Is hockey dying in the desert?

Arizona Coyotes attendance has been decreasing over the last decade.

Average fan attendance for the Arizona Coyotes dropped 13 percent in the last decade. At the end of this NHL season , the team finished 30 out of 31 teams in attendance.

The Coyotes attendance average for the 2007-2008 season was 14,820 fans. This season, they averaged 13,040 fans per game. The Coyotes play at Gila River Arena in Glendale, which has a seating capacity of 17,125.

The City of Glendale was forced to restructure their contract with the Coyotes in 2017 after continuously losing money since 2003. They restructured the contract, putting a sports and entertainment company, AEG Facilities, in charge of the arena operations, which has proven to eliminate the debt.

Glendale’s Assistant City Manager Tom Duensing compiled the revenues generated since the city-owned arena opened in 2003. According to him, every year since, until the restructure last year, the team had come up millions of dollars short of the cost of the debt service each year.

“The City of Glendale lost nine million dollars every year up until we restructured the contract. Now we are just breaking even. With the way the contract is written we won’t gain or lose money.” Duensing said.

Team owner Andrew Barroway said he had no plans to move relocate from Arizona after the 2016-2017 season.

The NHL front offices believe hockey can stay alive in the desert. “My hope and expectation is that things can be worked out in Arizona, and we’re going to continue to focus that way. My point is I wouldn’t focus on Arizona moving right now, or any time soon, or maybe ever,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said.

If hockey cannot make it in a large city like Glendale and Phoenix, it poses a question: Will Tucson’s new hockey team be able to have long-term success?

The Tucson Roadrunners just finished their second season after relocating from Springfield, Massachusetts. Hockey has been successful so far in the Southern Arizona region according to Mark Iralson, the director of marketing and game operations for the Roadrunners. Iralson said, “Attendance has grown from year one to year two. So far, it’s been a success, but the first three to five years are the most important because that’s when learn about your market.”

Phillip Miller, a sports economist and professor a Minnesota State University, has another perspective on the new team’s success. “This is likely do to the honeymoon or novelty effect. Research shows in the first three to five years a new team will have the greater attendance figures because it’s new. The effect is typically five to ten percent increases, but sometimes can be up to 20 percent increase,” he said.

The Roadrunners are hoping their first-place finish will help expand their fan base, so it isn’t just a “honeymoon stage.” If Phoenix is any indication of how successful hockey is in the desert, it will be a short life for the Roadrunners in Tucson.

 

Conor Redmond is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News Service, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at @cjredmond94@email.arizona.edu.

Click here for high-resolution photographs and a word version of the story. 

 

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