How inclusiveness allows OKC to think big in a small market
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.
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.
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 (email@example.com) 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.