Saturday, August 08, 2009

The Coyotes and the realities of the Southern franchises

I’ve been meaning to write about the Coyotes for a while, ever since owner Jerry Moyes placed the team in bankruptcy protection and sold the team to Canadian billionaire Jim Balsille on May 5. The National Hockey League challenged Moyes’ authority of placing the team in bankruptcy, most likely because they didn’t like the fact Balsille was sold the team. Since then, there’s been nothing but speculation and rhetoric, with the real conclusion- and where the real statements can be made- not being possible until the bankruptcy courts play itself out by the end of the summer.

On this issue I’m torn. On one hand, it upsets me that the NHL is going to no end to prop up a team whose fan support is tenuous at best but did nothing to help their previous incarnation as the Winnipeg Jets, whose fan support was always at the top. On the other hand, the Coyotes haven’t been to the playoffs since 2002 and the franchise hasn’t been perceived as a winner since the Jets’ WHA days of the 1970s, so the Coyotes haven’t really given the locals much of a reason to get excited about hockey. Furthermore, a turnaround isn’t unexpected- remember the Carolina Hurricanes of 2001, who were down 3-0 to the New Jersey Devils in the first round and forced a Game 6: that game was electric; and even though the Hurricanes lost that game (and by a 5-1 count no less), the Hurricanes captured Carolinian attention that day. The ‘Canes were previously moribund but since that game Carolina’s fan support has been nothing short of fervent. Phoenix has never had anything like that to capture the locals’ attention, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility for the Coyotes’ fanbase to have a similar rebound. Only if Phoenix gets that opportunity and doesn’t convert Phoenicians to hockey can one really consider moving the Coyotes, because if locals can’t embrace a winner then it’s obvious they’ll never embrace the game.

One thing is certain though: the NHL is going to have to deeply examine its Southern experiment and see which teams it wants to keep and which ones it can live without. The truth is that while no Southern team- outside of perhaps the Nashville Predators- have shown to be consistently underperforming regardless of the circumstance; many of the Southern teams oscillate between having success and generating public apathy. Almost every season we’re faced with news about a team on the brink, and almost always in the South- Nashville, Atlanta, Florida, Phoenix, Tampa Bay- yet none of those stories stick, which means that, as a whole, there’s just too many teams in the market. It’s obvious that there is a market because these teams can have spurts of success, it’s just that this market’s attention is divided.

It’s also obvious at some point that the NHL does more than provide lip service to the fan base in Canada and starts looking at the Southern experiment more rationally. In no other league is the media coverage so directly disproportionate to the location of its teams, as the amount of coverage the Canadian teams receive dwarfs the coverage the U.S. teams receive (especially those in the South) yet Canada has only six teams to the U.S.’ 24 (12 of which are in the southern half of the country). Also, while I was in the South, I attempted to buy a Predators’ jersey (as I like the team). I couldn’t do it in Chattanooga (in the same state as the Predators) having to go all the way to Nashville to get it. That’s not something you get in Canada- go anywhere and you can get, at the very least, the jerseys of the Canadian teams (though several times American jerseys are available). Granted, the search for a Predators jersey was not an exhaustive enough a search to conclude that is how it plays out through much of the U.S., but it wouldn’t surprise me if especially in “non-traditional” markets the same frustration searching for a local jersey would ensue.

Still, the above shows that the ferventness the NHL is in defending its Southern franchises is in direct contradiction to reality. I won’t go as far as to say the NHL should give up on the South or even on the Coyotes, but I will say that the NHL has to realize there’s too many Southern teams and that the excess are better served in better markets. It doesn’t matter how you look at Balsille or the Coyotes- the NHL can’t afford another story of a Southern team in trouble, unless it doesn’t want to keep the flaccid credibility it still has.


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