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Arizona Coyotes Arena Situation Far From Settled

Gila River Arena

With Alex Meruelo now at the helm as majority owner, the Arizona Coyotes will have to find a way to resolve uncertainty surrounding their long-term arena plans.

The Coyotes currently play at Gila River Arena in Glendale. There have been longstanding questions surrounding the economics of that arrangement, as the Coyotes are currently operating under a year-to-year lease, and both the franchise and the NHL have previously contended that the venue’s location creates a disadvantage. Specifically, both the team and the league feel Glendale’s location in West Valley hampers the organization to generate revenue through ticket sales and corporate support.

It has therefore been argued that a new arena in either downtown Phoenix or East Valley is the best long-term solution for the Coyotes. However, the organization has not made any progress in building support for a new arena and seems in more recent years to have put planning for a new venue—at least publicly—on the back burner.

Questions about the Coyotes’ arena situation have surfaced again following Meruelo’s acquisition of the franchise’s majority stake. For now, he is raising questions about the viability of the franchise’s current situation in Glendale but is not getting into what he expects out of a long-term arena plan, other than stating a commitment to Arizona. More from the Arizona Republic:

At a news conference last week, Meruelo said he’s committed to keeping the Coyotes in Arizona — but he didn’t say the same about keeping the team in Glendale, calling it “a difficult situation.”  

The reasons he ticked off aren’t new: The team loses money there. The fan base is elsewhere in the Valley. Corporate sponsors are harder to come by in Glendale. And the team doesn’t have a long-term lease.

A Glendale spokeswoman told The Arizona Republic that city leaders hope to sit down with Meruelo “to see how we can help him achieve his goals of success.”

Glendale and the Coyotes’ relationship splintered four years ago after the financially struggling city prematurely ended the team’s $15 million a year arena management contract, in favor of hiring an arena manager for a third the cost. 

In recent years, the Coyotes have sought to prioritize community outreach efforts and putting together a more competitive team while deemphasizing the urgency of their arena situation. Meruelo’s comments on the arena—combined with his immediate emphasis on improving the Coyotes’ outreach to the Hispanic community—seem to reflect a continuation of that strategy.

Still, even if a new arena plan is not imminent, the situation will be worth watching for several reasons. For the Coyotes, remaining in Arizona is a stated the goal, but there are obviously still questions about whether Glendale fits into that plan. If not, then the logical option for the Coyotes would be to pursue a new arena in Phoenix or East Valley, but funding would be a major question mark. Elected leaders at the local and state levels have shown increasing reluctance over the past several years to fund major sports facilities projects, and the Coyotes are not the only team in the region that is facing facility issues: The Arizona Diamondbacks still need to settle on whether to renovate Chase Field or build a new ballpark, an MLS expansion bid that calls for a new soccer-specific stadium remains active, and Phoenix officials committed funds earlier this year to renovate Talking Stick Resort Arena for the NBA’s Suns. (And that renovation, it is worth noting, is not planned to include improvements that will make the facility suitable for an NHL franchise.)

Glendale, too, also has considerable implications in play. Gila River Arena originally opened in 2003 and debt on the facility is not scheduled to be paid off until 2033. The arena’s financial outlook has actually improved under current manager AEG Facilities—thanks in part to a robust slate of non-NHL events—and the venue has proven to be a reliable anchor for the bustling Westgate Entertainment Center. For their part, Glendale officials also appear to be willing to engage in discussions with the Coyotes, and there seems to be some recognition that having an NHL franchise in the fold makes Gila River Arena more active and presents inherent potential for some economic impact.

There is a lot up in the air when it comes to the Coyotes’ long-term arena situation, both in part because of the franchise’s own situation and the flux of facility issues in the Phoenix area. It will therefore take time to sort out and seems unlikely to yield an immediate solution, but with a new majority owner now in place, it seems likely that the Coyotes will launch those discussions in earnest at some point.

Image of Gila River Arena courtesy Arizona Coyotes.

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