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Resounding Tempe vote leaves Coyotes with existential questions

Craig Morgan Avatar
May 17, 2023

The atmosphere at the Four Peaks tasting room in Tempe was festive on Tuesday night. The Tempe Wins campaign and its supporters were confident that good news was coming in the special election that would decide the fate of the Coyotes’ proposed arena and entertainment district along the south bank of the Salt River. They were confident that two-plus decades of instability were about to end.

Former Tempe Mayor Neil Giuliano was there. Current councilmembers Randy Keating, Jennifer Adams and Berdetta Hodge and former councilmember Onni Shekerjian were there. Former Cardinals quarterback John Skelton was there. So were Coyotes officials and a host of community business leaders.

Buoyed by internal polling, multiple sources predicted somewhere between 56 and 57 percent support for the franchise’s proposal that would transform a long-standing dump site into a sprawling development, replete with an arena, hotels, restaurants, shops and residences.

When the first batch of votes from Maricopa County was posted on a large screen at the front of the venue at 8 p.m., the fantasy evaporated into hard data. The party became a funeral. 

This wasn’t a close election as some sources had predicted. This was a whipping so thorough that the second batch of unreleased votes was rendered insignificant. So were all of the rehearsed victory speeches.

“We are very disappointed Tempe voters did not approve Propositions 301, 302 and 303,” Coyotes President and CEO Xavier A. Gutierrez said. “As Tempe Mayor Corey Woods said, it was the best sports deal in Arizona history. What is next for the franchise will be evaluated by our owners and the National Hockey League over the coming weeks.”

With that, Gutierrez departed without taking any questions from reporters. So did many of the dignitaries, leaving a skeleton crew searching for answers.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman did not offer any more insight in a prepared statement. When reached by text message on Tuesday night, it was clear that he was also stunned by the results.

The only thing clear after Tuesday night is that the Coyotes arena proposal is dead. And that chilling reality raises a host of questions.

Do Coyotes have Plan B?

Very early in this process, Gutierrez was asked if he had a backup plan. He admitted that it would be irresponsible not to have one, but there has been nothing more than speculation about those possibilities because the Coyotes have been so focused on Tempe. 

Here are a few of the more popular theories.

Downtown: Now that Suns owner Robert Sarver is gone, is it possible for the Coyotes to partner with new Suns owner Mat Ishbia and move back into their original home, which is now called Footprint Center? The problem with this arrangement is that the Coyotes would be a tenant in somebody else’s building, leaving them with the same revenue issues that forced them to leave America West Arena in 2003. Unless Ishbia wants to buy the team, and there have been no indications he is ready to make that leap so soon after buying the Suns, this seems like a stretch. So does the idea of building another venue downtown to compete with Footprint Center for shows and entertainment dollars.

Mesa: A couple of sites have been floated in the city to Tempe’s east. One of those sites is the former footprint of Fiesta Mall. That area of Mesa is in bad need of renewal, but any deal involving Mesa would also likely have to go to a public vote, even if the deal were structured just as this one was.

Back to Glendale: You can probably cross this one off your list right now. Even if this toxic relationship could be mended, and even if Bettman would allow it after emphasizing that the arrangement is not financially viable, you’d still have the reality that it is, in fact, not financially viable. The Coyotes’ operating losses were between $20 and $30 million nearly every season in Glendale. Location matters and Glendale was always an awful location for the Coyotes.

Reservation lands: This was always the fallback in locals’ minds and I don’t think this one is completely dead. There is land available on the 101 corridor but the state’s gaming laws would require owner Alex Meruelo to forfeit a good chunk of that revenue if he were to build a casino as part of any development. Then there is the surrounding development. The Coyotes looked at this possibility for years and found it incredibly complicated to structure because they couldn’t own the land and there are issues with approval from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. That said, the Salt River Pima–Maricopa Indian Community has land available and remains open to a deal. The deal that the Coyotes had on the table in Tempe might be viewed more favorably. 

Are Coyotes out of time?

The problem with all of those Plan Bs is that they would take time to organize. The Tempe deal was at least a couple years in the making, if you discount work by the previous ownership group on a similar deal. The Coyotes were already slated to play three more seasons at ASU’s Mullett Arena if the Tempe deal went through. It is difficult to imagine the league signing off on even more seasons there.

The NHL Board of Governors is not happy with that arrangement and its impact on league revenue. The NHL Players’ Association is not happy that its players are competing and training in substandard facilities while Mullet’s shortcomings are also impacting overall league revenue. You can almost imagine the myriad phone calls that Bettman is fielding today from influential sources to offer a simple message: “Enough!”

In past moments of crisis when the Coyotes’ fate was uncertain, Bettman always reassured the Arizona market that the league was committed to a future here. On Tuesday night, it was telling that Bettman offered no such assurances. Perhaps that was because he was caught off guard by the news. Perhaps it was because he no longer could offer such assurances after two-and-a half decades of unrequited love, and in the face of mounting pressure from league owners and the PA. 

How did the Coyotes so badly misjudge the electorate?

In February, more than two months after the Tempe City Council unanimously approved sending the Coyotes’ proposal to a public vote, councilmember Randy Keating joined the PHNX Coyotes show to express his frustration over the lack of activity from the team and its campaign.

“There is such a thing as losing the narrative; losing the initiative,” Keating said. “Once you convince somebody that something is bad or something is good, then you have confirmation bias kick in so then it’s so much harder to [change their minds].”

Keating was not alone in his belief that the Coyotes and Tempe Wins were slow to get going and weak in their efforts to match the Tempe 1st opposition, which was off and rolling in December. It was a belief that permeated the city council and city staff. It was a belief shared by election experts in the Valley. It was a belief that continued all the way to voting day.

Gutierrez said all along that the team’s late rollout was planned after the holidays and the Super Bowl to keep the issue “top of mind” with voters as the vote drew closer, but critics wondered if the campaign simply got outsmarted and outspent by an opposition group that adopted a poor-man’s persona but was, in reality, heavily backed by unions, some out of state.

There was a steady flow of misinformation from Tempe 1st, and a fair amount of hidden agendas in what was often a disingenuous campaign. But that’s politics. You play to win the game, and that’s what the often fact-free rhetoric accomplished.

As noted previously, the team’s own polling suggested that it had as large as a 10-point lead heading into vote day. If that is, in fact, what the firm that the Coyotes hired found then that firm’s credibility is gone. The results were the exact opposite of what team and city sources expected. Tuesday’s vote party became a massive embarrassment for the team and its broad coalition of supporters that included all former mayors, all current councilmembers and almost all former councilmembers.

“In my experience, municipal polling is exponentially harder than statewide, especially in a city the size of Tempe,” data analyst Garrett Archer said before the vote. “If I were to poll I think it would cost upwards of $50,000 just to get a good sample. Which is insane.”

It’s unclear what the Coyotes spent on polling, but they clearly did not uncover an accurate sample.

Why did the vote have to go to referendum?

This question has come up again and again. The simple answer is that the Coyotes knew this deal was going to be challenged by unions and opposition groups, who would have easily gathered the signatures required to send it to referendum.

Per Arizona referendum law, had the team waited for that eventuality, the required 180-day window would have pushed the vote to August. The Coyotes wanted to speed up the timeline to speed up their move into their new home.

Not all election experts agreed with that decision.

“There were multiple steps for the anti folks before a referendum,” said Kathren Coleman, a political and communications consultant for two decades who served as deputy recorder for communications under Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes, and also worked for former Tempe Mayor Neil Giuliano. “All the work would have been on the anti campaign. I don’t know who advised the Coyotes to pursue this path electorally, but they were poorly advised by a campaign operative.”

What happens with free agents, the draft, hockey operations?

The simple answer is that it will be business as usual. GM Bill Armstrong and his staff are still planning for the June draft in Nashville. They are still planning for the start of free agency on July 1. They are still planning to have conversations with the agents for existing players and draft picks.

They won’t be easy conversations, however. While it is still likely that the team will play next season at Mullett, nobody knows what will happen beyond that season. It’s hard to imagine 2022 first-round pick Logan Cooley signing an entry-level contract in the wake of this news. It’s hard to picture smiles on the faces of the team’s 2023 draft picks as they slip on the jersey of a team that may not exist in another year.

Top artist rendering of the Tempe Entertainment District courtesy of Arizona Coyotes

Follow Craig Morgan on Twitter

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