By Jose M. Romero
Xavier Gutierrez, who came to this country from Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico as a small child, is now the president and CEO of an NHL franchise.
Gutierrez, introduced to the media on Monday afternoon as the first Latino president of an NHL franchise in the league’s 103-year history, just might be the right guy to help first-year majority owner Alex Meruelo open up the Arizona Coyotes to a potentially huge new fan base, the Spanish-speaking and English speaking Latinos of the greater Phoenix area.
Gutierrez said the Valley is 40 percent Latino, and he’s ready to use his extensive finance and business experience to build local interest in Los Yotes.
“We will be transformative in our efforts to expand our fan base, to include new fans to this incredible sport and to have them join our family,” Gutierrez said. “It’s clearly a market that we want to tap into. It wouldn’t make business sense not to approach them.”
In Spanish, he offered these words to the Latino community of Arizona: “On behalf of Mr. Meruelo and his family, we want to invite all of you to become part of our community of fans, and we ask your support and we will work very hard to make sure you feel part of our family of this team, your team, the Arizona Coyotes.”
The facts are these: The Coyotes are breaking new ground, with the league’s first Latino majority owner, Meruelo, and now Gutierrez. They had a growing social media presence in Spanish until the COVID-19 pandemic stopped everything earlier this year, and the team was still in playoff contention with less than a month to play in the regular season.
Xavier Gutierrez (courtesy of Arizona Coyotes)
Under the plan to resume play, Arizona is in the playoff field though they weren’t one of the NHL’s top 16 teams by regular season record.
Meruelo, on his first day as owner, pledged a year ago to court the Latino fan base. A Spanish language Twitter account for the team was established and a “Los Yotes Night” took place early this season to honor the Latino community. But whatever strategy was in the works seemed to fizzle out as the season went along, and then came the pandemic.
Perhaps Meruelo needed to get a feel for the community and figure out how to go about the campaign. After all, he was new to town.
The departure of former president Ahron Cohen last month, and the subsequent hiring of Gutierrez, could signal that the Coyotes are ready to truly commit to attracting a Latino fan base, which they’ve never really accomplished since arriving from Winnipeg in 1996.
Gutierrez has pledged to “do things right.”
Hockey has historically been a tougher sell to Latinos then is baseball, football, basketball and soccer. There aren’t many players of Latino descent in the NHL, and ticket prices can be cost prohibitive.
But Gutierrez told a story of how he became a hockey fan. He saw his first game as a Harvard undergrad in the early 1990s, and was hooked. He’s banking on Coyotes game experiences drawing not just Latino fans, but other groups that don’t typically attend games regularly.
If Meruelo and Gutierrez can get Latino fans in the door at Gila River Arena and/or wherever part of town the team moves to if a new arena is built in the near future, maybe a good number of those fans will become repeat customers.
“We want to be the most beloved franchise in Phoenix,” Gutierrez said, adding that he plans to use technology and personal outreach to attract fans.
“I intend to make a difference in this community,” he said. “I intend to be part of what brings people together.”
The pandemic set the team back six to nine months, Meruelo said, in discussions about a new home or staying in Glendale, Arizona. So the Coyotes, while regarded as a team on the rise in the NHL, have a lot on their plate at present, with players back to skating at Gila River Arena, the season restarting in the playoffs, arena matters and staff changes at executive levels.
Courting Latinos could be low on the priority list for now. A playoff run could certainly help things.
In a time of great change and reform and the sudden rise in the discussion of diversity nationwide, the Coyotes have made a major splash in the hiring of Gutierrez, who grew up in San Jose, California and followed the Sharks.
“I have an incredible passion … for the economic empowerment of all communities,” Gutierrez said, “and embrace my obligation, my responsibility to help others achieve their American dream, like I have been able to as an immigrant to this country.”