The last time I spoke with Arizona Coyotes President & CEO Xavier Gutierrez after a tour of Arizona State University’s new multi-purpose arena, he was frustrated by various reports that were circulating “a lot of misinformation” on various topics, whether it was the seating capacity at the team’s temporary home or the team’s plans for season-ticket holders.
When I sat down with him before the Coyotes beat the Colorado Avalanche at Gila River Arena on Thursday, those concerns were still on his mind, but so was a recent meeting that he held with the team’s players at which an NHLPA representative was present.
In an interview that lasted nearly an hour, Gutierrez shed light on a variety of topics with the hope of clarifying the team’s stance on everything from ticketing, pricing, seating capacity and construction timelines to the annex, the Ice Den Scottsdale, the proposed Tempe arena and yes, that meeting that Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman first reported.
Season-ticket holders have expressed concerns about the availability of tickets at ASU’s arena, as well as what will become of money that they still have in their accounts. What can you tell everyone about that?
We have tried to make it very clear that if it’s carryover (money), you’ve got to spend it this ’21-22 season. We’ve shared that on numerous occasions and in various methods to our ticket holders. We’ll always try to accommodate, but we have tried to give people plenty of notice and we tried to do that because of COVID, not even because of the upcoming move. We were anticipating them needing to use that money. That’s been our position and our effort for a while, and they should be informed and aware of this need. We will work with our fans should they have any questions or issues.
With regard to ticket pricing, how do you balance needing to charge what you must charge in an arena that offers nothing but premium seating with not wanting to alienate longtime season-ticket holders who may not be premium season-ticket holders?
The average ticket price that we’re looking at is slightly above the NHL average. The NHL average is in the $150s. We’re looking at the $160s and it’s all premium seating. We do have 40 loge seats and then we have 19 suites that are sellable. There’s 22 in total. We’ll keep one, ASU will keep one and then there’s going to be one that we leave open for day-of-game and we’ll sell that as well.
With regard to the price points we’re looking at there, the premium ticket pricing average in the NHL is in the $250s. We’re looking at $300. We’re not gouging anybody, but it is a matter of scarcity and we will be honest and transparent about that. It’s the nature of the situation. This is going to be different than (Gila River Arena), there’s no doubt, but we’re not getting very far astray from what would be the case in another NHL arena and again, it’s intimate seating. There are 13 rows. That’s it. Your sightlines, your engagement, your positioning to the best hockey players in the world is all premium.
How will you decide who gets tickets?
We’re going to be mindful and thoughtful. In fact, when we’re thinking about prioritization, the first place that it starts is with tenure, lifetime spend, and then what they’ve spent this year. Those are the three factors that we’re going to start with. And then we’re going to also look at geographic location because we do want to make sure we have folks from the entire Valley.
Right now, we currently have roughly 1,100 accounts and remember for every account, we have approximately two and a half tickets per account. It could be four, it could be five, it could be one or two. We’ve assumed two and a half. That’s for full season-ticket members that we’re accounting for. And then we’ll have 500 or so for partial season-ticket holders.
Will you be able to block off any tickets at a lower price point?
Absolutely. We’re keeping the student section and we’re looking to partner with ASU student groups like the 942 Crew (ASU’s famous student section).
In terms of price point, we’re looking at the lowest price points being roughly in the $50 to $60 range. I want you to be very clear with folks. This isn’t going to be a situation where we forget about our fans that have been there for a long time, and we forget about folks that would like to experience this incredibly unique setting for Coyotes hockey. That is not what we’re trying to do, but my biggest challenge that I shared with you the day that we did the announcement is, how do I fit it all? We have fans that have been long tenured. That’s the priority. Long tenured, lifetime spend and then this season in terms of spending.
Part of the delay in us sharing all of these details is that they have not yet been finalized. For example, we had a meeting (Thursday) with ASU and OVG and hit all the touchpoints like food and beverage options. OVG is the manager. They just bought Spectra (Food Services). They haven’t yet finalized what the menus are going to look like. They know there’s going to be premium menus, and there’s going to be general audience food offerings, but they couldn’t tell me the offerings or the price points so when I go to a season-ticket holder who has food and beverage as part of it, what am I supposed to tell them? It isn’t for a lack of trying or desire to inform our fans. We literally don’t have that information to share yet.
What will seating capacity be for NHL games at ASU?
We are targeting 4,700 tickets to be sold at every game. Capacity is 5,100, but in terms of sellable seats, it’s 4,700. There are 4,400 tickets, 300 premium suites and loges. We will have standing room as part of those 4,700 tickets.
What is the timeline for construction for the annex and other alterations necessary for NHL games?
Construction has already started. Remember, it’s not just changes to the exterior that have to be completed, so if someone is walking past the facility and says, ‘I don’t see anything going on,’ things have to also be redone on the inside as well. We had to put in money even before there was an approval made by the Arizona Board of Regents — at our own risk of losing that investment if the approval was not granted. It was for the ice plant and that had a significant lead time. We had to start making changes to the facility — and again the risk was we would lose our investment if the approval was not granted. A lot of the technical work, the data, the electrical work also had to begin or else it wouldn’t be done on time for next season.
We still believe the building itself, which is not our building, should be done in the October timeframe. Our annex is still aiming to be done in December, however, we’re still aiming to have games before that addition is completed.
The NHL has requirements for team spaces. How do you work around those requirements if the annex isn’t ready by the start of the NHL season?
There is an entire community ice rink (attached to the facility) that we are looking at utilizing and creating the necessary team spaces that are up to NHL standards. (ASU is) open to that idea. The building will be ready and as soon as it’s ready, we’d like to play games there. How many? How does it look? I can’t tell you because I don’t have a schedule yet, but we’ve been having conversations with the NHL league office about what that looks like, and our intent is to have games before the annex is ready.
In the Arizona Board of Regents document, the price for adding the annex was listed at $19.7 million but you have been quoted as saying you are spending about $25 million. How is the additional money being spent?
That number includes operations and rent. And remember that’s an estimation. It’s rent and operating costs. So if operating costs go up because we’re doing more things, then we are responsible for that cost. I hope it shows everybody we’re committed to being here in the Valley. We’re willing to put forward our money at risk, so that there is no financial risk for ASU, which is what they absolutely asked for. And we’re willing to do it now, not over time. So yes, that number that you saw entails the development component and then there’s additional costs that will come from operations.
After the tour of the arena, you told me that the plan was to use the Ice Den Scottsdale as your practice facility. Can you walk readers through those details?
We’re actually buying a location in that office complex that surrounds the Ice Den. It’s just west of it. We’re closing on that purchase and beginning design/reconstruction, so when I tell you that our commitment is significant, consider now that we are going out to buy a space that we’re going to convert for weight rooms, for showers, for therapy, for the hockey operations offices — all as part of a temporary solution. Our focus has and will always be to provide our players with the experience they deserve as NHL players. (Owner) Alex Meruelo has made a commitment to ensure that the players feel treated incredibly well, and we will never sacrifice NHL standards as we build a world-class organization.
We are talking with the Ice Den folks about using the APEX rink, which is the furthest one south that we utilized for the rookie camp. That will be ours to use, and we think this will be a significant upgrade to the practice routine for the club. There will be some locker room spaces there, but then there will also be locker room space in the buildout.
We had looked at other options. They didn’t work for us. They didn’t offer what we thought were the NHL standards that we want to have, and the experience we wanted our players to enjoy. We wanted this to be a space that players feel very comfortable in. It’s a good location for the players in terms of where they live. It gives them a stable rink location where they can skate. In addition, we’re making additional investments for where they’re going to have their weight room, their workouts and such. It’s about a 50-yard walk across the parking lot from the Ice Den. We may also look at Coyotes wrapped golf carts for the players to also accommodate them.
I really hope people understand (owner) Alex Meruelo’s commitment is significant, and to any potential questioning about having the resources and being willing to commit them, I think this entire exercise, again for a temporary solution, hopefully dispels any of these questions.
You have expressed frustration with the national narrative on this move. Can you elaborate?
You know what I’ve come to realize is I don’t think nationally people understand the geographic dynamics of the Valley. I don’t think people understand the centrality of Tempe, and that it is the center of corporate and population growth. I don’t think people understand the benefit of our players being at the Ice Den and the benefit of the adjacent location where we’re going to be building out facilities for the players. I don’t think nationally, they really understand how the Valley works, and where the growth and opportunity are for this community. We do, and we are very excited to be coming to Tempe, and to be partnering with ASU and its incredible student and alumni base.
Sportsnet ran a report on a recent meeting that you held with Coyotes players about all of these changes, with an NHLPA representative present. What can you tell readers about that meeting?
I will tell you that it was open and it was very honest and it came from a position of me wanting to have the players know what we could tell them, when we could tell them. The first issue was this: Before the Board of Regents voted on this deal, we thought it was highly inappropriate to have any conversation about that decision until there was an actual approval. There was this narrative of us having kept players in the dark. Really? It simply wasn’t appropriate to have a conversation about a decision that was not ours to make.
The second part was that we laid all the issues out for the players. We told them the Ice Den was going to be our practice facility, we told them ASU was going to be our home for games, we told them where our offices were going to be and we shared with them the vision of the Tempe project. We told him ASU is a brand new, state-of-the-art facility, that we’re putting significant resources into because our number one priority is to maintain NHL standards, which is why we’re making such a big investment, not just at ASU, but in the Ice Den.
I don’t know where this commentary arose that it was anything other than transparent. It was comprehensive and I don’t know what else remained outstanding that applied to the players and their questions. I even went into the conversation of why I could confidently make the statement that this move won’t have material financial impact. It’s because we’re going to a location that allows us to be at or slightly above NHL averages. Why can we say that is the case? Because every seat in every location is a premium experience.
There were questions about whether or not the market was there to support this move. We felt by far there was. I just gave you the numbers of existing accounts that we’re looking at tapping into that more than fills the place. We have our top 30 corporate partners that have a suite with their partnership. The facility has 19 suites, so what do you think we have to do now as we go to ASU? We have to have the same sort of conversation with our corporate partners about prioritization, utilizing other assets, branded content, event activation, or looking at creating maybe more activation in and around the facility. And what I mean by that is in the concourse having people at pop-ups for example, as opposed to just having a sponsor advertisement on a wall. We’re looking at options that have to be creative, that say, ‘Hey, I can’t give you this traditional sponsorship or advertising asset, but we can offer you something that has a premium value to it.’
How do you make up for the lost revenue of naming rights, tickets and other money normally associated with an arena that is your own; revenue that will now go to ASU?
We are looking at a number of innovative options. We’re looking at emphasizing branded content for example, which I think will be significant, and event activations, and there are other opportunities within the bowl that you can’t do (at Gila River Arena). For example, we’re going to have more fan activation for every single game, as opposed to just episodic or event driven. Think T-shirts, think hats, think Howl Towels, think foam fingers, think those types of things, and all those would be branded. We are very excited about the incredible atmosphere that we can create and that we know our sponsors and partners will love to be a part of.
We are allowed to brand and sponsor the building during game days, and are exploring innovative ways to do that. I don’t think you’ve gone to Crypto.com Arena (in Los Angeles), but they didn’t change out the Staples signs, the physical signs. They have affixed lights to the walls. That’s an opportunity that we are also exploring because the requirement is that anything we do on the day of the game has to be temporary. So there is an opportunity to wrap the building and wrap the interior. It just has to be temporary. We feel very confident that there’s opportunities that would create significant value for our partners, and an incredible atmosphere for our fans.
Let’s also talk about corporate partners. Tempe is an area that they would love to be present in. ASU students (80,000-plus) and alumni (one million-plus) are people that they want to get in front of. And a brand new facility is always something that’s appealing. We had a meeting yesterday and the amount of CEOs that are in the Tempe and the adjacent communities for us to get in front and seek partnerships with is significant. I just found out that Amazon is taking a 150,000 square-foot space on Mill Avenue for example. We will be playing NHL hockey less than a mile away.
You have State Farm, you have ADP, you have NortonLifeLock, you have significant corporate presence in that location that quite frankly we have never had a relationship with, so we feel very strongly that we’re going to blanket Tempe and the surrounding communities. When we say Tempe, we say that broadly. We mean that T up and down the 101 from the Chandler-Gilbert area all the way up to north Scottsdale going out into downtown Phoenix. All of that now becomes an opportunity for us to create meaningful outreach for fans, fans in waiting, and corporate and community partners.
Given the scarcity of tickets, will there be viewing opportunities for the every-day fans who can’t get in to watch the team, whether it’s a viewing party or other options?
Absolutely. We have begun to have conversations with ASU about this. That is a massive campus that has a lot of other gathering places. What I think has been incredible about this partnership is just how excited they are to work with us to make this successful for their community. Remember, they are thinking about how this is a positive for the ASU community as much as how it’s great for the Coyotes fans and the fans in waiting.
Part of the conversation has been: How do we engage more casual fans, non fans, how do we bring them in? There’s a lot of conversation about how to activate the entire ASU campus. Tempe is also an area that has restaurants and bars in a significant concentration. We have begun the outreach to them. We are the pro team that is in Tempe so how do we make sure that presence is felt?
There are hotels that have been built very recently near the arena. How do we take them over and utilize some of their spaces, whether it’s the pool decks or the meeting halls, the food halls, what have you, how do we take that over? We are very focused and believe that we can create a significant presence that makes it an experience that is just unparalleled, even if you’re not in the arena.
How do you think this area will impact the players?
Our players haven’t been able to engage with the community for two years (due to COVID). So how are we going to do that in this new location? Whether it’s open practices, community practices, being out in public. We’re going to do more. But part of what I want to make very clear is we’re not the Coyotes of a certain part of the Valley. We’re the Arizona Coyotes and we take that responsibility very seriously to make this a team for every community.
Is it frustrating for you to sit on the sidelines and not be able to influence the outcome of the Tempe arena vote, and yet watch other parties very much try to influence the outcome?
There are procurement laws that prevent us from doing that and I think it took a while for people to understand that that was part of what was impacting our ability to be public about the privately financed sports and entertainment district that we are proposing. There are procurement laws that preclude us as the respondent to this RFP from directly or indirectly influencing that decision, and we take that very seriously. That’s number one.
Number two is we remain very confident that the proposal that we’ve put forth is transformative. It is going to be phenomenal for the entire Valley and it does what we’ve said, which is not put the taxpayers of Tempe at risk in any way, shape, or form. I think we’ve shown that we are committed to doing that even in this deal that we just struck with ASU where we did the exact same thing; where we took on all the financial risk.
As far as having to sit on the sidelines, we think that we are very close to being able to have the ability to present this proposal, to put forth the benefits of this transformative project, the community impact, the job creation, the tax revenue that it will create, to make the case that this is something the entire Valley will benefit from. We remain very confident that once we’re allowed to make a public presentation, we will not only address any and all of the questions and potential critiques of the proposal, but we will then be able to get people truly excited and rally around and understand that this isn’t just about us.
As I’ve told you, this isn’t an arena project. This is a truly unique and transformative urban redevelopment project that has and will have a state-of-the-art arena that will be the home of the Coyotes. That’s what we focus on every single day rather than the potential naysayers or criticism that may be out there. That’s for others to be focused on. We’re going to remain very focused on how we can do the best job in terms of making this the premier organization, and this project something that the entire Valley will be proud of.