Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Winnipeg, Phoenix, Seattle and why relocation is awful

It looks like the Phoenix Coyotes are going to be around Glendale, Arizona for at least another year. TSN's Dave Naylor writes that the city council there voted 5-2 to give the team a $25 million subsidy if they haven't found a buyer by the end of the 2011-12 season. As Joe Yerdon writes, that subsidy should keep them there for at least another year, if not longer, and that means Winnipeg probably isn't getting a team this summer. Of course, that won't make everyone happy; it was only decided after a hilarious council meeting (described perfectly by friend of the blog Dennis Tarwood) that featured plenty of comments both for and against the idea, and it's sure to meet with criticism from the Goldwater Institute, many Canadian hockey fans and media outlets, economists and others. However, while there are substantial issues around hockey in Phoenix that still need to be addressed, keeping the team there is a good thing from this perspective.

It's not that economic arguments should be written off entirely. Having a league directly subsidize a team (as the NHL has been doing with Phoenix over the last while) is very problematic for the perception of that league, and it's also troubling from a financial point of view. Having a city council potentially hand out that kind of money to what's supposedly a professional, for-profit sports franchise isn't necessarily a great idea either; I can't speak for the taxpayers of Glendale, but they can decide if that's the best use of their money or not. It's certainly not the greatest long-term solution. However, there are positives to keeping the team in Phoenix, and those need to be recognized.

Look, Phoenix has had attendance issues, but those are understandable, especially with the uncertainty around the team's future over the last couple of years (plus the whole decision to put the team's arena in a suburb that isn't all that accessible to many, from what I've read). What's probably hurt them even more is their general lack of success over their time in Phoenix; they've made the playoffs regularly, but have never gotten out of the first round. They've never really been good enough to build a lot of buzz, and they've never really been bad enough to get the top draft picks.

It's a simple fact that winning sells in sports. For a case in point, consider the Nashville Predators, who only a few seasons ago were rumoured to be bought by Jim Balsille and moved to Hamilton (before he got into the whole chase for the Coyotes). At that time, Nashville was widely seen as a struggling NHL market, and they'd had the same sort of success as Phoenix (reasonably regular playoff appearances, but had never made it out of the first round). A few years later, they've continued to build, and hockey in Nashville has become a huge success story; not only did the team make it out of the first round for the first time (before losing to Vancouver in a very close six-game series), but they also drew tons of very knowledgeable fans. Some of those fans were always there (see James Mirtle's excellent series from way back when), but others have been attracted over time, and team success has a large role to play there. (Check out Sean Fitz-Gerald's recent piece on Nashville fans in The National Post, Cam Cole's column on watching a game in a bar in Nashville and Brian Cazeneuve's article in Sports Illustrated on where the Predators have come from for more on what things are like in Nashville these days.) Keep in mind that today Nashville is being celebrated as a success story for hockey in the south, and few credible people would envision relocating that franchise, but just a few years ago, it seemed sure they were going to move. Circumstances change, and they often change with the team's fortunes.

It's become a widely-trumpeted line that hockey can never work in Phoenix, but is that really true? Yes, the current financial circumstances of the Coyotes are anything but promising. If you were a hockey fan in Phoenix, though, would you really bother investing yourself in the current team? They're acceptable at the moment, sure, but they suffered another first-round playoff loss at the hands of Detroit this year and were never really in the series. Moreover, they've sort of been acceptable for a while, so they haven't had a lot of top draft picks. Doesn't that sound a lot like Nashville a few years back? If so, and if we accept that Nashville's been able to turn its team around with competent ownership and a solid low-budget franchise-building strategy, isn't there hope for Phoenix? From a marketing perspective, the area has huge upside; Nielsen lists it as the 12th-largest TV market in the U.S., far better than Nashville. A huge potential fanbase doesn't mean anything if the Coyotes don't draw those fans in, but there's certainly a lot to recommend the NHL trying to reach those fans instead of abandoning the market.

That brings us to another element of this. Yes, many decisions are made on the dollars and cents level, and yes, professional sports is absolutely big business these days. However, as pointed out above, the business case for the NHL to leave a team in Phoenix isn't as bad as some might make it seem; significant subsidies may be involved in the short term, but the market has major upside and a strong Phoenix team has the potential to not only make money but boost the league. However, ignore all the economic factors for a moment and think about the diehard Coyotes fans already out there, like Five For Howling's Travis Hair. They've devoted their time, money and attention to supporting a franchise, and deals sports franchises are not pure once-off business transactions; for example, when you pay $100 for a jersey, you're not paying just for the simple article of clothing, but also demonstrating that you support the team for a period of time. Sports fandom is an ongoing relationship rather than a pure commercial transaction, and it's important to recognize that the real fans will be significantly hurt if their team leaves.

The case that's always going to stick out in my mind there is Seattle, where I covered the court case, the fan protests and the eventual relocation of a franchise. Yes, there were plenty of complicating factors there; the owners really wanted to move, there were arena issues and there were definitely enough fans to sustain a franchise with a decent building. Still, I'll never forget some of the anguish I saw there. Look, sports may just be a diversion and a toy box, but it's an important one for many people; it's a distraction, but we need distractions to take our minds away from how screwed up the world can be. As Earl Warren famously said, "The sports page records people's accomplishments, the front page usually records nothing but man's failures." In cases of franchise relocation, the sports pages are reporting man's failures, and that's not all that great.

Fans in Winnipeg know this more than anyone. Their team was taken from them and moved to Phoenix back in 1996, and while (as is currently the case with Phoenix) there were some solid economic arguments in favour of relocation (notably the extremely low Canadian dollar, but also corporate sponsorship and arena issues), relocation was a devastating blow for those fans (and the city). I'd love to see them get a team back as much as anyone; I think Winnipeg has the potential to be a solid NHL city, and it would be fantastic to see once-spurned fans get another chance to really embrace the game. However, it's worth pointing out that franchise relocation hurts many people while it's helping others. As the NBA example shows, Oklahoma City was clearly ready for an NBA franchise, and they've done a great job of supporting their new team, but that relocation still damaged the league in the Pacific Northwest and alienated a lot of fans.

That's not to say that relocation should never be done. Obviously, there are markets out there in any sport that could handle teams, and giving them a chance to do that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Moreover, that can't always be done via expansion without diluting the quality of the league and hurting the overall product, so relocation will sometimes be necessary. In my mind, though, it should be seen as an absolute last resort, and it should be viewed as a sad state of affairs rather than a triumphant moment for the new city. That's why I like Phoenix's decision to hang on to the Coyotes for now; the city has the potential to grow into a good, profitable hockey market if they get some solid teams, and even if it never really works from the economic side, they'll still be bringing plenty of joy to the fans they do have. If Winnipeg does wind up getting a team via relocation at some point, I'll be happy for the fans in that area, but sad for the people who just lost their team. For now, things aren't really bad for anyone; Phoenix fans get to watch their team a while longer, Winnipeg fans still have hope for the future, and the NHL doesn't have to go through an embarrassing relocation just yet. It may not be a perfect long-term solution, but for now, it doesn't seem all that bad.

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