Barons building a brand in Oklahoma City

OKC's AHL has struggled to draw fans this season despite putting a solid product on the ice. But Bob Funk Jr. and the Edmonton Oilers remain committed to making Triple-A hockey a thriving part of the city's sports landscape.
by Michael Baldwin Published: April 16, 2013

In addition to jersey night and other giveaways, every Friday the Barons feature $2 beers and $1 hot dogs. This season, the team is giving away 13 new vehicles, one at every Saturday home game, something Funk anticipates doing again next season.

“I'm throwing the kitchen sink at them,” Funk said. “We're really involved in the community on multiple levels like Special Olympics and Habitat for Humanity. One thing I'm very confident in is it would be difficult for someone to criticize what we're doing.”

Kevin Lowe, president of Oilers hockey operations, played on six Stanley Cup championship teams, five in Edmonton. The NHL Hall of Famer grew up in Quebec. Hockey country.

Lowe stressed OKC's attributes far outweigh current attendance figures.

“We're very pleased with everything we have here,” Lowe said. “We really love the city. I mean that wholeheartedly. It's very similar to Edmonton. What drives the economy (oil and gas) and the people are very similar. ... A little less snow.

“Our players really like it here. That's the most important thing. We anticipate being in this for the long haul. We're happy with the Funks and are comfortable with the business side. They're doing everything first class.”

Replacing the Blazers

Curtis Lemmings is a 29-year-old Yukon policeman. He got hooked on hockey growing up watching the Blazers. He owned Blazers season tickets their final four seasons, and he owned season tickets the Barons first season.

Lemmings enjoyed watching Edmonton's young stars play in Oklahoma City during the NHL lockout, which is why he drives to Dallas a few times a year to watch an NHL game.

But Lemmings only attends a few Barons games a year. Some of his former Blazers friends never attend a game. They preferred the trade-off of lower-level hockey with a more physical game and roster stability. Blazers fans not only were familiar with hometown players but hated rivals.

“Barons prices are higher, but you get good hockey,” Lemmings said. “Some Midwest people might not appreciate that level of hockey like they do up north. Some people here preferred the rivalries, the intense action. The Blazers were more personable.”

Players shuttling between Double-A Stockton in the ECHL and Oklahoma City and Edmonton are part of Triple-A sports.

In the CHL, fans got attached to players like Joe Burton and Tyler Fleck, who played in OKC for years.

“I miss the Blazers atmosphere,” Lemmings said. “(The CHL) wasn't as big a stage. The skill level wasn't as high. But in some ways it was a more fun atmosphere with the rivalries and knowing the players.”

It was common for the Blazers to average 1,200 to 1,500 more fans when Tulsa and Wichita were in town. In the AHL, the Barons' closest thing to a rival is three Texas teams. In the new league, the Barons play teams like Rockford, Abbotsford, Toronto and Hershey.

Lowe said the rivalry variable might improve at some point, possibly even Tulsa or Wichita.

“There is some talk about more AHL teams moving out this way,” Lowe said. “That would provide more rivalries. There are some franchises in the East that are struggling. It would be very beneficial and help travel.”

Funk believes the Blazers' backlash variable sometimes is overblown. He embraces any former Blazer fan that wants to jump on board. In the meantime, his staff is building a new fan base.

And attendance differences?

Funk believes it's misleading to compare the two franchises. He should know. His family owned the Blazers their final 12 seasons.

Funk spent the middle years of his family's Blazers ownership living in Kansas City and Reno working in sports marketing. But Funk was heavily involved the final four seasons. He maintains the Blazers blanketed the market with free tickets and vouchers.

“It was kind of the Blazer identity,” Funk said.

“You can't really compare facts to fallacy. It won't compute. I've broken down the numbers a lot of ways. When you're giving away half of your tickets, you can't legitimately include that as part of your business.”

Even with nonpaying customers filling hundreds upon thousands of seats, Funk said attendance figures were still inflated.

“When I broke down the numbers, everything on paper, audits, financials, announced attendance numbers, none of it added up. Not at all,” Funk said. “They can't even get close to any of the announced figures. ... We never made money (with the Blazers). We lost money from Year 1.”

A major challenge has been altering OKC's “free hockey” mindset.

Funk used an example from the Barons' opening night crowd during their first season in 2010. After the game, an angry fan vowed to never return after he was informed everyone would have to pay to watch a Barons game.

“If we went back to the old days of giving tickets away, I'm sure we could fill a lot of seats in this building,” Beilstein said. “But that's not how you build a business.”

Funk optimistic about the future

It's been a struggle to sell more expensive hockey in a highly competitive market.

The Barons averaged 4,155 fans their first year, 3,684 last season.

“Hockey fans, like all sports fans, choose their allegiances slowly,” Laforge said. “Prodigal is doing all the right things. These guys will build momentum. Their social media numbers are increasing. From our point of view, they're on the right track to develop some great fans. It will just take some time.”

Oklahoma City isn't the first city to make a CHL-to-AHL transformation.

San Antonio, another one-major-league-sport, NBA market, went through a similar transition a decade ago. One difference is the Spurs own San Antonio's AHL team.

Similar to the Barons, the Rampage, the team that replaced the CHL Iguanas, struggled at the gate their first five seasons, averaging around 4,200 fans. The Rampage now is among AHL attendance leaders, averaging more than 7,000.

“I've run these types of organizations,” Laforge said. “These guys are way ahead of the curve. I like the people Bob has brought in, very talented people. Those are top-rated people in the hockey business. I think they're on their way.”

Oklahoma City officials made a commitment three years ago by spending $4.5 million for a new ice system, locker-room upgrades and other renovations at the Cox Convention Center.

The Barons' $5-million-a-year budget is similar to the Blazers' annual costs.

Moving across Reno Avenue has trimmed facility costs 40 percent compared to when the Blazers played at Chesapeake Energy Arena, which helps offset an increase in payroll for a larger staff. Another advantage is the Oilers pay players' salaries.

“I've got great partners in Edmonton. I have great partners in the city and SMG (which manages the arenas),” Funk said. “I like what we're doing and the direction it's going.”

Knowing what he knows now, Funk, 37, would have advised his father, Bob Funk Sr., to make the switch to Triple-A hockey nearly a decade ago.

“We pursued it a little but probably didn't pursue it as aggressively as we should have,” Funk said. “What we didn't do was pay attention to the wants and needs of Oklahoma City sports fans. Hindsight being 20/20, citizens in general wanted a higher level than CHL hockey.”

If the market truly prefers Triple-A hockey, why aren't more fans attending games?

It's certainly not a competition factor. The Barons are on the brink of qualifying for the playoffs for the third consecutive season. Last season they reached the Western Conference finals.

Is it Blazers backlash?

Entertainment competition?

Time?

More expensive tickets?

“That I can't tell you,” Funk said. “We're aggressively looking at everything. I'm an impatient guy. I always have been. But I knew it would be somewhat painful early to turn over what had gone on for 17 years.”

Funk's goal is that the Barons eventually will play some games each season in front of sellout crowds in the reconfigured 7,500-seat arena.

“We want to provide high-quality entertainment,” Funk said. “At the same time, we're about giving back, being part of the Oklahoma City community. We consider this OKC's team. We want the community to consider this to be their asset and support it as such.”


by Michael Baldwin
Reporter
Mike Baldwin has been a sports reporter for The Oklahoman since 1982. Mike graduated from Okmulgee High School in 1974 and attended Oklahoma Christian University, graduating with a journalism degree in 1978. Mike's first job was sports editor...
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