Get Arizona's Best Sports Content In Your Inbox!

Become a smarter Arizona sports fan with the latest game recaps, analysis and exclusive content from PHNX's writers and podcasters!

Just drop your email below!

Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.

Upgrade Your Fandom

Join the Ultimate Arizona Coyotes Community!

How will NHL commissioner Gary Bettman resolve Coyotes arena saga?

Craig Morgan Avatar
February 14, 2024
A rendering of the Coyotes arena plans.

As recently as a week ago, the Coyotes, their fans and the NHL world were bracing for an announcement from commissioner Gary Bettman on the fate of the franchise. The subject matter of that announcement was the source of great speculation. 

Sensationalists predicted that Bettman would announce the relocation of the team to Salt Lake City, a prediction that ignored Bettman’s careful and calculated approach to every decision he makes, while also ignoring the basic timeline that would accompany such an announcement. 

More measured projections wondered if the commissioner would either provide an update on the franchise’s ongoing search for an arena solution, or issue Coyotes owner Alex Meruelo something akin to an ultimatum — maybe even requiring collateral to back that ultimatum.

Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman put the kibosh on any immediate expectations when he reported over Super Bowl weekend that he did not expect a statement from Bettman or the league anytime soon. 

It’s important to remember that deadlines have been fluid with this story because what is happening on the ground in Arizona (and under the radar of most national reporting) is also fluid. Most recently, the national narrative suggested that the Coyotes had to make an announcement by the All-Star break. Locally, Coyotes fans already knew that the All-Star break deadline had been altered to the end of 2024’s first quarter or the end of the regular season (April 18); a shift confirmed publicly by both the team and Bettman.

That said, the combination of recent developments in Arizona, increased rhetoric from NHLPA executive director Marty Walsh, and a growing displeasure on the part of the NHL Board of Governors has this situation coming to a head soon. Here is where we stand with about four months remaining before the conclusion of the Stanley Cup Final.

Coyotes zero in on land purchase

The Arizona Republic confirmed via documents what multiple local outlets including PHNX Sports had reported two months earlier — that the team was pursuing state trust land in northeast Phoenix. Two sources told PHNX that the 100-acre plot of land that Coyotes are targeting is at the corner of Scottsdale Road and the 101 freeway; adjacent to Scottsdale city limits and east of Desert Ridge Mall.

The Coyotes were originally targeting a plot twice that size, but infrastructure costs for that parcel were more expensive than expected so the franchise reworked its bid, creating the recent delay in a public announcement by the Arizona State Land Department.

The land is undeveloped and would require significant infrastructure and civil engineering such as sewage, water, power, roads and bridges. All of these improvements could prolong the development of the land.

On the flip side, the parcel falls under by-right zoning and it is already zoned for most of what the Meruelo Group plans to put on the parcel, including the arena, a training facility, about 1,400 housing units, shops, restaurants, a theater and parking, but excluding hotels (it is not zoned for them). It should also be noted that the site comes with a 192-foot height restriction, which is 52 feet higher than the Tempe site allowed.

Unlike the Tempe site, this site requires no land remediation and no referendum, although various groups could still challenge it on other grounds.

Per multiple sources, the Arizona State Land Department is expected to post public notice of this parcel on its March 14 agenda. While the length of time that a parcel must be publicly listed is at the discretion of the department, multiple sources believe this parcel will take slightly longer than the 10-week projection that azcentral noted in its story, with an auction most likely held in mid-June, right around the Stanley Cup Final.

As the Arizona Republic reported and PHNX has confirmed, the Coyotes began the application process for this parcel of land in June 2023; one month after Tempe voters shot down the proposed Tempe Entertainment District. The team also issued a letter of intent on a parcel of land in northwest Mesa in August, so it is clear that the team has not been idle since the Tempe vote failed. 

While the northwest Phoenix site is the franchise’s primary goal, team president Xavier A. Gutierrez confirmed to azcentral that the team still has other sites under consideration. Those sites could come back into play quickly if the process for this parcel is prolonged beyond what is now expected.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. (Getty Images)

How will Bettman proceed?

It is not hyperbole to suggest that the Coyotes would not be in Arizona without the longstanding efforts of Bettman. While he has always had contingency plans in case his efforts failed, the commissioner has stood firm in his resolve to keep the Coyotes in this market.

But with at least 15 years of instability in the franchise’s wake, with growing pressure from the NHL Board of Governors, and with a new NHLPA Executive Director who understands the power of rhetoric, Bettman’s back may finally be against the wall.

While speculation about relocation to Salt Lake City continues to fly — just as it did previously for Portland, Winnipeg, Québec, Houston, Seattle and other markets — Bettman has always made it clear that relocation is a last resort; the nuclear option.

If the BOG feels that time has run out on Meruelo, it would either have to convince him to sell the team — a move that Meruelo is dead-set against — or seize control of the team by other means.

It’s unclear how the NHL would do so, and you can bet that such discussion has occurred because, as previously noted, Bettman always has contingency plans in place.

Richard Rodier, an attorney and a former consultant to the NHLPA on business, economic and financial issues, suggested in a string of recent tweets that seizing control of the team may be harder than analysts think.

Rodier was part of the Jim Balsillie group that tried to move the Coyotes to Hamilton, Ontario in 2009 when former Coyotes owner Jerry Moyes put the team into bankruptcy. He has keen insight and connected sources on the topic.

Rodier does not suggest, however, that forcing a sale is impossible and multiple sources suggested that Bettman may have other means. At this time, it is unknown whether Meruelo signed anything like a proxy agreement with the league that would allow the BOG voting power. Another source said that while there is nothing specific about the required size of an NHL arena, it is generally understood that it must be at least 10,000 seats. Could the BOG use this is a means to force Meruelo out?

If that happens, what’s next? While recent reports suggest that Suns owner Mat Ishbia is not pursuing the Coyotes, that appears to be more a matter of legal semantics.

After the Tempe Entertainment District vote failed in May, a spokesperson for the Suns confirmed to PHNX Sports that if the Coyotes were ever for sale and the NHL and the Coyotes wanted to have discussions with the Suns about buying the team, they would be available to have those conversations. That stance hasn’t changed. Ishbia simply will not meddle in the affairs of another owner or a team that is not currently for sale. It’s bad optics and bad business ethics, but he is also a savvy businessman looking for more opportunities.

There is, of course, no guarantee, that Ishbia and the league or team could come to terms on a deal. The sale price has been the source of rampant speculation, and Footprint Center would require significant work to accommodate the Coyotes beyond the need for an ice plant. The most recent renovations of the arena (completed in October 2021) made further incursions into the lower bowl. There are no suitable team areas for a hockey team at the moment so those changes (and others) would need to be made at significant cost.

If Ishbia chooses not to pursue the team, there are at least two other groups that could be interested. One of those is the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian community adjacent to Scottsdale’s and Tempe’s eastern border.

That community has a plot of land near Salt River Fields that is zoned and ready for immediate construction. Per a source, it could involve the tribe as a minority owner with either the Meruelos or a potential partner in the high-tech industry as majority owner.

The last option is Salt Lake City, which has the 33-year-old Delta Center as an immediate option; albeit one with the same issues as Footprint Center, including a lot of obstructed-view seats.

Given all of the sweat equity that Bettman has spent on keeping the team in Arizona, it’s hard to imagine him pulling the plug before this last-ditch effort plays out. While skepticism abounds about the Meruelo Group’s ability to complete this deal, there is no real urgency within the next few months.

Some have noted that the NHL schedule has to be made, but the league can easily make two schedules to solve that problem. And while the league announced the Atlanta Thrashers move to Winnipeg in late May of 2011, a few more weeks is not likely prohibitive.

What’s hard to gauge is how strongly the BOG feels about resolving this now, how much pressure Walsh’s comments have placed on the league, and how concerned the league is about the construction timeline of a new arena. Would the league be willing to sign off on at least three more seasons at Mullett Arena while the new arena is being built, with the threat of even more?

If so, maybe the move here is for Bettman to tell Meruelo in no uncertain terms that this is his last shot at landing an arena and keeping the team. If he can’t complete the purchase of this land and set the wheels in motion on construction, that’s on him. His time is up and it’s time to move on.

Bettman’s commitment to this market is already beyond question, but such a move could allow him an escape without any what-ifs or legal concerns left in his wake.

Top arena rendering via Arizona Coyotes

Follow Craig Morgan on X

Get Arizona's Best Sports Content In Your Inbox!

Become a smarter Arizona sports fan with the latest game recaps, analysis and exclusive content from PHNX's writers and podcasters!

Just drop your email below!

Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.


Share your thoughts

Join the conversation

The Comment section is only for diehard members

Open comments +

Scroll to next article

Don't like ads?
Don't like ads?
Don't like ads?