Can Triple-A hockey succeed in a market dominated by an elite NBA team (the Thunder) and two prominent Division I college programs (Oklahoma and Oklahoma State)?
Bob Funk Jr., president of Prodigal LLC, which runs the Barons for their NHL parent club, the Edmonton Oilers, recognizes that the franchise faces significant challenges in a market saturated with numerous entertainment choices.
“It's not because we don't have a good product on or off the ice,” Funk said. “I've conducted enough research data and surveys from people that have attended games that tell me we're doing the right things.”
The Oilers agree.
There's a misconception that because of lagging attendance, Edmonton will move its Triple-A team out of Oklahoma City when a five-year deal ends in 2015.
The opposite is true.
Both sides — Prodigal and the Oilers — anticipate picking up a three-year option that would extend the deal through 2018.
“Our relationship with Prodigal is not about attendance or even sponsorship money,” said Oilers CEO Patrick Laforge. “It's about development, recruiting (players) to this market. Our coaches love it here. Our players love it here.”
OKC has many plusses. Will Rogers Airport provides more favorable travel between Oklahoma City and Edmonton and other NHL cities. Several AHL cities, including Springfield, Mass. — the Oilers' previous Triple-A home — are in remote areas.
The Oilers' brass raves about Oklahoma City — the similarities to Edmonton; state-of-the-art minor league facilities; a quality AHL arena and comfortable downtown living options for players.
“Guys like Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and (Magnus) Paajarvi, some of the best players in the world, came away saying they may spend some time in Oklahoma City this summer because they loved it that much,” Laforge said of players who played in OKC during the NHL lockout. “They said, ‘What friendly people.' This city can be very proud of what they're doing.”
Still, attendance has been a disappointment, especially compared to the Blazers, a popular Central Hockey League team Funk disbanded four years ago after a 17-year run. In the 1990s, the Blazers frequently drew crowds of 10,000-plus.
There's been some Blazers backlash. Some devoted fans preferred lower-level hockey with cheaper tickets, more fights and more stable rosters.
“Blazers fans got attached to the players,” said David Hartwell, a season-ticket holder with both teams since 1997 who saw many Blazers buddies snub the Barons. “Everything costs more. Plus there are no rivalries like Tulsa and Wichita. Those type of things ran a lot of people off.”
The Blazers averaged a franchise-record 10,438 fans in 1993-94. For a dozen years, the Blazers averaged between 8,000 and 9,000.
But even Blazers' attendance started to sag the final few seasons. Funk also maintains the Blazers' attendance numbers were skewed on several levels.
A new variable is fans are emotionally attached to the Thunder, a top NBA team.
“The market is different than even the early '90s when the Blazers were a phenomenon,” said OKC Mayor Mick Cornett. “There is more to do. The Thunder is part of that. But it's not just the Thunder. It's cable television. It's the Internet. It's harder to get people's attention.”
Doug Sauter, who coached the Blazers their final 14 seasons, pointed to the Thunder, Remington Park undergoing a makeover, Boone Pickens Stadium attracting legions of OSU fans and casino concerts and gaming.
“People have far more choices now,” Sauter said. “Everybody is after that entertainment dollar.”
Committed to Triple-A hockey
A couple of years ago, Funk hired a marketing research company to quantify hockey interest in Oklahoma City. Results indicated 200,000 people within a 50-mile radius liked hockey.
The harsh reality is many of those 200,000 people haven't attended a Barons game.
Despite a slow start at the gate, Funk is adamant he made the right decision. He contends most Oklahoma City sports fans prefer Triple-A hockey.
“Oklahoma City should have top-level options,” Funk said. “We can't support an NBA team and an NHL team. But we should be at the top level of what we can be. This community and hockey fans deserve it first and foremost.
“We're going to provide high-level hockey and be involved in the community. This was a long-term investment for us to do the right thing for Oklahoma City.”
The first two seasons, the Barons spent a ton of marketing dollars developing their new brand.
“When I first came here, most people didn't even know we had a hockey team,” said Barons coach Todd Nelson. “Everybody talked about a hockey team called the Blazers. Now people know who the Barons are. It's just a matter of getting them out to watch us. It's a work in progress.”
The Barons have a hard-core season ticket base of around 2,000 fans. Including partial packages, Oklahoma City has 2,500 FSEs (full season equivalents), which ranks in the top half of the AHL.
The key is getting the routine fan to attend one of 38 regular-season home games.
The Barons charge more to watch Triple-A hockey. There are a handful of $10 tickets, but the majority range between $16 and $38. A common suggestion is Funk should lower upper-deck tickets to $10 or less.
The challenge is getting fans to commit to attending a game, something Funk is reminded of every time a friend asks, “How's attendance?”
“My response is, ‘When's the last time you've been to a Barons game?'” Funk said. “Nine times out of 10 they smile and that's the end of the conversation. Or they'll say, ‘I've been meaning to come out to a game.' That's been the No. 1 problem.”
Funk said the Barons need to average around 4,500 fans for Prodigal to break even. His staff has crunched the numbers. They estimate they'd average 5,000 if only 15 percent of the 1.3 million people in the metro area attended one game a season.
“Not to mention if anyone repeats,” Funk said.
Oilers committed to Funk, OKC
Edmonton officials would like to see attendance improve, but the organization endorses Funk's long-term plan. Laforge points to two hires Funk made the past eight months, two executives with extensive minor league hockey backgrounds.
Funk hired Jon Beilstein, executive vice president of sales, in August. Beilstein hired ticket sales executive Sam Bays, who spent seven years in the Dallas Stars' system.
Beilstein, a Chicago native, was instrumental in developing Grand Rapids, Mich., into one of the AHL's attendance leaders. During Beilstein's 11 seasons, the Griffins' attendance went from the lower half of the league to more than 7,000 fans a game the past five seasons.
He said there's a process to building a fan base. Beilstein is confident the Barons steadily will improve at the gate starting next season.
The first step, Beilstein said, is securing a season-ticket base, which the Barons have in place with an 84 percent renewal rate, above league average. The next step is group sales, a priority this summer.
The final step is attracting new fans by selling the overall experience, the atmosphere and entertainment.
“This is not unchartered territory for me,” Beilstein said. “Granted, I'm in more of a nontraditional (hockey) market. But the business challenges are the same ones I faced in Michigan. It's very similar in a lot of ways.”
The Barons' target audience is the new generation, people in their 20s, 30s and 40s, and their families.
Like most minor league sports franchises, the Barons feature a wide variety of promotions and specials.