Most nights this season, there have been more empty red seats than fans attending Oklahoma City Barons games at the Cox Convention Center.
Heading into the final weekend of the regular season, Oklahoma City is last in the 30-team American Hockey League in attendance. The Barons are averaging around 3,500 fans a game, a slight decline from their first two seasons.
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.
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?
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.”