The Arizona Coyotes’ first few games at Mullett Arena were disappointingly mundane, at least to a TV viewer. The small space the team has to share with Arizona State University since being evicted from their last arena in Glendale is substandard for an NHL team in many ways, including the need for a locker room annex, the fact that ASU is going to be first in trouble with the scheduling, and, oh yes, a capacity of 4,600, that’s less than a third of what the second-smallest team can handle. (Ironically, that team is in Winnipeg, the city scorned by this franchise for kickstarting its Southwestern hockey experiment.) But on the ice level, as captured by the cameras, a game on ASU’s campus doesn’t actually feel so very different from a game in San Jose, or Anaheim, or any other place where a bad team toils in front of a disappointing crowd. Mullett is actually missing his top half, but it’s still a regulation rink with seats around it. If you didn’t know, it would take some time to discover the shortcomings.
The problem with Mullett isn’t really that it’s some backcountry cabin unfit for the honor and privilege of hosting National Hockey League games. The problem is that this obvious stopgap has been forced to be so much more than just a couch that the Coyotes crash on for a few months. The franchise is doing everything it can to be here for this three years, with an option for a fourth, because they still don’t know where they’re going. Long after the novelty wears off and curious visitors grow tired of the team’s particularly lethargic style of play, the Yotes will still be trapped in a house where they can meet the gazes of every Midwestern retiree present. That the franchise has propped itself up at such a long-term disadvantage is a testament to both decades of mismanagement and the league’s stubborn insistence that hockey is still played in a boiling hot monument to the arrogance of man.
But for those concerned about the feelings of billionaire owner Alex Meruelo, who took over the team in 2019, there is a faint light at the end of a long tunnel. The Coyotes are determined to wipe out this college days and eventually wind up in a shiny new building that will be part of a proposed “Tempe Entertainment District.” Currently a landfill with 1.5 million tons of trash, Meruelo and his allies have pushed for a $2.1 billion development that would replace it with the team’s 4,787 pounds of trash, plus a theater, some homes and a few hotels. Gary Bettman is so excited about the proposal that he has promised to release an All-Star Game or a trip to Tempe if it continues. Wow!
This idea cleared a very low hurdle on Tuesday night, when the Tempe City Council unanimously approved it, but what happens next will be very, very interesting. The Coyotes will now collect signatures from Tempe residents to get the bill on the ballot for a local referendum to be held May 16. If voters approve, the team will breathe a sigh of relief, feeling that their ASU detour was a worthwhile sacrifice. But if they don’t… well, summers in Quebec are a lot more fun anyway.
The history of stadium financing in Arizona is a thorny one, to say the least. The public cost of the Diamondbacks’ ballpark caused enormous consternation, as in 1994 the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors approved a sales tax increase while circumventing the will of the county’s residents, two-thirds of whom opposed it; a man convicted of attempted murder for shooting County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox as she left a meeting in 1997 cited the tax as his motive. Around that same time, the Cardinals’ attempt to get out of the ASU football stadium with a sales tax increase in 1999 failed decisively, and a backup plan to fund a new stadium with hotel and car rental taxes came the following year barely through. The Great Recession has created serious headaches with this method of funding, and the former mayor of Phoenix later shared how proud he was that his city used what could have been football land for what would become the Phoenix Biomedical Campus.
Proponents of the new Coyotes project argue that the public burden in this case is much smaller than the worst stadium boondoggles. Literally about $200 million is being spent here to put the garbage that’s out there somewhere else, which, as the team is quick to point out, the city would have to do anyway if they wanted to use that land for any kind. of new development. As a friend of the site Neil deMause points out at Field of Schemes, however, some back-of-the-envelope math puts the tax subsidies at about $500 million, not including the opportunity cost of what could become with that site instead done. Add to that that huge tax break for Meruelo, plus the often-unfulfilled promises of these arena “entertainment districts,” plus the general apathy for the Coyotes, plus additional opposition to the proposed Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport residences due to concerns about flight paths, and voters will have a much more complicated choice than the Coyotes would like them to believe.
That the government money being spent here is something far less tangible to the average person than a sales tax increase certainly works to the team’s advantage, and Meruelo’s deep pockets will no doubt enable him to continually and loudly shout the most idyllic dreams of this “dumping ground”. to landmark” aspire to Tempe voters. But this May 16 referendum is still a real risk for the Coyotes, and by extension, the NHL. After 26 seasons of hockey in and around Phoenix, some of this franchise’s fans, foes, and neighbors will essentially be forced to answer yes or no to the question, “Do you care about the Coyotes?” LikeFor real concern?”