Les Yotes: Why the NHL Should Move the Coyotes to Quebec (But Won’t) by @ChrisRBarron



The experiment that is the Phoenix Coyotes has been an unmitigated disaster.  Despite Gary Bettman and company’s desire to see hockey succeed in the 4+ million person Phoenix metro area, the truth is that it hasn't and it won’t.  The unmitigated disaster I refer to has nothing to do with the product the Coyotes put on the ice – indeed over the last 3 complete seasons the Coyotes have tallied 107, 99 and 97 points and last year made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals before losing to the eventual Stanley Cup winning Los Angeles Kings. 


The abject failure I am referring to has nothing to with whether the Coyotes win or lose, and most damningly, no amount of winning can fix it:  the bottom line is that the vast majority of those 4+ million people living in the Phoenix desert just don’t care about hockey.


The Coyotes, previously known as the Winnipeg Jets, moved to Phoenix in July of 1996.  Just 13 years later, massively in debt and losing huge sums of money, the Coyotes – under then owner Jerry Moyes – filed for bankruptcy.  Despite much more lucrative offers to buy the team and relocate them, the NHL swooped in and purchased the Coyotes insuring they would remain in Phoenix.


The Coyotes continue to be owned by the league, continue to lose money, and continue to lack an owner willing to keep the franchise in Phoenix (technically Glendale).  Forbes values the Coyotes at $134 million (next to last among NHL franchises) and they estimate that the franchise has lost close to $100 million since 2007 (including losing over $20 million last year alone – the year they made it to the conference finals).


Great seats still available at Jobing.com Arena.
It’s a shock anyone is interested in buying the Coyotes with the intent of keeping them in the desert money pit that is Arizona, and after the most recent attempted sale to Greg Jamison fell through, the NHL might finally be forced to deal with reality and move the Coyotes to a place where hockey is viable.  Let’s be honest, just about anywhere else that has been mentioned as a possibility (Seattle, KC, Greater Toronto Area, Quebec City) is more viable than Phoenix.  Hell, Saskatoon would be more viable for hockey than Arizona. 


While all of the potential landing spots for the Coyotes would be an improvement over Phoenix – one is head and shoulders above all other possibilities:  Quebec City.


Last March, Quebec City announced plans to build a $400 million, 18,000-seat, NHL ready arena that will be ready in 2015.  Quebec hopes to lure an NHL franchise back to the city, which lost their beloved Nordiques in 1995 when the franchise moved to Denver.


Over the last three years, the Quebec Remparts – the city’s major junior hockey team – have averaged more than 11,000 fans a game playing in the aging 15,000 seat Colisee Pepsi (the former home of the Quebec Nordiques).  The NHL Coyotes have barely averaged 12,000 fans a game in the 17,500 seat Jobing.com Arena (built in 2003) over the same time span.  In the 2011-2012 season, the Remparts averaged 11,724 fans per game – almost twice as many as the second most fans averaged by a QMJHL team and almost 3 times as much as the third largest drawing team.


Clearly there is a hunger for hockey in Quebec City and in 2015 the city will have a state of the art NHL ready arena just begging for a franchise.  Sounds perfect, right?  Of course it does, which is exactly why Gary Bettman and company are likely NOT to move the struggling Coyotes to Quebec.


If Bettman is forced to give up his dreams of converting the 4 million plus in the Phoenix area in to loyal NHL consumers, don’t expect him to trade that in for the 765,000 French-speaking Canadians in Quebec City.  The tiny Canadian media market – that speaks a different language – is a hard sell to big American sponsors and to NBC Sports (the NHL’s television partner), or so at least Bettman and company fears.


After another abject sun belt failure – the Atlanta Thrashers – moved to the similarly small Winnipeg metro market, Bettman and company are likely even more hesitant to project the image of a sport that is shrinking its geographic footprint and reach.  Of course, the Winnipeg Jets actually made money as a franchise last year – their since leaving Atlanta – and sold out the MTS Centre every game despite having the 3rd highest ticket prices in the NHL.  But Bettman and company can’t have anymore Winnipegs, right? 


Analysts, like Forbes Mike Ozanian, believe that Seattle – rather than Quebec City – is the most likely destination for the Coyotes.  Seattle currently has a junior hockey team, the Thunderbirds, averaged roughly 4,000 fans a game when playing in the 15,000 seat KeyArena and continue to average roughly 4,000 fans in the much smaller 6,500 seat ShoWare Center.  Those are barely a third of the attendance at Quebec Remparts games, but alas, Seattle has the allure of being an American market with 3,500,000 living in the metro area.


I am not saying that Seattle is a bad market for an NHL franchise, but it isn’t as good a fit as Quebec City.  Instead of constantly chasing these mythical big markets with either no desire or little desire for an NHL franchise, Bettman and company would be better served putting failing franchises like Phoenix in places that almost guarantee success – like Quebec.


I know that the league doesn’t want hockey to be viewed as a regional sport, but it is, and that’s ok.  I would rather have 30 vibrant franchises playing in traditional hockey markets, instead of a handful of teams eking out an existence on the margins, losing tons of money, in non-traditional markets.


Stable teams that are making money are good for the league, good for the players and good for the fans.  Pack up le van, and let’s get Les Yotes north pronto!


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