With all of the rumors and news regarding the American Hockey League’s expansion towards the West Coast, things in my mind are slowly pointing to this 2014-15 season as the last for the Oklahoma City Barons. There’s a few reasons why, and I’ll go over those, but I’m also hoping to put to rest some misconceptions at the same time.
Keep in mind, a lot of this is just me rambling and explaining some of the thoughts I’ve had about what has been going on lately. Take it for what you feel it’s worth, but I wanted to share some of the thoughts I’ve had and have discussed.
First, the franchise is owned by the Edmonton Oilers and the now-Oilers Entertainment Group. The AHL franchise always has been, but the confusion about Prodigal owning the team probably comes from the fact that Prodigal owns the name and brand, but not the franchise itself. The Oilers paid for many years to keep the franchise dormant within the American Hockey League. Following the 2004-05 lockout, the AHL technically had thirty teams but the 30th team was the dormant Edmonton AHL franchise. This sets up the fact that the Oilers could move the franchise at any time, if they so chose.
Second, the attendance. Let’s face it, the team has never done all that well at the gate. It’s somewhat taboo to talk about, but let’s just call the shovel a shovel. The Barons have broken the 4,000-average mark just once in four seasons, and it was their inaugural season. They’ve barely averaged higher than 2,500 during the playoffs. There’s many things you can chalk it up to, but I’m past the point of laying blame on the Thunder and Oklahoma City being a “basketball town”. There’s just a lack of a solid AHL hockey fanbase in OKC. You can blame the lack of advertising, the former Blazers fans not wanting to support a Bob Funk product, or the inattentiveness of the front office (there’s many season ticket holders that have now become former season ticket holders this season). But it’s time to stop blaming the Thunder. The parking is usually the biggest complaint I hear, but honestly, the parking is not an issue on nights that both the Thunder and the Barons are playing. It’s an inconvenience, but it’s not an issue. There’s plenty of parking at surface lots nearby, some now cheaper than the nearby garages after an increase in their prices this past season.
Next, the lack of an extension by the Oilers with the city. We had heard this past season that an extension on the affiliation deal was sure to be forthcoming, and then it just dropped into nowhere. The last we heard about it was in this article by Mike Baldwin of the Oklahoma on February 13th. The quotes from those involved with the Oilers are very complimentary of the city, and it sounds like they’d really like for the team to stay. However, I think the biggest issue lies with the fact that Prodigal takes all of the losses from the team. All the attendance woes fall on to them. And now, with their USL Pro soccer venture, they seem to be funneling a lot of money towards that. With this upcoming season being the last of their five year deal with Edmonton, Prodigal very well could pull out if they don’t feel they’re making the money they expected to. But for what could be a last hurrah, the Prodigal front office hasn’t done a lot to try and garner any more of a following this offseason, with all of their attention on soccer.
Their social media pages have rarely been updated, save the occasional post about an exit interview that was conducted two months ago, and people probably don’t have much of a interest in at this point. There’s just not a lot for new fans to get interested in and excited about, and for current fans to look forward to. So now with the Oilers buying up the Bakersfield Condors ECHL franchise, it allows for an easy switch to the AHL if they do decide to join the expansion out west along with the California-based NHL teams.
Now, there’s four scenarios that I think could happen, and one very well might if things were to fall into place.
1. If Prodigal pulls out, the Oilers decide to keep the franchise in Oklahoma and put their own front office in place. This very well could happen, as I imagine they would have to do the same thing if they moved out west. It’s just a matter of working out the lease with the city and a few other things.
2. If Prodigal pulls out, the Oilers bring in another management company to replace Prodigal. Not as likely, as I don’t know of any locally that would want to get into the AHL-managing business, but still a possibility.
3. If the Oilers decide to move the franchise, another NHL team decides to bring their franchise to Oklahoma City to replace the Barons. Again, very likely as Oklahoma City has a good reputation, but not sure if it benefits any NHL franchise location-wise more than what they have now.
4. The one I really hope doesn’t happen, OKC is without professional hockey next season.
Obviously, a lot can happen over a year’s time. Situations change, and maybe things happen for the better. Attendance could jump, people may find out they like hockey, and maybe the Oilers become convinced to the keep the team in OKC. But until it happens, I’m concerned about the state of professional hockey in Oklahoma City after this upcoming season.