GLENDALE, Ariz. — It was 29 C in the shade Tuesday and Jobing.com Arena wasn’t close to full as the Phoenix Coyotes played host to the Ottawa Senators.
Anthony LeBlanc, the new co-owner, president and CEO of the Coyotes, acknowledged it wasn’t a perfect picture. At the same time, he wasn’t losing sleep about the empty seats in the in the sun-drenched suburb of nearby Phoenix.
“We expected that, but our ticket take is still above projections,” insisted LeBlanc, a long-time Ottawa resident who bought Senators season tickets for 20 years and still has a home in the Glebe. “Ticket sales are up 25 per cent from last year. Suite sales are up 30 per cent and corporate sponsorship is up. I’m very enthusiastic.”
He won’t reveal season-ticket numbers, but he said, somewhat vaguely, that the number was “in the middle of the pack” among National Hockey League teams.
LeBlanc is nothing if not persistent. He pursued the long-bankrupt NHL franchise several times over several years with several business partners before cementing the complicated $170-million purchase of the team with George Gosbee on July 2.
The deal includes borrowing substantial cash from the NHL, which had owned the team since 2009, and the Fortress Investment Group. It also includes an opt-out clause for LeBlanc and Gosbee: If losses exceed $50 million over the next five seasons, the Coyotes owners have the option of selling the franchise to buyers in another city. That agreement didn’t happen until contentious negotiations with Glendale city council over a lease agreement at the arena were ironed out.
According to LeBlanc, the deal was only days away from not happening at all. If it had fallen apart, the NHL was prepared to move the team to Seattle.
“Was it close? Oh, my. On July 2, city council agreed,” LeBlanc said. “On June 25, which just happened to be my birthday, I told people that we were out. It was that close. It literally came down to the wire.”
Now that he has turned the page from that, LeBlanc’s excitement is understandable. As he put it, “What Canadian boy wouldn’t want to own an NHL team?”
What Canadian hockey fan doesn’t know the ugly history of the Coyotes? Haven’t we learned the hard way that fans have deserted the NHL’s desert franchise? Have we not discovered that hockey is a non-starter here, especially when it’s a 30-minute drive in the best of times from downtown Phoenix?
Haven’t we all seen the ugly financial numbers, the estimated annual losses in the $28-million range?
LeBlanc has heard it all, but he politely disagrees with all the critics and naysayers.
“I understand the cynicism,” he said. “We’ve all heard hockey can’t work here, but, if you look at it historically, prior to the bankruptcy, the team’s costs were way too high. The Coyotes were fourth in (payroll) in the NHL, and that’s way out of whack of what they should have been.
“I’ve always felt Phoenix is a an NHL market. If you look over the time frame, the Coyotes will have been in Glendale for 10 years this year and either the team has been lousy, or, in the case of the last four years, there has been unstable ownership. They’ve never had the ability to show what the market can do.”’
LeBlanc understands it won’t be easy to make it work, but he has never been afraid to try new things. He has worked for both Corel and Research In Motion, the Blackberry-famous company once run by Jim Balsille, who tried to buy the Coyotes and move them to southern Ontario in 2009. LeBlanc also ran for the Progressive Conservatives in a Thunder Bay riding in the 2011 Ontario election, finishing a distant third behind candidates for the Liberals and NDP.
“In this market, we need market share,” he said of a region whose sports menu includes the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals, NBA’s Phoenix Suns and Major League Baseball’s Arizona Diamondbacks. “There’s so much competition. The market is five times the size of Ottawa, but we’ve got five times the competition for the leisure dollar.”
The Coyotes’ marketing campaign includes aggressively targeting Canadian snowbirds and introducing tailgating parties outside the arena for weekend games, an idea LeBlanc acknowledged he had borrowed from the Carolina Hurricanes, also based in a non-traditional hockey market in Raleigh, N.C.
“We’ve got to get the word out. It’s about getting butts in the seats,” he said. “I’m lucky that the guy in the office beside me, (general manager) Don Maloney, has done a wonderful job, building one hell of a team. It’s rare when you come in to something where there are no issues whatsoever on the product side.”
While the building -— “the barn,” as LeBlanc prefers to call it — will have more nights like Tuesday, when it’s not filled to capacity for the Coyotes, he believes the tide will turn after U.S. Thanksgiving in late November.
“It’s not just about the team, it’s also about being one-30th of the NHL, and revenues are growing,” he said. “Regardless of what some people choose to say about Gary Bettman, it’s a well-functioning league.”
For now, anyway, LeBlanc is smiling in the sun, happy about being a part of it all.