Friday, September 17, 2004


Hockey in the USA: Coyote Ugly

The ratings in the US for NHL and World Cup games have hit all time lows, attendance is down in many cities, and the sport has failed to capture any sort of grip on the populace in the time Gary Bettman has been the commissioner. A lengthy lockout could kill the fan base in much of the southern US as the casual fans will simply turn to another sport and may never come back.

There are many theories and reasons for the lack of interest in hockey in the USA, but I just want to touch on my personal experiences in the two markets I�ve travelled to this year: Phoenix and San Francisco/San Jose.

First things first, I�ll start with Phoenix.


Basic Stats :
Phoenix is the 6th largest city in the USA with a population of over 1.3mil, and the 14th largest metropolitan area with a population of just over 3mil. The border communities such as Glendale (Where the Coyotes play, which is west of Phoenix) and Scottsdale are full of very affluent people living in �gated� communities. Yes, there are many retirees, many of whom live in Scottsdale and east of Phoenix

A large portion of Phoenix is made up of Latinos and Mexicans�over 30%, as Phoenix is very close to the Mexican border.



I went to Phoenix in March; the very night the Bertuzzi incident took place. The incident was all over the �regular� American TV networks: CNN, MSNBC, ABC, and even the 3 sports channels (ESPN, ESPN2, FOXSPORTS). I was kind of surprised to see that even the mainstream networks aired a front-page story on hockey.

Of course, the media tried their very best to sensationalize the story and put a bad light on hockey. From reporting incorrect information of Moore�s injury (�He broke his back!�) to raving about hockey was a bunch of out-of-control Neanderthals, there was hardly a moderate voice in the bunch. Plenty of non-hockey sports personalities and news personalities took it upon themselves to paint the sport of hockey with a �holier-than-thou� brush over ONE incident. You can�t expect more from people who never care about hockey otherwise, nor can you expect any kind of realistic moderate reporting from channels that seek to maximize shock value.

Once the hub-bub died down, hockey basically went back to being the non-factor it was for most Americans. Try as I might, I couldn�t get much of any hockey coverage from the local media or the 3 American sports channels. Apart from hockey broadcasts on ESPN, and the Bertuzzi incident, hockey was treated as an �other� sport. Sportscenter, the ESPN sports news broadcast, played no more than 3-4 minutes of hockey coverage per hour of broadcast. In Canada, hockey usually gets at least 20 minutes out of every 60 during the season.

The local newspaper, the Arizona Central, has one guy who covers hockey for them: David Vest.

To his credit, David Vest does quite a good job rounding up news from other sources and writing his own stories on the Coyotes and the League. The paper actually gave Vest at least half a page daily and a fan could get a decent dose of league news from this paper. The coverage wasn�t great for a hardcore fan, but it would be good enough for a casual fan. The hockey page was usually buried around page 5 or 6, so you�d have to dig for it. Compared to the baseball, basketball, and football coverage, hockey was definitely a distant 4th.


When I was in Phoenix, it was about 30 Celsius (90 Fahrenheit, I think) every day that I was there. It�s in the middle of a freaking� desert! With the bright sun and clear skies, it�s very hard to get into any kind of hockey mood while you are in such a city. As with any hot city, there won�t be many ice rinks. A crude search turned up about only 15 or so skating rinks available in Phoenix. Not all of those are �hockey� rinks, either. As you can imagine, it�s very hard to develop a culture of hockey in a place that is very hot (over 120 Fahrenheit in the summer) and devoid of hockey rinks.

March is also �Spring Training� season for Major League Baseball. It�s great for me (baseball fan), and a lot of folks (Especially older ones) come down for a vacation to watch the many exhibition games around the Phoenix area. Baseball is forefront in the sports news and gets all of the premium coverage by the media.

The large Hispanic population of Phoenix tends to be poor, plus they generally have no interest of hockey whatsoever. Hockey is not part of the culture in this community, and I recall seeing maybe 2-3 Hispanic fans attending the Coyotes game.

Phoenix is also home to many �snowbirds�; Rich white folks who come to Phoenix to retire in a nice hot climate. The Coyotes were banking on the fact that these rich folks, some of them Canadian, would spend their disposable income on hockey games. Unfortunately for the Coyotes, many of the snowbirds I talked to came from baseball cities with no NHL hockey (Milwaukee, Seattle) or from places like Iowa, Georgia, and Arkansas. I don�t think they will develop a sudden interest in hockey.


Glendale Arena is located in the middle of nowhere. It�s surrounded by a massive parking lot and then desert. The plan is to develop the surrounding area with more �gated� communities. Until then, Glendale Arena will remain an oasis of ice in the desert surrounded by Free Parking (Which the Coyotes go out of their way to mention to you 100 times during the game).

Face Value tickets range from US$15 to $100. Most of the seats are expensive and on average, a lot higher than a real hockey market like Vancouver�s. Ouch! There are some 2-for-1 offers for the very cheap seats which involve getting UPC labels and buying some other sponsoring products in order to get them.

Instead of taking out a 2nd mortgage, my step-father and I ran into a young couple with a couple of their daddy�s extra season tickets to get rid of. We paid $20 for 2 Club seats which would have cost us $200 at the window. We sat right near center ice, not too far behind the penalty boxes. The club seats were very well padded and came with a free program. Fortunately for us, there was hardly anyone at the game, so I had lots of leg and arm room.

Glendale Arena is one of the newest in the NHL and one of the best by far. The video boards around the arena and the Jumbotron conglomerate are far superior to those I�ve seen at GM Place and Air Canada Centre. The picture and sound is clear and crisp and very bright. The arena also appears to be very very small inside since the upper seating area is built at a very high angle. The architects did a great job bringing a cozy atmosphere and great seating to every part of the place.

As for the game itself�it was a snoozefest between LA and Phoenix, two teams out of the playoffs. Derek Morris had just come over from the Avalanche, and Cechmanek was injured. There were no more than 9,000 people at the game, and I�ve never been surrounded by so many empty seats.

The fans that did attend the game are quite enthusiastic and willing to shell out money. The new Coyotes uniforms look quite nice, and there was a large % of fans wearing these sweaters to the game. I�ve never seen such a large % of team-sweater saturation at a game before.


Phoenix is no Winnipeg, and it�s a shame that the NHL abandoned a great NHL market for a poor NHL market. Hockey will just never be as big in the USA as it is in Canada, and that�s a fact. A final look at Phoenix�

Positives: Large population, very affluent population, new state-of-the-art arena, active management (Ricci, Hull, trades), FREE PARKING!

Negatives: Large portion of population does not like hockey, the arena is very far away from most people (it takes awhile to get to it), no real hockey history in the area (Other than the AHL Roadrunners), weather isn�t conducive to hockey atmosphere, lack of rinks to help nurture kids into hockey, very hot weather makes it hard to play outdoor roller hockey, rather inept management, past ownership problems�

The NHL wouldn�t contract the Coyotes, given their very nice new arena and large population. Still, if the NHL were to take out one team from an indifferent market, Phoenix would have to be at the top of the list. It�s not the worst market, but it�s definitely below-average. That�s my feeling, anyway.

Should the lockout ever end, here's an open invitation for you to come to Nashville and take in a Preds game with Charlie & me. We've got season tickets and there's a pretty good chance you wouldn't have to pay anything to watch Vlady Orszagh and Martin Erat from good seats. I hope this mess ends soon, and that you'll take us up on the offer.

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