Minor league sports teams are legendary for trying unique strategies to attract fans to games where winning and losing isn’t as important as providing a fan-friendly environment.
No one, though, has ever attempted something like Prodigal CEO Bob Funk Jr., who runs the Oklahoma City Barons for their National Hockey League partner, the Edmonton Oilers.
Over a two-year period, Funk will have given away 27 brand new vehicles worth an estimated $820,000.
Someone at Saturday’s home game against Charlotte at the Cox Convention Center will win a Volkswagen Golf. On April 19, another person will become the 27th winner, the owner of a Volkswagen Beetle.
“When you come to a Saturday home game, the excitement of knowing some fan will win is a unique experience,” said Barons vice president Jon Beilsten. “It’s not a one-time thing. The anticipation goes beyond the contestants. Fans really get into it.”
Traditional minor league giveaways often include: bats, replica jerseys, hats, sticks, T-shirts, plastic helmets and bobblehead dolls.
In an attempt to boost attendance, Funk switched a large portion of his budget toward giving away nearly $1 million dollars worth of vehicles in a promotion called “Drive Away Every Saturday.”
“I’ve never heard of a pro sports franchise, major league or minor league, that’s ever attempted anything near this big,” Funk said. “The car giveaway helped our branding, but it didn’t put (fans) in the seats. It shows we’re not afraid to try something different.”
The Barons are in their fourth year in Oklahoma City with one season left on a five-year deal with the Oilers. The Barons have struggled at the gate. They rank 27th in the 30-team American Hockey League in attendance, averaging 3,272 fans a game.
But there are positive signs. Group sales are up. There’s a loyal 2,000 season-ticket fan base, which ranks among the top third in the league.
Next season, the Barons will significantly lower ticket prices and will also reconfigure the Cox Center bowl to seat 6,468. In addition, 1,500 seats will sell for $10 at every home game in 2014-15 after offering only 400 tickets at $10 this season.
Still, it will be difficult to top the car giveaway.
The contest has become such a tradition at Saturday home games, most fans remain in their seats between the second and third periods to see who wins a car.
Winners turn into ambassadors, too.
“I tell everybody from my dog groomer to people at the gym, ‘You too can win one at every Saturday home game,’” said Amy Hard said. “We always bring someone to Saturday games, hoping they can win one, too. I’d hate to see them stop doing it.”
Fridays ($1 hot dogs, $2 beers) and Saturday car giveaways draw the largest crowds. But this season, the Barons have averaged only 3,800 the previous dozen Saturdays, which is not a dramatic jump compared to their overall attendance.
A final decision won’t be made until this summer, but the Barons might give away three or four vehicles next season. Perhaps the season opener, New Year’s Eve and a couple of other games.
“We’re evaluating it,” Funk said. “We haven’t seen the return on our investment, but we still like the overall promotion. It’s something we’re proud of, our portfolio in the community. We’re discussing how to approach it next season.
“There are some great stories of people who have won, some pretty awesome stories. It’s not often a person wins win a new car or truck. We’ll probably keep doing it, but maybe not near as big.”