Hockey debates can be a lot of fun, but there's one regular topic of conversation that I've always found totally depressing: the one about where the next relocated team is going to end up. Hockey fans have had plenty of time to think about their best guess over the past few years. The Thrashers packed up and left Atlanta for Winnipeg prior to last season. The Islanders were a candidate to move far away from Uniondale until they signed a lease last year to eventually settle a couple counties west in Brooklyn. And through it all, the Coyotes have been on the short list of teams that could relocate, be it to Seattle, or Quebec City, or maybe somewhere in Ontario. The first of those two situations -- the ones in Atlanta and on Long Island -- were eventually resolved, one way or the other. And we were so close to a solution for the Coyotes, too -- one that would have kept the team in Glendale. But now, we're maybe not so close anymore.
Last week, former Sharks CEO Greg Jamison missed his Jan. 31 deadline to buy the Coyotes before a lease agreement with the City of Glendale expired. The Coyotes have been owned by the NHL since 2009, and Jamison had emerged as a potential franchise savior. He intended to buy the team and keep it in Arizona, and in the fall worked out a 20-year lease agreement with the city of Glendale for the team to continue playing at Jobing.com Arena. Jamison, however, couldn't get the necessary money or investors together before last Thursday's deadline. Jamison said in a statement that "our journey to purchase the Coyotes will continue," even though that particular lease agreement is no longer in place. Meanwhile, other bidders could get involved in the process -- including ones who aren't committed to keeping the team in the desert. In other words, the future of the Coyotes is once again uncertain, and relocation is a distinct possibility.
Franchise relocation for one reason or another isn't strictly a hockey phenomenon. But during Gary Bettman's tenure as commissioner, teams have moved all over the continent as the league and team owners have tried to figure out a mix of cities that works, which is to say, a mix that's profitable. And remember, in addition to all that movement, there have been a handful of other teams that have considered moving, or have at least been forced to weigh their options. Hockey fans have had plenty of opportunities to think about which city could be the next to benefit from the relocation of a franchise.
Naturally, the league wants its individual franchises to be in a position to thrive, but over the past two decades, through relocation and aggressive expansion, it's made an effort to expand the league's footprint into the southern United States, with the hopes of not only spreading the game to new markets, but increasing its attractiveness to TV networks wary of broadcasting what was seen as a largely regional sport. Having teams in markets like Atlanta and Phoenix, the thinking went, is good for the league in the long run.
Except, of course, that hockey failed to sufficiently click in Atlanta, and it's had similar problems in Phoenix, despite the fact that the Coyotes have put a quality product on the ice in recent years. The Coyotes drew an average of 12,364 fans through their first six games in 2013 -- worst in the league, and more than 2,500 fewer than the next lowest average. They've drawn just 72.2 percent of capacity so far, also by far the lowest in the league. This isn't some sort of reaction to the lockout. They drew an average of 12,420 fans (or 72.5 percent of capacity) over 41 regular-season home dates last season, good for worst in the league both categories. They haven't drawn an average of more than 14,000 fans in the regular season since 2008-09 --they drew 14,875 that year -- and even that's not an especially strong number.
As you might expect, their bottom line is a mess. Things have gotten so bad that financially, they'd have been better off if the 2013 season was canceled entirely because of the lockout. Obviously, a situation like that is no good for the league. But what's worse is that exact situation, coupled with the uncertainty of when exactly there will be a solution.
Jamison's purchase would have announced to locals that they could stop worrying about the team leaving town -- and there's at least some reason to believe the Coyotes could eventually drum up interest. After all, fans eventually showed up last year as the team made a deep playoff run. Maybe new ownership and some franchise stability would have created some much-needed buzz. Indeed, until last week, there had been reason to be optimistic. Now, though, we know that Jamison couldn't sell the idea of a successful Coyotes franchise to enough investors. He's still going to try, but the future of the Coyotes is once again uncertain, and folks in Seattle have reason to pay a little closer attention to what's happening in Arizona.
Ultimately, it may well be in the league's best interest to finally give up on Phoenix. If the team can't turn a profit, and if the league can't find a buyer who believes the team can survive in Glendale under their watch, then relocating the team somewhere it can thrive is more important than maintaining a presence in a warm-weather city, no matter its market size. If in the long run, the league ends up with teams in the right mix of cities, it'll be stronger for it. Maybe having a smaller, but still-not-insignificant presence in the southern United States will prove to be the way to go. But we're not there yet, either. For now, we wait. One of the many reasons these relocation sagas are no good for the league is that they almost by definition take a long time to play out.
During a 2011 interview, in response to a question about why hockey has failed to catch on in Atlanta, Gary Bettman said that the Thrashers proved not to be economically viable. Said Bettman: "The litmus test is: Does someone want to own the franchise?" And so eventually, there will be a resolution with the Coyotes, whether it's Jamison finding investors and keeping the team in Phoenix, some other deep-pocketed savior emerging to keep team where it is, or the league giving up and selling to someone who believes they can make a profit by moving the franchise somewhere else. Only when one of those things happens, though, will those of us sick of the relocation conversation be able to finally move on. You know, to a topic like, gulp, expansion.
Joe DeLessio is a senior producer at New York Magazine's website, nymag.com