BIXBY — The event had long been sold out, but that didn't stop fans from trying to get up close and personal with their favorite Thunder players.
“It's worth a shot, right,” said one ticketless woman on the elevator ride down from Level 5 of the jammed packed SpiritBank Event Center parking garage.
Informed by a fellow die-hard that the fourth annual Thunder Blue-White Scrimmage on Thursday night had run out of tickets more than a month ago, the unflappable woman showed no surprise.
“There's a whole lot of interest around here, that's for sure,” she said. “Everybody loves the Thunder.”
The franchise is doing all it can to keep it that way.
Roughly 3,500 fans attended Thursday's scrimmage, most of them decked out in blue training camp T-shirts the team distributed to mark the occasion. It was the first time the Thunder has held its community-driven preseason event outside of the metro.
“For the Tulsa fans to get to see them in town, it's big,” said Brandon Rentie, 28, of Tulsa.
Embracing the Tulsa market has been a driving force behind the Thunder's success. In fact, without Tulsa County comprising part of its fan base, Oklahoma City never would have been awarded the Thunder.
Thursday's event, and others like it, big and small, represents how the Thunder has tried to give back.
“It's in recognition to how the Tulsa community has embraced the Thunder,” said Brian Byrnes, senior vice president of sales and marketing. “And we've seen that by a significant increase in ticket sales.”
When a group of Oklahoma businessmen and officials wooed and wowed the NBA Board of Governors in early 2008, NBA Commissioner David Stern estimated that 20 percent of the Thunder's ticket sales would come from the Tulsa market.
According to Byrnes, Tulsa County accounts for 5 percent of the Thunder's average attendance, as well as 10 percent of group programs and 12 percent of the team's single-game sales.
Rick McCoy of Paden attended the scrimmage with his 4-year-old son Tyler, who said his favorite player is James Harden. McCoy, wearing a red Kevin Durant All-Star Game jersey, said he took Tyler because he was the last of his three children who hadn't experienced a Thunder event. The other two, McCoy said, have been to games as part of the Tickets for Kids programs.
“I think it's good,” McCoy said of the Thunder traveling to other parts of the state. “It helps them branch out and get to know not just Oklahoma City fans but everybody around.”
Interest in the Thunder from the Tulsa community has steadily grown since the franchise relocated to Oklahoma City. Television ratings more than doubled last year from the previous season, according to Byrnes, so too have appearance requests for the team's mascot, Rumble.
But perhaps nothing will illustrate how strong and supportive the Tulsa market is like Friday night's preseason game against Phoenix. The contest is sold out, and with a capacity of 18,233 the game will be the most attended event in BOK Center history.
It's the fourth time the Thunder has hosted an exhibition game in Tulsa. Announced attendance was 9,549 the first year, 10,427 the second and 11,297 in 2010.
“We hadn't had a team for a long time in Oklahoma,” said Rentie. “But since we've had the Thunder the vibe has been huge, especially around playoff time. It's emotional in these bars.”
It's no different just down the road.
“It kind of mirrors what we saw in ticket buying in Oklahoma City and merchandise sales and television ratings,” Byrnes said. “So it's kind of a cumulative growth. And so bringing the team here is to reward the community.”