The City Responds To Barons Year One

As a ticket purchasing, tax paying, puck loving fan I’m slightly concerned about something. No, I’m not necessarily worried about the eventual fate of Alex Plante, nor am I baffled by the correct pronunciation of Yann Danis. My actual concern lies in the organizational scheme and progress of both Prodigal Hockey and the Oklahoma City Barons.

Having a full season and nearly a year and a half under it’s belt, the Oklahoma City AHL affiliate of the Edmonton Oilers still has quite a bit to prove.

Let’s begin with the slow ticket sales and lack of attendance in year one. The Barons landed towards the back of the pack with an average of 4,155 in the Cox Center which is roughly 1,200 less than the league average. Even more searing are the three playoff games in OKC which were only viewed by 7,662 fans or an average of 2,554 per game. Not pretty numbers for a team needing to show some gusto.

I realize my concerns are slightly premature as both a new league and a new team begin to connect with Oklahomans, but the discussion remains valid until ticket purchasers put it to rest. Knowing very little about the overall plan going forward my question is simple, “What is the plan to see hockey succeed at this level in OKC?”

To the rescue comes a seasoned veteran who has extensive knowledge of public facilities being privately managed. Meet Tom Anderson, Executive Manger of Special Projects for the City Managers office. Not only is Mr. Anderson a 19 year mainstay of the city, but has spent the last 11 years as an integral part of forming relationships between SMG (managers of the Cox Center and the OKC Arena to name a few), the city, and its potential long-term tenants. He helped pave the way for the New Orleans Hornets temporary stay in the city, the emergence of the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Ford Center (now OKC Arena), has fielded Bricktown Ballpark deals, negotiated plans at the State Fairgrounds, and led the charge of the CHL OKC Blazers in both arenas. Needless to say, Mr. Anderson knows the ins and outs of all things arena leasing.

His most recent conquest has been negotiating the 5+ year deal with Prodigal Hockey, managed by Bob Funk Jr, and the Cox Center building lease. “It took us quite a few months in the beginning to formulate an agreement that really works for everybody, but we’ve got one, ” says Anderson, “It’s not really a formal partnership, but it’s certainly an informal partnership.” What Mr. Anderson is eluding to are the ins and outs of revenue sharing, that simply put, garnished Prodigal Hockey and the city the best deal possible. “There is an initial five year term, with two five year renewal options,” continues Anderson, “so we are looking at the potential to have a team in that building for the next fifteen years.”

I’ll not belabor the point here. The nuts and bolts of the agreement are well known, but from the cities perspective is there any worry that expectations were not met? “Our objective is to give the people of Oklahoma City a better quality of life, ” says Anderson, “They want options for sports and entertainment at the highest possible level. At the hockey level I think we have achieved that even in its fledgling year.”

There is no doubt that the city wants a hockey organization to succeed in Oklahoma City as a diverse option, but eventually the contract needs to win positive dollar signs or it becomes less of an option.

“We offered Prodigal a deal that was well below the normal asking price for a permanent tenant. However, the deal also favored the city in concessions to some degree,” mentions Tom Anderson. And this is a large piece to the puzzle because as attendance goes up so does the concession totals. One year is not enough to concern the city, but 2-3 years of low attendance means less money back.

Anderson would go on to discuss the direct relationship that the city has with Prodigal, “We work very closely with Prodigal hockey to see certain goals accomplished. Bob Funk Jr. is a consummate professional, and together we feel that progress is good.”

If the relationship is still in the “good” stage where is the improvement taking place? “We each do our own third-party surveys, and implement secret shoppers, ” states Anderson, “that in the end give us an idea of staff potential, food and beverage options, and how the overall experience is being entertained. The cooperative venture that we have allows us to tweak things properly.”

“Prodigal is doing the absolute right thing with the model that they have instilled in rolling out an AHL hockey team,” mentions Anderson, “Working closely with Edmonton, and building a hockey foundation are keys to the success in years to come.”

But if you’ve lived in Oklahoma City long enough, you realize that this hasn’t always been the case. As the Central Hockey League moved out of town, the American Hockey League brought a higher standard of play on the ice, but off the ice as well. “In the past, certain organizations lacked the respect of season ticket holders and single game ticket purchasers,” says Anderson, “Prodigal has taken a hard stance on giving away vouchers or tickets because they respect those that buy full price admission. There certainly is a learning curve, and the first year was incredibly successful given it was the first go-around with educating Oklahoma City to a certain business model.”

That certainly curse what ails the tentative heart; hearing that there is a bit of integrity in the business model of Prodigal. The city certainly wants to honor them for doing so, and will continue to support their endeavors along the way. “If people can just get a taste of good hockey in this city, they’ll be hooked, ” says Anderson enthusiastically, “Oklahoma City is a very interesting place. Where we are in our development, the NBA will be the only major league franchise we’ll be able to support. This gives organizations, like the AHL, the opportunity to come in and generate unique revenue and advertising.”

In the end it’s about dollars and cents. Prodigal can muster a fantastic model of business, but tickets still need to sell. The city can offer great lease terms, but fans still need to buy a product. Ironically, Tom Anderson is a big part of the solution as he faithfully attends games at the Cox Center. “We are always evolving the Cox Center for entertainment purposes,” says Anderson, “Party decks, upgraded concessions, and an overall updated experience are a top priority in this agreement. These are things I want, and every fan in Oklahoma City expects. I’d tell fans to continue to be patient. Because I have confidence in both the organization as well as my fellow Oklahomans. Just know that we are all in this for the long haul.”

Photo courtesy of Steven Christy Photography