As we watch our beloved Oklahoma City Barons embark on a playoff push for the fourth consecutive season of AHL hockey, we look around at the state of sports in this state, and take a collective breath.
For years hockey in Oklahoma was a niche sport that remained at the forefront of pro sports in its capital city. The infusion of NBA basketball has revolutionized the sporting endeavors throughout the city, and in neighboring towns. The sullied state of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State basketball seems to be subsiding, but even they feel the weight of competition with similar seasoned sports. Football, hockey, basketball, soccer -regardless of the sport, the landscape is crowded in a city that barely tops 600,000 strong (OKC proper, that is).
So what’s the next big step for Oklahoma City Barons hockey? Better players? More wins? Continued coaching excellence? More backsides in the seats? How about making a name.
In a desperate attempt to bring more eyeballs to the game of hockey taking place in the Cox Center, Barons owner Bob Funk Jr. spent money, a great deal of it, to give away a car each and every Saturday. Did it work? “I’ve never heard of a pro sports franchise, major league or minor league, that’s ever attempted anything near this big,” said Funk to Daily Oklahoman writer, Mike Baldwin. “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.”
So there’s two things at work here – tickets and branding. If indeed the brand increased its presence because of the car giveaway that likely means that the ticket sales go up, right. Not necessarily. The two are not mutually exclusive, but to the point, has four years of promotion – regardless of what shape that takes – been enough for the Barons to make a name for itself in the seemingly claustrophobic sports borders of Oklahoma?
I’ve written about my struggles with ticket prices, and indeed the Barons ownership sees this as a possible solution, but why am I less than hopeful?
I think that the current ownership of the Barons believes the team is incapable of drawing the 8,000 they saw nightly in the days of Central Hockey League play. Recent rumblings of personnel turnover, and salary dumping might suggest that the Barons could have new owners in the near future. Prodigal, owners of the Barons locally, have made quite an investment in USLPro soccer, and it seems that is beginning with a bang (first home game has yet to be played).
IF Barons ownership would bow out, what are the management options. Two realistic ones exist, I believe.
The Oilers step in, manage the thing the way they want, eventually move the squad to a more feasible “West Coast League” as has been suggested for nearly two seasons by various mainstream media folk. The Oilers seemingly love the relationship with Oklahoma, but they could learn to love Cali-affiliation. We all could. Keep in mind that the Oilers own the affiliate, just not the team called “Barons”. So this option might be a mute point.
The second options might be more practical in the short term. SMG, mangers of the Barons home at the Cox Center, might be willing to grab a piece of that action. Or perhaps another suitor is waiting in the wings. You’ll recall that in 2010, portions of the same management group that now owns the Barons sold the minor league baseball team in OKC “for an offer that couldn’t be refused”. It could happen again.
My intention is not to run Prodigal through the mud here. Truthfully, the cash flow needs to be more directed towards profitable endeavors. That just makes sense. Soccer is a much more universally recognized sport, and with an early spring through summer season. Perfect.
This could, however, really hurt the name the Barons are building in the community. Both in how they currently stack up in the sports queue, and where their feature might be ten years from now. I’m not suggesting I like where this is headed, but the uncertainty of it all gives me pause.