Sarver’s plans do not include Coyotes

Sep 20, 2016, 6:56 PM

Are you trying to figure out Robert Sarver’s game?

Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton stuck his neck in harm’s way on Tuesday at his State of the City speech when he called for the city to build a downtown sports and entertainment arena that could house the Suns, the Coyotes and the Mercury. Stanton wants to bring more people downtown and he said he wants to build the arena without raising taxes.

“It is obvious that the only thing that makes fiscal and common sense if we are going to build a new arena in this city is that we have a two-team arena,” Stanton said on the Burns and Gambo show Wednesday. “As a leader of the city, I wanted to make sure my position was clear.”

Let’s ignore for the moment the public arguments for and against such a venture. Both sides have legitimate arguments, both sides have inherent biases and there are many hurdles to cross to make a downtown arena a reality.

Here’s the thing. Sarver wants a new arena. Speaking at the Valley sports bosses panel (hosted by azcentral) this week, he noted that Talking Stick Resort Arena has the least square footage of any NBA arena and that the team eventually will need a new venue “in Maricopa County.”

The Suns’ lease at TSRA expires in 15 years but there is a clause in five years that allows the Suns to bring in a mediator to determine if the now-24-year-old building is “functionally obsolete.” If that is the finding, the city has another year to make the necessary upgrades before Sarver can explore a new venue.

So, knowing full well that Stanton wants to build him an arena downtown, why would Sarver say the Suns would fulfill the remaining five years on their lease? Why isn’t he running to City Hall to sign on the dotted line and get this process rolling?

The answer is simple. Sarver doesn’t want to partner with the Coyotes — not on equal footing. He doesn’t want to split the revenue from a new arena. He is banking on the belief that he can play this situation out in his favor.

The Coyotes need a new home. President and CEO Anthony LeBlanc continues to cite a rapidly approaching deadline for a decision on that front.

The Coyotes are also negotiating with Arizona State University and the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community on separates sites and Stanton knows the clock is ticking. He knows if the Coyotes get an arena built elsewhere, the chances of him getting one built downtown lessen, both because he will have lost a potential tenant and because another venue means more competition for entertainment and even less enthusiasm for his proposal.

You would think Sarver would have the same concerns, but in noting he will need a new venue “in Maricopa County” and not saying “in Phoenix,” Sarver was laying bare the leverage he believes he has on a possible arena on tribal land.

The Salt River Pima-Maricopa has long been rumored as a possible destination for the Suns if they can’t work out an agreement downtown. Sarver can use that leverage against the city because he knows Stanton and city leadership do not want to lose the team. And if the Coyotes can’t find a home and are forced to relocate to another city — a last-resort option the team must clearly consider if all else fails — Sarver’s leverage increases all the more.

It’s an interesting stance for an owner with perhaps the city’s lowest approval rating — an owner of a once proud franchise that has missed the playoffs for six straight seasons, but it’s not about Sarver, it’s about the Valley’s first major professional franchise; an institution that still matters to many locals.

If Sarver would play ball with the Coyotes and city leadership, it would remove one major hurdle to a downtown arena, but he doesn’t seem inclined to do so, turning this into a local Game of Thrones. Unlike the long-running series, however a resolution could come quickly.

Who will win is anybody’s guess.

Follow Craig Morgan on Twitter

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Sarver’s plans do not include Coyotes