SBJ/July 2-8, 2012/Opinion

How inclusiveness allows OKC to think big in a small market

“Small market” might be a geographic term, but in truth, if you think small, you are small — and if you think big, well …

As an Oklahoma State grad (three times over), I can remember watching the NBA game of the week on Sundays and watching NBA playoff games on tape delay back in the early 1970s. Three weeks ago, I had the opportunity to return to one of my favorite places to see something that 40 years ago I never thought I would see: a professional sports franchise based in Oklahoma hosting an NBA playoff game. What I saw — and, more importantly, what I felt — was anything but small.

The Oklahoma City Thunder’s approach is one that almost all small markets (regardless of the number of teams in that market) seek to integrate throughout everything that they do. Inclusiveness is high: There is something for everyone, at every price point, both inside and outside of the arena. In a state where the dividing line is color — Oklahoma’s crimson and cream versus Oklahoma State’s black and orange — everything here is blue. And when people speak about the team, they use my favorite pronouns: we, us and our. The feeling of ownership and pride in place is rampant and transcends the geographic limits of Oklahoma City because it is Oklahoma’s team and lives in the hearts and minds of all Oklahomans as their team — a pro team that competes with New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

The team conducts a drawing to win or buy tickets in the hours before each home game.
Photo by: COURTESY OF OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
The team’s opening video speaks to inclusiveness and ownership. It shows people from all parts of the state in their Thunder gear and in their hometowns professing their support. But one of the things that makes Oklahoma such a treasure is its people, and one of the things that separates the Thunder from other franchises or other businesses is the respect for those people and operating in a way that speaks not to what they could do, but what they should do.

Case in point: The team holds out 200 tickets every game for people who can’t afford a ticket plan, or who don’t have the time to go to multiple games, or who might have driven to Oklahoma City from McAlester, Tulsa or Pawnee for the chance to go to a game. People come without tickets and sign up on an iPad for the opportunity to win two free tickets or the opportunity to buy two tickets at face value. About an hour before tip, the names of 25 people who have been chosen to receive two free tickets are posted on an electronic board mounted on the outside of Chesapeake Energy Arena. This is followed shortly by selecting 75 names for the opportunity to purchase two tickets each at face value. The impact? People behaving like they won the lottery, and the Thunder collecting more than 15,000 new names for its database.

The premium areas for the Thunder are as nice as any that I have seen — OK, maybe not quite as nice or plush as at MSG or at the newer Amway Center in Orlando — but the attitude isn’t one of premium and luxury. It is “Happy to be there,” “Glad you could come out with me” and, of course, “Let’s go, Thunder.” The customer service is second to none, and the Click program that makes it all go is one of the few vestiges intact from the days of the Seattle SuperSonics. Click (Communicate Courteously, Listen to Learn, Initiate Immediately, Create Connections and Know Your Stuff) means connecting with guests. “Treating guests well is the first step in turning relationships into friendships,” said Pete Winemiller of the Thunder and the originator of the Click concept. That is small-town philosophy and feel but not a small-market idea.

Thunder Alley, the interactive space outside the arena, welcomes folks who have spent a few hours (or plan to after the game) in the city’s downtown Bricktown area. It is a happy diversion for folks waiting for the game or those just wanting to be part of Oklahoma’s only major league franchise. It is reminiscent of a state fair atmosphere and gives Oklahomans (and other guests) a chance to “visit.”

“The Thunder not only unites our community but mirrors the cultural renaissance evident in the energy, confidence and ‘can-do’ spirit of Oklahomans,” said Brian Byrnes, the team’s senior vice president of sales and marketing. “The support of our fans has been unwavering and inspiring. We don’t take this for granted. Our identity is built upon professionalism and attention to detail — whether in creating an engaging game presentation, delivering unparalleled guest service or building programming that unites fans in communities throughout Oklahoma. Every decision is made with long-term sustainability in mind as we continue to build the foundation for our next generation of Thunder fans.”

Nowhere is this long-term sustainability more apparent than ticket prices. Despite the success of the team and the demand for tickets, the Thunder has 3,400 seats priced at $10 and has done so since the team’s launch in 2008. When combined with an additional 2,200 seats at $20, it translates to approximately 5,600 at $20 or less for every game, or about one-third of the seating capacity of the Chesapeake Energy Center.

Small market? Maybe in terms of geography and size, but surely not in thinking and strategy. It appears to me to have all of the makings of a regional juggernaut like the St. Louis Cardinals — as long as access, a solid radio and TV network (that is still emerging and will be enhanced as Oklahoma City will surely receive the maximum number of NBA national games next season), and the attitude and vision of management remains true to Oklahoma’s greatest resource: its people.

Remember, it’s about what they should do and not what they could do. They could have named the team the Oklahoma Thunder, but they didn’t need to. Shucks, everyone knows that is the reality anyhow.

Bill Sutton (wsutton1@usf.edu) is the founding director of the sport and entertainment business management MBA at the University of South Florida, and principal of Bill Sutton & Associates. Follow him on Twitter @Sutton_Impact.


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