GLENDALE, Ariz. — Alex Meruelo’s specialty as a businessman has been to resurrect struggling companies. His billion-dollar portfolio includes casinos, TV and radio stations, food services, real estate, hospitality, construction and engineering.
Meruelo’s latest acquisition could be one of his most challenging: turning the Arizona Coyotes into consistent winners while making the franchise profitable.
"Hockey is a sport, but it’s also a business," Meruelo said Thursday during his introductory news conference. "I’ve had a lot of experience building businesses and turning them around. For 40 years I’ve been doing this. I’ve had a lot of success and I have a great team."
Meruelo officially took over as Arizona’s majority owner this week after completing the transaction with Andrew Barroway, who will still hold a minority stake in the team.
The son of Cuban immigrants, the 55-year-old Meruelo founded the California-based Meruelo Group in 1986 after learning the business ropes in his father’s tuxedo business. He will serve as the Coyotes’ chairman and governor after becoming the first Hispanic majority owner of an NHL team. Meruelo made part of his opening remarks in Spanish and answered a question from a Spanish-speaking reporter in Spanish during his news conference.
The Coyotes have not made the playoffs the past seven seasons, but have a young, talented roster and just missed the post-season last year.
"It’s very clear Alex is different, he’s very unique," Coyotes general manager John Chayka said. "It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to work with him. He’s an elite business mind and I’ve been extremely impressed with not only his business acumen, but how he goes about building businesses. For us here, it allows us to take this to the next level."
Meruelo’s task will be to turn around a franchise that’s struggled to find a consistent footing since former owner Jerry Moyes took the team into bankruptcy in 2009.
The NHL ran the franchise for four years before a new ownership group, led by George Gosbee and Anthony LeBlanc, took over in 2013. They sold a majority stake to Barroway, a Philadelphia-based hedge fund manager, and he became the team’s sole owner after buying out his partners in 2017.
The Coyotes have struggled on the ice and at the gate, missing the playoffs every year since reaching the 2012 Western Conference Finals while ranking among the NHL’s worst teams in attendance.
The franchise also needs to find a permanent home after the City of Glendale voted to terminate a 15-year, $225 million lease agreement with the Coyotes for Gila River Arena in 2015. A deal with Arizona State for a shared new arena in Tempe fell through when the university backed out in 2017 and the team signed a one-year lease to play at Gila River Arena through the 2019-20 season.
The uncertainty has consistently put the Coyotes at the centre of relocation rumours, which Meruelo’s hopes to squash.
"I’m very committed to this state, to the Valley, to the fans of Arizona, to the team of Arizona and residents of Arizona," Meruelo said. "I’m committed to staying here and will do everything in my heart and hard work to make sure to make it viable."
Meruelo’s bid to become a sports owner began as a young kid in Brooklyn. As he built his portfolio, the dream came closer to becoming a financial reality.
Meruelo made an attempt to buy the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks in 2011, but a potential deal fell through. The opportunity to buy the Coyotes came when Barroway began seeking suitors last year.
"Every kid wants to grow up and play for a sports team or own a sports team," Meruelo said. "It’s been a dream of mine since I was six, eight years old — knowing it would be very difficult — that I would succeed and here I am. I want to tell everybody: a Hispanic kid from Brooklyn, New York, so if I can do it, anyone can do it."