Thoughts From The Barons Owner

Photo courtesy of Steven Christy Photography.

Thursdays were made for simple things. Professionallly speaking, it’s the work day where loose ends begin to be tied up, weekend plans are discussed and thoughts from a busy week unwind in our minds. It’s the over-the-hump-Friday-is-coming day of the week that causes some to check out mentally. Unless you work for Prodigal, the management group responsible for luring, steering, and promoting an Oilers AHL farm team in Oklahoma City.

On this particular Thursday, the office is bustling. Quick footed office staff juggle answering phones, making copies, and tending to an ailing co-worker. Never missing a beat, the pace of the office overflows to the operations staff. In the rows of clear, glass plated meeting rooms, and offices contain some very hard working individuals who are responsbile for many things, but including the hockey team that we all have grown to love in under two years of existence. The movement in this office looks more akin to late November than it does late July, but that’s the way minor league hockey gets done in small markets — a constant flow of busyness.

I found myself privy to a snapshot of life in the Prodigal offices for a brief time en route to a discussion with President of Prodigal Hockey LLC, Bob Funk Jr. Bob is no stranger to Oklahoma City sports or hockey in the city. His father, Bob Funk Sr., was responsible for the long running Oklahoma City Blazers franchise, and it’s rebirth in Oklahoma. The Oklahoma City Blazers of the Central Hockey League were owned and managed by Express Sports, where Funk Jr. would help earn his hockey stripes. Fast forward to 2012, and Bob is a busier man than he lets on. His Prodigal umbrella manages hockey, bull riding events, and other on-the-horizon local endeavors. A busy sked is nothing new for Funk who’s resume now includes the X Games, And1 Mixtape Tours, and tennis tournaments to name a few.

And yet Funk Jr. is an Oklahoma guy. Living in the shadow of his father for years, he’s learned many things. He’s a shrewd businessman with intentions of making the quality of overall life in Oklahoma City something special. Part of that means fielding questions about the past, the present, and the unknown future. Anything but shy, and more than a shadowy figure — Bob Funk Jr. is excited to share about Redhawks relations, Blazers gaffs, soiled ticket sales, and what hockey looks like in Oklahoma City ten years from now.

Here is what he had to say.

In 2009, you had this to say to the Daily Oklahoman about life as a member of the Funk family, “I know I’m called the spoiled rich kid and that sometimes I have to work three times as hard to earn people’s respect. I just put my head down and do the work and let the rest take care of itself.” You’ve been vocal about stepping out of your father’s shadow. Do you think you’ve done that?

“Yes. I’ve taken alot of initiative on that level. As a family, we are always going to be involved in things together. My dad and I are involved in so many other businesses that we work together daily. I’ve tried to make it more of my mantle by taking on a greater responsibility for hockey in Oklahoma City. Not only what was already done in the past, but what needs to be done in the future. I’ll do whatever it takes to promote hockey in Oklahoma. I’m a little bit of a different animal in that I don’t have a hockey background, I’m not a dyed in the wool, know every stat type of person. I love the game, I love the atmosphere of the players, and the team atmosphere it creates. I also enjoy the work ethic that goes into it because the sport demands it.”

In that same interview you said that you were taking “a shot in the dark” in regards to bringing an AHL team to Oklahoma City. Was there something holding the city back from attaining a higher league team?

“The overall goal after we shut the Blazers down was to bring a new level of hockey to Oklahoma City. That was always the goal in mind. How that was going to transpire and who our partner was going to be were very much large questions that were up in the air. Also, the fact that we had to renegotiate a whole new deal with the city of Oklahoma City. To sit down and say, ‘Where does this fit in?,’ because the economics of playing in the Ford Center (now the Chesapeake Energy Arena) were no longer possible, what were our options? The Cox Cnter has a tremendous amount of history in it, but some people look at it as a second tier choice. I think I look at it as the first choice for hockey. It’s a great hockey venue. In some regards it’s better than the Chesapeake – sight lines, crowd potential – and if you put a decent amount of people in that building, you can’t hear yourself think. It’s a great environment.”

The choice to shut down the Blazers of the Central League after a lengthy history was a financial one. So when you began the process of bringing an AHL team to this city, what things did you purpose to do differently? Likely ticketing?

“We are the low comp team. We just don’t give away tickets. It’s a hard and fast rule. We do it on occassion for family member sof the team, but as a rule it doesn’t happen. And that’s a direct result of the legacy that was left behind. When you are averaging 2,500 comps a game, that’s way too many. So from that perspective that was the #1 thing, we aren’t going to devalue our product. I was bringing a level of hockey, and a product to this city both on and off the ice, that was going to be far more valuable than the ticket price I charged. We are currently just above league average in ticket prices. And I think we bring a great level of family entertainment to what we do. So the idea was to give value to our ticket well beyond the actual dollar amount. We wanted to exceed previous expectations.”

“We are also going to be involved in the community more than ever. And we’ve gone well above the involvement that the Blazers had within this city. (Josh Evans, the teams PR head, interjects, “Todd Nelson says that this is the busiest he’s ever seen a team, outside of playing hockey”). I’m the guy they have CBA’s for because I would be the guy that would take advantage of the team for appearances or whatever I can do to get them out there.”

Did the Edmonton Oilers have an expectation that ticket sales and attendance would be greater than it currently is, simply because it “appeared” to be larger in the past? Did you sell it as such?

“I won’t comment on what they think or what they’d say. I can’t comment on what their expectation level can or should be. I can tell you that I was very open with them about what the current scenario was and what things looked like when we shut the Blazers down. I was up front with the Oilers about doing something new and different in this city. I’ll tell you the reason that I wanted to partner with them, was simply because they wanted to do something similar to what we wanted to do from a hockey operations stand point. They needed to start fresh. In my mind, I recognized where they were going, realized the synergy that was between our two markets, and was excited to be a part of that. We are similar in our demographic, very similar in our values from Edmonton to here. Those were my motivations. If we were going to be partners, my instinct was to be open and honest. Inform them about the Blazers recent history, but allow them to understand where we could be.”

At year three, do the Oilers have any question as why more people aren’t attending games in OKC?

“None that they’ve shared with me. We’ve not had any conversations on that level. We enjoy our partnership together. They like the development market. I can’t really say any more.”

Do you have any type of relationship with Brad Lund (former Blazers GM; now with new CHL team, the Denver Cutthroats) or any other employees from the now defunct Oklahoma City Blazers franchise?

“The operational staff of the Blazers were given the opportunity to resign as the last season of CHL hockey was on the horizon. They chose that. I don’t realy have any relationship with former Blazers staff. You probably have seen the Journal Record article (* see below). The only real interaction I had with the Lund family was through our attorneys throughout the lawsuit that surfaced.”

How does the city think things are going?

“You’d have to ask them. But they are pretty ecstatic about the product that we put on the ice. The level of hockey that is being played here now is a compliment to everything going on in the city.”

Are they still happy with the shared agreement between themselves and Prodigal?

“Haven’t had any conversations to the contrary on that matter. The thing is that we sit down and talk about selling tickets, and everyone is in agreement that we need to do everything we need to for tickets to be sold — within reason.”

What does the landscape of pro sports look like in OKC in ten years?

“Love it. Honestly, I can’t wait for ten years. The Thunder are awesome for Oklahoma City, you’ve got us, youve got the Redhawks, you’ve got the non-traditional, but high impact riverfront that likely becomes even more successful — things are good. The advent of newer sports to the city, soccer being one. We’ve got the Softball Hall of Fame. Part of what I did with X Games, I’m sitting there watching the College World Series, and it’s being broadcast from Oklahoma City, and suddenly it’s a lead-in event. NCAA Regionals becoming stronger, and perhaps the hosting of a Final Four — all these things are possible.”

What do the Oklahoma City Barons and Prodigal look like in 10 years?

“Very diverse. We do so many things here at Prodigal. We co-promote bull riding events both here and in Tulsa. We also have a relationship with the PRCA and the State Fair Arena. We currently represent 6 guys in the top 10 in the world of professional bull riders. We have also started to represent professional baseball players. Our goal is to develop talent. Prodigal and the OKC Barons brand will not be the only things connected. Over time we hope to operate multiple brands. And those opportunities are coming, including one that I can’t talk about right now, but hopefully happens in the near future. And this endeavor will be a big compliment to what we are currently doing here.”

Financially speaking, are the Barons in good shape?

“Yes, absolutely. The way we designed this, everything was going to be done right. Are we where we want to be? No. Are we headed in the right direction? Yes. In my mind, what we had with the Blazers could never be salvaged. It was never going to be what it could have been.”

Were there any potential buyers for the Oklahoma City Blazers?

“It was a hard thing to consider given that the team was in the midst of a lawsuit. Those that did contact us about the Blazers only had the intentions to keep the team in this city. And in my mind, that wasn’t a good decision for Oklahoma City.”

Prodigal was also overseeing the direction of the Oklahoma City Redhawks. Was the team sold to Mandalay Entertainment to allow Prodigal to minimize their endeavors? Thus promoting hockey more?

“We simply got an offer we couldn’t refuse. I’d rather have kept it. I think it made sense to have a cross platform advertising and sponsorship buy that was year-round. Being able to leverage our operations with the people we had. To do more with that facility as well. Alot of the things that Mandalay has done in terms of changing their philosophy on how they do things were things that I wanted to do over time. They came to the table and said, ‘We really want the team, and here’s what we want to do.’ It just made a lot of financial sense at that time. They’ve done a great job, quicker than we could have done. Mainly because they have proven methods for baseball promotions. I think Oklahoma City is generally slow to change, so they’ve done a lot of changes in a very short time. With that said, all the changes they’ve made will be better for Oklahoma City and the health of the franchise down the road.”

*Portions of this interview reference an article in the Journal Record. Click the link to get a full perspective on the matter.