Go with me on a journey, if you will. Read the pages of my fictitious diary; of my time spent over the last five seasons writing and rambling about an AHL team nestled in the southwest. In a city where college football remains King, NBA basketball its Queen, and all other sports a court jester.
Five years ago, Derek Zona, my friend and editor at Copper and Blue, reached out to me in a tweet of late night desperation. His cry was simple, “What will it take to get a Barons writer in Oklahoma City?” I heard his plea, entertained his pitch, and gladly joined the team. The wonderful writing staff, and backing partner SBNation, gave me a platform from which I could share my thoughts on Okie hockey. The time was divine. I moved from a timid warbler to a confident wordsmith.
I never set out to write full-time about hockey, and still don’t. My life calling as a pastor remains my constant heartbeat. But I love hockey, I love my city, and I love the ability to share my thoughts.
As life changed suddenly on the pastoral side of things, so did my hockey writing. I left the place that birthed my original hockey writes, and eventually began Tend The Farm where I’d add two members to the team. As the primary site covering the Oklahoma City Barons I was on a mission to provide content to fans that they would both enjoy, and be challenged by. I think we accomplished that. Along the way I began to dip my toe in the traditional partnership, like a newspaper man might have, with the Barons ownership and managerial team simply because more folk needed to hear, see, and understand players and staff alike. As I dipped that toe in, I realized quickly that blogging brings baggage, and that the Barons had a management team that was an oddly insecure bunch.
The naming rights and ownership responsibilities for the Barons rest solely on the shoulders of Prodigal LLC with Bob Funk Jr. as its head. Good people work in the walls of that entertainment business, and we as fans had every right to believe they could make hockey a wholly embraced sport in this city. Moreover, the Barons could become a household name.
For me it was between years two and three when I stopped believing.
A simple request for an interview turned in to an appointment in the principals office. In my attempt to simply gain insightful quotes from Mr. Funk, I was in turn lectured in a room full of ticket officers, marketing employees, and public relations members about the “due diligence” of sports reporting in the offices of Prodigal LLC. After pointing to several posts at Copper and Blue regarding attendance (that I didn’t write, but fully supported), they quickly turned the conversation towards what needed to be written to help further propagate the Barons in the city. I informed them that I wasn’t stabbing the team in any way, but rather making calculated remarks about what I saw as a fan. Of course I kindly asked for more access to tell these stories, and the request was ignored.
Indeed I was given a fantastic interview session with Funk, and I appreciate his spirited and direct responses. The problem wasn’t the interview or even how it went down, but rather in the casual lack of respect. Remember, no one writes about this team more than the site Tend The Farm (local newspaper included), and they would pour buckets of heavy-handedness down upon me as if it were commonplace.
My feelings, post-interview, about the team, and hockey writing in general, quickly turned sour. What an awful experience. However, I came to realize that I wasn’t alone. Fans, although few, felt challenged by the Prodigal brand. They felt set-aside. They felt unwanted, chastised even. Disenfranchised when they should be the largest ally. Banned from Facebook, talked down to in the comments section, and completely belittled, so many fans of the Barons tasted that sour bite deep in their spirit. Regardless of your business model, you can’t lose sight of what really matters – people.
It was going to be an uphill battle trying to punch 8,000 tickets per game for the OKC Barons, but Prodigal ceased the opportunity. The turnstiles spoke volumes when the team remained bottom dwellers in overall attendance for nearly five straight seasons. I think it was a tablespoon of the NBA and college football having seasons running nearly parallel to that of hockey. I think it was a pinch of the unfamiliar brand of the Barons. And maybe a dash of high ticket prices. Yet in the end I fully believe that by not encouraging, listening, and fully embracing a fan base (regardless of size) that killed Barons hockey.
Failed business model? Maybe. Lack of city support? Okay. Lack of confidence from Edmonton? Perhaps. Tickets not selling? Of course. But all of those things could have been resurrected by taking a serious look, bending down low, and listening to the core. The group that buys and invests with little coddling should be your biggest cheerleaders. Yet by cutting the ties often and with ferocity it pushed them too far the other direction. That’s hurtful.
I’m not sure where OKC hockey goes from here, but I almost assume we see pro sticks and pucks here sooner rather than later. My hope is that whomever attempts to bring a team to this city (maybe Prodigal again) will learn from the mistakes, and improve upon the successes. I hope they are respectful of those whom endear themselves naturally to a sport they cherish. I hope kindness is extended to every media member, every fan, every season seat holder, and every curious onlooker. I hope this happens, and I hope it happens soon.
If anyone behind the doors at Prodigal reads this, hear me when I say this. I’m not intending to sucker punch you here. I’m fully supportive of what you do as an individual. I realize hockey isn’t your only project and soccer, bull riding, and entertainment production are constantly on your list of things to accomplish. I do, however, sincerely regret that somehow the faithful fans of the Barons were worried about the state of their team, and you chastised them for being loyal. If you hear one thing in this whole post hear this – always remember people matter. No one is too small, too inexperienced, or too abrasive to be heard. They want to feel a part of something big, something they love. Give them that chance by merely listening.
Tend The Farm has always been a site written by fans, but even more so about the fans. Even when we disagree on subjects large and small, the success of the site revolves around interacting with one another. That approach has summoned friendships, created new relationships, and built partnerships far beyond my original intention. What a truly remarkable thing. I can’t imagine it being any other way.
So I end with another reminder.
If you’re a fan, continue to be heard. Be respectful, use your voice, don’t always believe what you think. Find ways of supporting through careful criticism. Remember that real people are attached to the emails we send, the tweets we unfurl, and the fictitious stones we hurl.
If you’re a business owner, listen. That’s all. Just listen. Do less talking and finger-pointing and more quiet listening and hand-shaking. Love those who love unconditionally. It will help, I promise.