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Coyotes owner to unwind team; SaharaBets likely to exit Arizona

| By Jill R. Dorson
Arizona Coyotes owner Alex Meruelo has given up hanging onto what remains of his NHL team, and will dissolve the team. Muruelo had been planning to build a new Phoenix-area arena and the NHL gave him five years to recreate his team.
Arizona Coyotes SaharaBets

But days after a land deal fell through, Meruelo decided to move on, PHNX Sports reported Tuesday (25 June). And with that decision, it seems clear that SaharaBets will also exit Arizona. The digital sports betting platform is tethered to the franchise, as required by Arizona law. It launched in January 2022.

In April Meruelo sold the players and game operations to a Utah-based group. He retains the rights to the name, team IP, records and the AHL (American Hockey League) Roadrunners affiliate franchise. At that time, the NHL classified the Coyotes as an “inactive” team. Meruelo now says he will unwind team operations within 30 days.

Operators required to give 180 days notice to shutter

With regard to sports betting, SaharaBets is among the lower-performing platforms in Arizona. In April, the latest month for which a revenue report is available, handle was $900,737. Adjusted gross gaming revenue was $73,556. Arizona is the only state in which SaharaBets, also owned by Meruelo, is live.

SaharaBets must give 180 days notice to shutter, the Arizona Department of Gaming (ADG) said. Given that Muruelo is aiming to shut down team operations within a month, it’s unclear how the ADG will proceed. On Monday, the agency told iGB that it has been in touch with the Coyotes and is “undergoing the appropriate administrative processes regarding action on this licence”.

The ADG said Tuesday that it had no further comment.

“You have to deal with a licence of a licensee that does not exist at this point,” gaming consultant Brendan Bussmann, who has clients in Arizona, told iGB. “The regulator is going to have to figure out a way to unravel this faster than the statutory six months because I don’t know how you let an operator, tethered to a franchise that doesn’t exist, continue to take bets.

“We’re in uncharted territory on how to, first, unravel this because it is such a team-centric setup. And then [in this case] the statutory requirement is unmanageable.”

SaharaBets exit would leave three pro-franchise licences

Under Arizona law, up to 20 event wagering platforms are allowed. In April, 17 were live. Eight of those were tethered to pro sports franchises and nine were tethered to tribal casinos. A total of three licences are currently available and the ADG will open an application window on 8 July in which it aims to issue a minimum of one tribal and one pro-sports franchise licence.

A SaharaBets exit would increase the number of available pro-team licences to three. The agency likely won’t include that licence in its July window.

Arizona’s law allocates 10 licences to pro franchises and 10 to tribes. In the past, when pro-franchise licences have been available, ADG has not had any applicants. It appears that the agency has already issued licences to all pro franchises in the state that meet the requirements. The law says that only teams playing at the “highest level” of a sport would qualify. All of Arizona’s major professional sports teams, including the WNBA Phoenix Mercury and Arena Football League Arizona Rattlers are licensed. The PGA Tour and Nascar also have licences.

It would take legislative action to redistribute the licences, but that could also involve opening tribal compacts.

Land deal went awry

Meruelo decided to walk away from his NHL rights after the Arizona State Land Department cancelled an auction set for Thursday (27 June). The plan was for Meruelo’s group to buy a 95-acre parcel owned by the state. In order to build an arena, however, the Coyotes would have needed a special use permit. The state “recently confirmed” that the permit would be needed and requested it be filed ahead of the auction, according to PHNX Sports.

An alternative would be for the state to rezone the land.

The NHL gave Meruelo until the end of the 2023-24 season to resolve the arena issue. When it became clear that would not happen, the league suggested a sale, but allowed Meruelo a five-year window of rights to the Phoenix market.

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