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Hockey doesn’t do well in the desert

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Steve Chiotakis: The Phoenix Coyotes are bankrupt, and today the professional hockey team is on the auction block. The National Hockey League wants to keep the Coyotes in Arizona, but Blackberry billionaire Jim Balsillie’s bid could send the team back to Canada. Whatever the outcome, one thing is for sure: building a successful hockey team in the Sunbelt hasn’t been easy. From station KJZZ, Peter O’Dowd reports.

Peter O’Dowd: Greg Esposito is the type of sports fan who wears a jersey to work, and the thought of his beloved Coyotes moving to Canada makes him sick.

Greg Esposito: They’re like old friends. They’re reliable, you know. If they leave, you lose a part of yourself.

The problem is such loyal hockey fans are sort of like rain in the desert. The Coyotes haven’t gone to the playoffs in seven years. The team hasn’t made a profit since it came to town from Winnipeg in 1996.

Ray Artigue helped bring the team to Phoenix. He says early criticism that hockey wouldn’t thrive here may have turned out to be justified.

Ray Artigue: Hockey in this market winds up being the odd man out in many ways.

That’s because the Coyotes compete with three other professional sports teams here. What’s more, sports economists say hockey in general doesn’t have the fan base to draw the lucrative TV contracts that support other sports leagues.

Raymond Sauer: It’s thin gruel for the teams outside of that circle.

That’s Clemson University’s Raymond Sauer. He says other Sunbelt hockey teams suffer the same fan indifference. The Florida Panthers are seeking buyers. The Thrashers in Atlanta are looking for new investors.

Sauer: Each one of them has built a business plan that they will be successful on the ice, but it’s not possible for them to win the Stanley Cup at the same time.

Whatever happens at today’s auction, it looks like the Coyotes will get at least one more chance to make money in Arizona. The team’s first preseason game is set for Tuesday.

In Phoenix, I’m Peter O’Dowd for Marketplace.

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