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New freeway, ownership and more: A Q&A with Coyotes CEO Ahron Cohen

General view of action between the Arizona Coyotes and the Calgary Flames during the second period of the NHL game at Gila River Arena on December 10, 2019 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — Arizona Coyotes president and CEO Ahron Cohen was at an event in Washington, D.C. last spring when he found himself in a conversation with the mayor of Gilbert, Ariz., Jenn Daniels.

All this time later, this week, Cohen and Daniels partnered to have Jan. 11 be Arizona Coyotes Day in Gilbert.

How fitting.

It just so happens that the occasion coincides with another significant development: The recently-opened extension of the Loop 202 freeway connects the southeast Valley to west Phoenix, making it easier for fans in Chandler or Gilbert or beyond to get out to Glendale for Coyotes games.

Cohen pointed out that in-person attendance isn’t the only thing that matters for the Coyotes’ business metrics. He also noted a 23% TV ratings increase from last season; a 104% increase in December 2019, specifically, compared to the previous December; and a 29% ratings increase since the Coyotes acquired Taylor Hall.

“The TV ratings are a very good barometer for us, of where we’re at in terms of engaging with the entire community and really, the entire state,” Cohen said.

Cohen spent some time discussing other Coyotes-related topics, specifically on the business side, in an interview with 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station on Wednesday. Here’s what he said:

It seems like attendance has been really good the last handful of games, since Christmas, I would say. Why is that?

“I think it’s a lot of different factors. I mean first off, winning really helps. I think everybody’s seen this team and flirting with first place in the Pacific over the last little bit. I think there’s a lot of excitement and buzz in the marketplace, certainly getting No. 91 Taylor Hall into a Coyotes uniform is helping matters, as well. And to be honest, during my five years with the team, I’ve never seen local buzz quite what it is right now with this team. I can’t go a single day without somebody in the community reaching out to me saying, ‘You guys are doing so many great things.’ You’re seeing that paying off and people coming out to the arena.

“Another thing I think is just kind of naturally, with this community, there’s so many different things going on earlier in the season. A lot of football. It’s just a busy time for a lot of people. So now that we’re getting kind of through the holidays and into January, there’s a lot more opportunity to get out to our games and spend some time here.

“And then you look at the season as a whole, we really built a strong foundation over the summer. It started with making sure that we had a very high renewal rate of our existing season ticket holders, and we actually set the record since we’ve been in Glendale this past year with a 94% renewal rate. So it shows that the people that we had as long-time season ticket holders like the direction that we’re on, and they wanted to stay involved. So rather than losing a bunch of season ticket holders and having to play a lot of catch-up just to get back to even, we started very close to neutral just from then, so then everything else was just building upon that foundation.

“And one thing that I’ll say is, obviously we’re looking at this and it certainly helps financially when we’re getting more people in the building. But what’s most important for me, the reason we’re all doing this, is we want to win hockey games. And it really does matter and you hear from the players and a number of players I think said this after the last game, where they thrive off of that packed house.

“From a fan’s perspective, that’s really fun, because now you know that you’re actually playing a role in helping this team succeed and make this team better and create that really hostile atmosphere for the visiting teams. And that’s important, and that’s something that I really don’t think we’ve had over the years here, but we’re starting to develop. And that really goes a long way and encourage all the fans to continue to play a part and help make Gila River Arena a tough place for opponents to play.”

The above answer was trimmed down for brevity.

How happy were you to see the new 202 freeway extension get done?

“We were very happy. As I mentioned, we have so many fans in the southeast Valley. Certainly, this reduces the travel time coming from the southeast Valley. It makes it easier to get out to games.

“The other thing that I think that it does it eases some of the congestion on the [Interstate] 10, so it’s not just people from the southeast Valley that are going to be benefited by this, but it’s really anybody from the East Valley, even if they’re coming on the 10, it makes it easier for them to get out, especially on a weeknight game.

“Anything that makes it easier for you to come to a game should help incentivize people to come out to more games. We have so many great fans in the East Valley and we’re hopeful that this will improve things and make things easier. And I think time will ultimately tell as to the impact of this, but I think it’s a huge thing and we’re incredibly excited, and we even came up with a ticket offer as a result: the Freeway Fast Pass. Just so we can capitalize on getting people to jump on board now and buy some Weekender ticket packages.”

How has [new owner] Alex Meruelo changed the Coyotes as a business? We hear about his spending on the roster, but just from the business side, how has he affected things, if at all?

“I think it all goes together. You talk about stability, I think it makes it easier for us to message to the marketplace when we have stable ownership and committed ownership.

“And I think what’s so important in sports is, it’s really a social contract that a team is entering into with a fanbase. And when you’re basically telling the fans, ‘Look, we’re not trying to win,’ or, ‘We’re just trying to survive,’ or things like that, how do we expect fans to say, ‘Look, I want to spend my hard-earned money and support this team and go out to games.’?

“But conversely, if you demonstrate that you’re committed to winning and you’re doing things to win now, and we’ve seen that with bringing on Phil Kessel and bringing on Taylor Hall, these are incremental expenditures. These are investments that John [Chayka] and Alex and I talk about and go, ‘OK, what are these expenditures going to do and how do they affect the entire organization?’

“And I think it really, really helps from a fan and sponsor perspective, because it lets people know that we’re investing, we’re making the investment so it makes it easier for them to commit and invest with us. And I think that’s incredibly important.”

Has Meruelo been able to drive things forward at all yet in the search for a new arena, and do the Coyotes still have the same position on that front? Is that still the team’s position that they would want to find a new home?

“Look, there’s so many things that go into making a successful organization. I’ve been pretty consistent with what our core pillars are, and Alex is fully committed to these core pillars as well: And it’s winning hockey games, it’s building fans throughout the state, and that’s positively impacting the community. And with Alex Meruelo’s support for myself and John, we’re doing everything we can to enhance those pillars.

“Like I’ve said before, we could be playing on Main Street and Main — you could do geographic studies and say what’s the optimal location, what’s ground zero for the best location in terms of making it easy for the fans to come out to — and if we’re not winning games, we’re not building fans, we’re not engaging in the community, it all doesn’t matter.

“So for right now, that’s what we’re talking about and that’s where our focus is. And certainly, people should know that Alex and myself and John and our entire organization and staff, we’re doing everything we can to make us successful here for the very, very long term, and for decades to come.”

How important is making the playoffs this year — not letting this opportunity go to waste — for this organization’s success, going forward?

“Going to the playoffs, I don’t care what sport you’re in, what team you’re on, it’s a special thing. For our organization, it hasn’t happened in a little while. Really for most of the teams in Phoenix, it hasn’t happened in a little while. What’s so special about the playoffs and going through something like that is you talk about the value of sports and the community-building that sports brings — it ties the entire community together and they all rally around this team and support for this team. And you see that across the country, no matter the sport.

“So from our perspective, if we’re able to make the playoffs — and that’s certainly our goal this year, and hopefully make a run in the playoffs — I think that obviously helps with numbers, it’s added income for us, it’s the opportunity to build and recruit new fans and get more fans supporting this team. That’s incredibly positive and I think the upside is pretty significant if that happens.

“That’s what we’re focused on and hopefully things will all come together.”


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