Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Growth Comes From Within

There's a lot that can be said about building a good team. Smart trades and key free agent signings do wonders for hockey teams, but the best teams all have one thing going for them: they have built from within. They have drafted good young players after doing their homework, worked hand-in-hand with their AHL affiliate to develop players within similar systems, and have allowed those players to grow without NHL pressures. Because these teams have hitched their wagons to this theory and allowed their good young players to grow, they have seen a ton of success.

The same goes for communities in their development and growth. Communities face many of the same plights that hockey teams do. They try to attract talented free agents (businesses) with lucrative monetary deals (tax breaks), they work to grow their homegrown talent by providing them with opportunities, and they trade assets for assets in the form of goods and services. Good communities, like good hockey teams, lay the foundation for success with their internal growth.

Why am I writing about this? There was an article written by Mr. Randy Turner in today's Winnipeg Free Press. As you may know from reading this site, I hold Mr. Turner in high esteem for his mostly-objective writing and his ability to call it as he sees it. Good, honest reporters call a spade "a spade" when they see one, and Mr. Turner does that in nearly all his articles. Needless to say, I am a fan of his writing and reporting.

In the article published today, Mr. Turner brings to light some of the issues that the city of Glendale, its community, the Coyotes, and the fans of the Coyotes face. I want to address a few points that he makes on a case-by-case basis.

For the people from Arizona who may be reading this, I'll try to weed through some of the misconceptions about both Winnipeg and Glendale. To do this, I've recruited a very good writer in Jordan, who has his own excellent Coyotes-based blog called Five For Howling. Thanks for helping me out with an Arizona-based perspective, Jordan.

For the people in Winnipeg who may be reading this, I'm not going to soften the blow here: this is reality. But I do have some interesting information at the end.

To everyone else, please read through and try to see the light on both ends. Phoenix and Winnipeg aren't very different in terms of its values, economics, and ideals when you clear away all the extraneous fluff like palm trees, mosquitoes, and two cities fighting for the same franchise.
Here we go. Mr. Turner's writing is italicized, while I add Jordan's and my commentary in regular font below his paragraphs.

"Hockey fans in Arizona look at Winnipeggers as vultures just waiting to swoop down on the Phoenix Coyotes' carcass.

"For the most part, they're right. Why deny the obvious?"
Well, aside from a few hundred people who show up at mock "Bring Back the Jets" rallies, I wouldn't say a lot of us are "vultures" at this point. Would Winnipeg like to join the country club again? Sure. There are lots of cities who would love the opportunity, and Winnipeg is no different. There are a large number of Winnipeggers who want the Jets back. We just don't fly off the handle like those shown by the media.

I believe the reason everyone thinks we're so ravenous in our pursuit of the desert-based NHL club is because of the media. No one ever interviews the people in Winnipeg who are content with the AHL Moose. No one ever interviews the people who would like to see the Jets come back without selling the city's soul. Instead, all the interviews go to the "hockey-mad citizens" of Winnipeg.

Which is a lie. They're NHL-mad citizens and have never embraced the Moose. All they want are the bright lights and big names of the NHL. And they get the airtime to make the rest of us - the large majority of Winnipeggers - look like we're just as idiotic.

Again, Winnipeg and Phoenix aren't so different. They're passionate about their team. We're passionate about our team. It just so happens that we're passionate about the same team.
"According to the [Glendale]'s own documents, property tax revenue is 'plummeting.' Hence the desperate need for any revenue generated by Jobing.com to pay off the original construction debt -- with the cost foisted on users (through sales tax) and local area businesses (through a special tax district).

It's not just about the arena, however. The city's grand plan to be a 'sports and entertainment hub' involves not only a city-funded ballpark complex that hosts the Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers for spring training, but also the University of Phoenix Stadium (for the NFL's Arizona Cardinals) and the Westgate City Center.

The city is expected to pay around $115 million for the Camelback Ranch ballpark for the Dodgers and White Sox and another $37 million for the surrounding 'infrastructure.'

Meanwhile, Westgate developers had big dreams for a sprawling eight-million-square-foot entertainment/business wonderland that would feed off a projected 22 million visitors a year when completed. Tens of thousands of those visitors were expected to be Coyotes hockey fans.

To date, however, Westgate has only developed about 500,000 sq. ft. and the Coyotes continue to lose tens of millions of dollars a year playing before thousands of empty seats a night.

Instead of reaping tax revenue, the city is being forced to prop up the Coyotes because it's not about just a hockey team, but the millions of tax dollars already invested in a vision of creating a sports and entertainment oasis."
I'm no W.P. Kinsella, but it is almost true that "if you build it, he will come". While Mr. Turner spoke about the thousands of empty seats that the Coyotes played to, I'm almost certain that he's using average NHL attendance figures to reach that conclusion.

Jordan also comes to this conclusion: "I did an article about this about a month ago. Yes, at the beginning of the season, there were some abysmal attendance numbers. And it was fairly understandable considering the prior 8 years of 'success' on the ice and the summer from hell that the fans had been put through. Add to that complete lack of any marketing or ability to sell season tickets, and it was not surprising that the crowds were not there. But it turned around pretty nicely, as you can see. And finishing the season with 8 consecutive sell-outs was a very encouraging sign."

For as much as there were terrible numbers to start the season, the Coyotes finished strong. Much like Gary Bettman has been saying in media reports, fans in places like Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Ottawa, and Edmonton are returning to the rink to support their NHL teams after enduring some pitiful seasons while ownership drove the team into the ground by cutting costs. However, with recent successes, fans in those cities are filling those arenas once again. The fans in Phoenix are doing the same, although it is taking a little longer than perhaps one may like to see.

Clearly, the fans are there. The market is big enough to support the Coyotes. With a winning team, the fans began to return to Jobing.com Arena in droves. But there's the catch: ownership mismanagement and a lack of qualified hockey people in the front office led to a decade of despair in Glendale. When a team is a perennial loser, the casual fans stop going because it's no fun losing every night. And this is why Phoenix, despite having some very vocal season ticket holders, appeared to play in front of empty sections.

Taking into account the economic hardships that a lot of people faced over the last few years, and it's easy to see why tickets to hockey games were not being bought in Phoenix. Entertainment is always one of the first things to be sacrificed when people are faced with a shortage of cash, and NHL hockey relies on ticket sales more than any other sport. No tickets being sold means losing fistfuls of cash, and, without selling tickets, the arena looks empty.

These hard economic times also affect business development. The reason that some of those promised developments haven't materialized? The same reason why those fans aren't in the seats at Jobing.com Arena - a tightening of the pinch on the pennies.

Mr. Turner even emphasizes how closely the Coyotes' and Citibank's situations are in terms of their importance: "That's because the Coyotes are to Glendale what Citibank was to the U.S. government: Too big to fail".

Citibank failed when their risks in giving out mortgages below prime to attract a lot of new consumer business bit them in the rear when people couldn't pay for the higher interest rates once the sub-prime mortgage market nose-dived. The Coyotes failed when their risks in putting out a non-competitive team to save money and improve their bottom line bit them in the rear when people decided to stop going to games due to their lack of competitiveness and a bad economical time after seeing their banks claim failure.

In essence, the Phoenix Coyotes' situation was a microcosm of the hard economical times in the United States of America. Both the Coyotes and Citibank took poorly-calculated risks to make their bottom lines look better, and, in both cases, it came back to shake them to their foundations.

Let's review. Here is what the Coyotes situation looked like, and what it could potentially be if the current management continues making good moves for itself and its community.
  • Perennially bad team + lack of fans coming to arena and surrounding areas = lack of money for both team and surrounding businesses.
  • Lack of money for development of team and businesses + lack of fans = team and area in serious financial despair.
  • Bad team in serious financial despair + lack of fans + lack of surrounding businesses + bad economical times = hockey team and area drowning in red ink.
  • Hockey team drowing in red ink + $25 million safety net provided by taxpayers = buying time to potentially save team and area.
  • Buying time + economical improvement + competitive team = increase in fans.
  • Increase in fans + competitive team = improved outlook for businesses in area + new businesses popping up.
  • Increased money for development of teams and businesses + lots of fans = team and area in good financial situation.
  • Perennially competitive team + lots of fans coming to the arena and surrounding areas = lots of money for both team and surrounding businesses.
And now you see where the title of this article comes from: growth comes from within. Good hockey teams build from within, developing star players and having those players become a part of the aura to which fans cling.

Look at the Blackhawks: Kane, Toews, Keith, and Seabrook are all household names in Chicago. Throw in Patrick Sharp, and you have yourself a pretty good first unit developed entirely within Chicago's system. Phoenix has begun to draft fairly well, and have added some excellent young players at the most recent deadline. Let them develop, and they will flourish.

Do you want to know why the Original Six teams have such a strong following? Originally, they began as a team in a region who would select players from that region to stock their teams. Montreal, as a part of that deal, had the entire Quebec area to select from, and it's one of the reasons why they were so good. They developed talent from within their borders, grabbing French-Canadian players such as Maurice Richard, Henri Richard, Jean Beliveau, Yvon Cournoyer, Jacques Plante, and so on. The players were a part of the community they came from, and the fans had a strong bond to these homegrown players. The growth, and success, of the Original Six teams came from within their own team and community, and the fans had players they knew very well, both personally and regionally, building a sense of community with the team. Fans were vitally important to each team as they built their brands.

Cities and, more importantly, fans are still vitally important to the health of NHL franchises. As I stated above, the NHL relies heavily on ticket sales in this day and age in terms of revenue per team. Having a good team will result in fans filling the arena, and Phoenix saw this happen in the latter stages of this past season. Eight straight games of sell-outs shows that the market in Phoenix is strong, and that the Coyotes - if they continue on this path of success - might be able to make a go of it on the ice in the desert.

Winnipeg, this is where your ears should start burning. 11,000 fans may have been fine in the old NHL days, but not any longer. Phoenix, Nashville, and Atlanta have all shown that averaging less than 11,000 fans is the fastest way to financial doom in the NHL. When the NHL left Winnipeg, they averaged slightly more than 11,000 fans per game in a season where the Jets leaving the city was already announced.

There's a good chance that the NHL will consider Winnipeg as a viable option if and when a team is available to be moved. It could still be Phoenix, but it could also be a couple of other teams who are currently in some sort of trouble. But the NHL isn't going to give a team to an owner where getting fans out to games is like pulling teeth.

The equation for keeping a team in your city is very simple: it starts and ends with that franchise's fans. For Phoenix, it means that they have to start going back to the arena now that their economic woes are beginning to let up. For Winnipeg, it means that any team that is awarded to the city must have an extremely high number of season tickets sold for the team to do well. For all other cities, the fans have to continue to show up.

Being a fan means you're married to your team. That means you're with that team through thick and thin, through sorrow and joy, and through sickness and health. Phoenix is stuck in sickness right now. It's up to the fans to nurse them through this.

Marriage, hockey, and community all have one thing in common: they're all teams in way or another. With some nurturing and support, all teams make their way through tough times. The city of Glendale bought you some time, Phoenicians. Now it's up to you to make this marriage, this team, and this community work. And Winnipeg, perhaps its time to start learning these lessons before you get all "hockey-mad" about an NHL team. It just doesn't work if all parties aren't involved.

If you're a fan of an NHL hockey team, it's time for you to go out and prove it. Go to as many games as you can. Demand that your GM develop from within the organization. And be prepared for the ups and downs in your relationship with the team. Things will go bad, and good things will happen. That's life in general. But it's your reaction and perservence in these relationships that will temper the highest highs and the lowest lows.

That's what being a good teammate is all about, and, as fans, we're all teammates in the business of hockey. After all, that's where the seeds for the love of hockey are planted. We need to cultivate that seed to see it grow into something incredible. Whether it be a seed, a marriage, a team, a community, or a country, successful entities always realize that growth always comes from within.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!


Space astronomy said...

Good article.

I think the important thing you're missing, though, is that hockey is the SIXTH most popular sport in the Phoenix area, after football, baseball, basketball, college football and college basketball.

Can a winning Coyotes team attract decent crowds? Yes. I believe that, and it was proven by their playoff run.

However, I don't think hockey has the potential, in that region, to ever surpass any of those other sports, which are deeply rooted in the community. So hockey, even if audiences do grow with a successful team, is always going to be an afterthought in that region. That's not a bad thing. It's just not a hockey town, because it's already a baseball, basketball and football town.

A few specific things you said that I want to address:

"Well, aside from a few hundred people who show up at mock "Bring Back the Jets" rallies, I wouldn't say a lot of us are "vultures" at this point."

I don't think we're "vultures" either...I think a lot of us are watching this situation very closely because it's the closest we've come to getting an NHL team back since the Jets left.

Your point about the mock rallies is interesting, though. When a crucial vote regarding the future of the Coyotes was being held in Glendale, there weren't even enough Coyotes fans to fill the gallery at the council meeting. Only 250 people showed, and their team is still around and can potentially be saved. Meanwhile, in Winnipeg, we have at LEAST that many people showing up to "mock rallies," 14 years after the fact, in a city where, until very recently, our chances of getting the Jets back seemed about 2% or less.

I think that speaks volumes about the importance placed on hockey in Winnipeg vs. the importance of hockey in Phoenix. The excuses I've seen from Coyotes fans re: why no one showed up to the council meeting are pathetic: "it was a work night," "the council meeting isn't on a main highway," etc. etc. Totally unacceptable excuses.

As for the Moose...they're OK. I've been to my share of games, but it's hard to be a diehard fan of a team when its best players can get called up to the big leagues and Vancouver at any given time. The reason there are Winnipeggers who are 'content' with the Moose is because they've convinced themselves the NHL is gone for good, so they might as well get into the next best thing.

I'm sure, as you mentioned, the economic situation in the States DOES have a lot to do with the shitty turnout for the Coyotes in recent years, but so what? The economic situation in Canada in the mid-90s played a large role in the Jets leaving, too.

It's not an excuse, it's reality. Teams relocate if they're not making enough money. The Coyotes are hemmorhaging cash, not getting attendance unless they win (which is rare, and means little money coming in), not selling much in the way of merch (there was a story recently where a Phoenix area sports store only stocked a handful of Coyotes crap, but piles of college and even HIGH SCHOOL team gear), and they're in a city where hockey is the number six sport.

Yes, people in Winnipeg may seem like assholes because we want a team so badly -- especially THIS team, because we feel it was stolen from us in the first place -- but aside from its population and the potential for a big TV deal, there's little reason to keep the team in Phoenix.

Bring 'em home.

mtjaws said...

Pretty good assessment of the Coyote situation. I've followed the team in recent years, and have seen that it all starts with winning. I think they needed a coaching change several years ago, but Wayne wasn't gonna give that up, especially once the bankruptcy stuff started. This year they had that new motivation, and it led to winning, increased attendance, and the playoffs.

I understand that Winnipeg is way more of a hockey town than Phoenix, but it can still succeed there. Had the owner Moyes upheld his end of the lease deal (paying that huge $800 million or so penalty for leaving the arena), the city wouldn't be doing all it can to protect their arena investment. And if he and Balsillie hadn't tried to cheat the rules, the city would've been rightfully paid, and perhaps the team could've moved north. The league might actually have approved that.

Bottom line, I hope a new buyer steps up, keeps the team in PHX, commits to developing players, and puts out a team that can/will win. That is what I hope to see happen, no offense to any worthy Canadian cities.