’d be the NHL’s lone Latino majority owner, which would play well in a market with a large Latino population.
That is, of course, if Arizona remains the Coyotes’ market in the long term. It’s clear Gila River Arena in Glendale doesn’t work as the franchise’s home because it’s too inconvenient for the biggest chunk of the team’s fan base to get to. As NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has suggested in the past, a new arena – ideally in the downtown Phoenix core – is essential for the franchise’s survival in Arizona.
But does Arizona really make sense for the Coyotes in the long term? Yes, the franchise just enjoyed its most successful season ever from a business perspective, with ticket sales, attendance and TV ratings up, but the success is relative, of course. The Desert Dogs still ranked just 27th in attendance by capacity at 81.7 percent.
The Seattle expansion franchise joins the NHL for the 2021-22 season and will parachute into the Pacific Division. That would create a nine-team division, so the NHL already has announced plans to bump the Coyotes into the Central Division, which has just seven teams at the moment, creating an equal breakdown of four divisions with eight teams. The Coyotes, based in the Mountain Time Zone, would join a division featuring one other Mountain Time team and six Central Time teams.
Imagine, then, if there was a big, bustling, Central-Time market with an NHL-viable arena just waiting, arms outstretched, to inherit the Coyotes.
OK, so the city of Houston doesn’t ooze with that much enthusiasm, but the market is so big that it wouldn’t take an enormous chunk of the population to fill Toyota Center, a 16-year-old arena more than capable of housing hockey. Houston would be the fifth-largest market behind New York, Los Angeles, Toronto and Chicago. Tilman Fertitta, owner of the NBA’s Houston Rockets, had poked around the idea of scoring an NHL team in Houston in the past. Any deal moving the Coyotes to Houston would have to go through him as the Toyota Center landlord unless a new arena would be built for hockey purposes, and, as reported by TSN’s Bob McKenzie earlier this season, the government agency that owns Toyota Center hasn’t expressed interest in bringing NHL hockey there.
For now, it’s still reasonable to bet on the Coyotes staying in Arizona, as Bettman has always seemed committed to making that dream work. But there’s no denying that, based on geography, market size and the NHL’s future divisional setup, there’s another ideal market beckoning to Meruelo. A lot will depend on whether the Coyotes can make a new arena happen in Phoenix.