When Doug Sauter looks into the Ford Center stands on game nights lately, he sees a lot of familiar faces. After all, his Oklahoma City Blazers led the Central Hockey League in both average and overall attendance.
That's nothing unusual for the Blazers, who have built a faithful following since their 1992 reincarnation, thanks mainly to the fact they consistently skate a competitive team onto the ice basically every season.
During Sauter's first 13 years at the helm, his teams have advanced to the playoffs 10 times, won seven division titles and captured two CHL championships. Few professional sports franchises at any level of any sport can match the success the Blazers have produced during that span.
So far, the 2008-09 season has been no different, at least from a success standpoint. Oklahoma City got off to its best start in franchise history " winning nine of its first 12 games. Heading into a pair of road games at Tulsa and Wichita this weekend, the Blazers sit atop the CHL's Northeast Division standings.
The difference between this season and seasons past is the actual number of seats that remain empty for home games. While Sauter and the team are still surrounded by a good number of Blazer boosters, attendance is down almost 2,500 fans per game, compared to last season when the club averaged 8,713 per contest.
"It's tough out there," Sauter said. "We're part of the entertainment world, and unfortunately there are only so many entertainment dollars to go 'round, especially when you're looking at all of the options, including the quality college sports being played right down the road.
"There's no doubt having the NBA team coming to town has hurt our business. But that was to be expected, to some degree."
Even with the Thunder struggling to an 8-34 start in its first season, fan enthusiasm has been through the roof for OKC's first major-league sports franchise. Average attendance for the NBA squad, formerly based in Seattle, has been around 18,300 " about 800 shy of Ford Center capacity.
Between the 2003-04 and 2007-08 seasons, the Blazers averaged just under 8,650 fans per home game. Even the unexpected arrival of the New Orleans Hornets to OKC in 2005 and their ensuing two-year stay did little to local dissuade hockey fans.
But once the news became official that the Thunder was crashing the party on a permanent basis, annual ticket sales and single-game sales fell.
What twists Sauter's trademark mustache the wrong way isn't declining ticket sales " it's the fact he feels the Blazers have all but fallen off the radar with the local media.
"We've kind of become the forgotten team. The coverage we used to get has really dropped off," he said. "I don't want to take anything away from the NBA team, but we've got a great franchise and we've got really loyal fans who are always there for us. But we've somehow gotten lost in the shuffle.
"Hopefully, we can get through this period and continue to move forward and get a new lease and keep things going well into the future. It's been a great run here in Oklahoma City and I'd like to see it continue." "Jay C. Upchurch