The Coyotes

It’s not exactly criminal defense related, but yesterday a contract was signed that signaled the end of the Big 4 sports era in Arizona: the Arizona Coyotes were sold to the owner of the Utah Jazz, and professional hockey has officially left the state. Kinda. Everything in that last sentence needs a “kinda”, and, as an Arizona law firm, Arizona business dealings fall into our wheelhouse here at Palestini Law, so let’s take a look at what happened and why in the tragic saga of the Arizona Coyotes.

In 1996 the Winnipeg Jets were relocated from Manitoba to downtown Phoenix. They became the Phoenix Coyotes, and they played out of America West Arena, known today as Footprint Center, home of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns. The team was an instant draw, but the building wasn’t made for hockey, and as such a number of seats were obstructed view. This was not ideal for the team’s long-term success and proposals to revamp the arena to accommodate hockey were dismissed, so the team went looking for a new home. The Coyotes moved to the then-new Gila River Arena at Westgate in Glendale, where they stayed for a tumultuous 19 years. During that stay, team ownership transferred repeatedly, ultimately landing with Alex Meruelo, a Cuban-American billionaire most known for owning the Sahara in Las Vegas. After a failed bid to renegotiate the lease in Glendale, Meruelo moved the team to ASU’s brand new Mullett Arena, a 5,000 seat college hockey arena.

During their two seasons at Mullett, the Coyotes became a pro-sports’ writer punching bag, the butt of endless online jokes about how small the arena was. But Meruelo insisted this was a temporary solution while he tried to find a way to privately finance a new arena. A 2023 vote in Tempe failed miserably, one that would have allowed Meruelo to purchase what was -and still is- a landfill that he would have privately financed into an arena district. Plan B was announced in February of this year: win a land auction on the Phoenix-Scottsdale border and move the team into prime real estate in a more hockey-fan-rich part of the valley.

Unfortunately, behind the scenes, the wheels were already in motion. As reported initially by Arizona Sports’ John Gambadoro, the NHL was set to buy the team from Meruelo the day after the end of the 2023-24 season and resell the team to Ryan Smith, owner of the Utah Jazz. The League stayed quiet on this up until Thursday, when the move and subsequent immediate relocation of the team was announced.

Here’s where things get tricky. Smith hasn’t purchased the Arizona Coyotes, but rather the contracts of all of the players and team staff. The Utah team will not have an official name and/or mascot for their first season- they will simply be known as “Utah.” Alex Meruelo still owns the rights to the logo, team history, and rights of the Arizona Coyotes, and has a five-year window in which to secure land and build his arena district in Arizona. If successful, Meruelo would immediately trigger an NHL expansion draft, and the Arizona Coyotes would come back in a “2.0” form. There is a very limited set of circumstances under which Meruelo could sell the rights to the Arizona Coyotes, so the proverbial puck is on his stick to make something happen.

A joint NHL-Meruelo press conference is happening right now, and the fan reaction online has been sour, to put it softly. Time will tell if Meruelo can bring back the Coyotes, and, even if he can, if anyone in the valley will trust him enough to bring him their business. Until then, Thursday, 04/18/24, was the last day that Phoenix could claim to be home to a Big Four market, a day most people never thought would come. This also sets the wheels in motion for the Arizona Diamondbacks to do something similar as their attempts to seek a taxpayer-funded overhaul of a poorly aging Chase Field seem to be falling on uninterested ears.

If you would like to buy a hockey or baseball franchise in Arizona, we are not the right people to talk to. But here at Palestini Law, we like to keep you up-to-date on the legal goings-on around town. So even if you can’t support a local franchise, you can also support a local business, and you can hire Palestini Law for any legal troubles that come your way because, unlike these local sports teams, we’re here to stay!

JAMES P. PALESTINI

Originally from Toronto, Canada, James Palestini relocated to Arizona where he received his Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice Studies with a minor in Criminology from Arizona State University. James then attended law school at Phoenix School of Law where he earned a Juris Doctorate degree. While pursuing his doctorate, James interned at a criminal defense firm in Scottsdale, Arizona. James handled a multitude of criminal cases there, including felony, misdemeanor and criminal traffic matters.