That sound you may have heard over the last few days, as NHL teams have hosted their first games, is the collective sigh of relief coming from all associated with the League, as it appears that the fan interest (so far) is fully intact. The threats of boycotts, both physical and financial, have to this point been just that, threats, and haven't translated into reality. Hockey Night in Canada posted huge ratings over the weekend. TSN has had great ratings, as did NBC for their first broadcast of the season. Attendance at games have been at or near capacity. So, at first glance, it all looks good. These numbers will undoubtably settle back to normal levels, once the curious and casual have satisfied the interest that the 4 month NHL infommercial that was the lockout generated. The strong hockey markets will still sell their seats, and in softer markets, ticket sales will cool off a bit. For example, in places like Columbus, the reality of soul-less, star-less mediocrity will result in a few empty seats. However, for the most part, it's been a pretty rosy picture for the NHL, likely better than what was expected.
With one exception. Watching the Coyotes vs. Columbus highlights out of Phoenix, I couldn't help but notice the empty seats. Published attendance was only 8,355 for home game #2 of the season, after a sell out of the season opener. Despite the optimism that Phoenix had arising from their on-ice success last year, it's pretty clear that, their home opener not withstanding, it's back to the same old same old in the Valley of the Sun. But "normal" in Glendale, AZ isn't a good thing.
If you are a Coyotes fan, and go to the games there, my hat is off to you. You have got to be a die hard fan. But I have to say that you are "die hard" in the "remember the Alamo" sense of the term. It's only a matter of time before the fort is going to fall, and sadly, you're likely to go down with it. The upward bump in interest and attendance that the Coyotes experienced during their push toward a Division Title, and their playoff run, proves a point. Phoenix may be a sports town, but it's not a hockey town. People love a winner, and will go to games to experience the atmosphere of success, but that doesn't mean that they will have suddenly fallen in love with the sport. And, of all the markets that currently have an NHL hockey team, Phoenix may be the toughest sell, with reason. Simply put, it's really tough to sell a sport that people don't really identify with, through either their participation in it, or through the sport being ingrained in the local culture. Phoenix is 0 for 2 in this regard.
If you lived in Phoenix, and had a 9 year old son who dreamed of one day playing for his local big league team, for under a $100, you could go down to your local big box store and get all the equipment you would need to be able to take Junior down to the local park, school yard, or playground, and start teaching him the basics and get him on his way. Unless he wanted to play hockey for the Phoenix Coyotes. Then it's a several hundred dollar investment in equipment, followed by hundreds, if not thousands of dollars invested in ice time. There are 12 rinks in the Metropolitan Phoenix area, roughly 1 for every 350,000 people. Compared to where I live, we have 6 rinks, 1 for every 10,000 people, and 4 more within a 1/2 hour drive which would reduce that ratio substantially. I can only imagine what an hour of ice time costs in Phoenix. By the time he's 13, to compete at an appropriate level, he's likely logging more travel miles than his local Congressman, and by 15 he's probably deciding whether to go to an East Coast Prep School, or north to Canada to play Jr. Hockey. Because of this, it's pretty easy to see that hockey is much more difficult to relate to, and become a fan of, as there isn't the automatic association that comes from your being raised playing the sport. A Coyotes fan also has to overcome the obstacles of not having a long association with the sport, no local boys made good stories, no black and white photos of local hockey legends, next to no hockey culture.
If the last home game is any indication, one has to wonder how sustainable the Phoenix Coyotes really are. I realize that this is hardly a new question. Anyone outside of the NHL offices has been asking that roughly since the team was relocated there. The answer, I'm afraid to say, is that it's not. The team bleeds money, always has, and given the way things look, perhaps always will. Anyone with the business sense of a hot dog cart owner knows that if you can sell a lot more hot dogs on a different corner than where you are now, you move your cart. The only remotely logical explanation for even attempting to keep the Coyotes in Arizona, is so that the NHL can point to the dots on the US map, and try to convince US TV networks that hockey has national appeal in the States. 8200 warm bodies in the arena, even if Alice Cooper is one of them, isn't going to feed the bulldog. The only reasons someone would buy this team would be a) the hubris of a potential owner, somehow self deluding him/her/them into believing that his/her/their business plan is so superior to anyone else, that it will work this time, or b) to move it. Oddly enough, it appears that the choice being made is option "a". Somewhere a hot dog cart owner is laughing.