Four years ago Bob Funk Jr. made a commitment to bring Triple-A hockey to Oklahoma City.
Funk is CEO of Prodigal, which runs the Barons, the Triple-A team for the Edmonton Oilers.
In their third season, the Barons rank near the bottom of the American Hockey League in attendance. Funk, though, is confident the fledgling franchise eventually will develop the type of fan base that will provide hockey stability in the market for years to come.
The primary reason Funk disbanded the Oklahoma City Blazers, a popular Central Hockey League team that had a successful 17-year run, was Funk believed the majority of OKC sports fans prefer Triple-A hockey.
“This community and hockey fans deserve it first and foremost,” Funk said.
“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.”
Edmonton pays players’ salaries. Funk assumes the financial risk for the franchise.
The Oilers signed a five-year deal that runs through 2015 with the city of Oklahoma City and Prodigal.
NHL Hall of Famer Kevin Lowe, the Oilers president of hockey operations, anticipates picking up the option to extend the deal through 2018.
“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.”
The Barons have averaged between 3,500 and 4,200 fans their first three seasons. To try and boost attendance, Funk in recent months made two significant hires, two businessmen with extensive minor league hockey experience.
Jon Beilstein, executive vice president of sales, was hired in August.
Beilstein brought in Sam Bays, who spent seven years in the Dallas Stars system. Bays will oversee ticket sales.
Beilstein, who was instrumental in building a successful AHL franchise in Grand Rapids, Mich., said the key is selling the overall experience.
“This is more of a nontraditional (hockey) market with more competition,” Beilstein said. “We have to provide the best overall experience for the dollar. We just need more people to sample this product. It can’t be just about hockey. It has to be about the experience.”
There are new challenges compared to OKC Triple-A hockey teams in the 1960s and 1970s.
In addition to avid Sooner and Cowboy fans that support Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, Oklahoma City now features an overwhelmingly popular NBA team — the Thunder.
“The Oklahoma City market is different than even the early ’90s when the Blazers were a phenomenon,” said Oklahoma City 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.”
The first two seasons the Barons spent marketing dollars developing a new brand. That’s no longer an issue. Now some of those dollars are being used to give away 13 new vehicles, one at every Saturday home game.
“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.”
Funk’s goal is to provide OKC with Triple-A hockey for years as a member of the 30-team AHL where every team is aligned with an NHL partner.
“I think Prodigal is in it for long-term stability, slow, smart growth,” said OKC special events manager Tom Anderson. “They’re doing it the right way not giving away free vouchers and tickets. To be successful for a long time, stepping up to the AHL, is a whole different level of hockey.”