OKC's minor leagues welcome professional sports competition

Seemingly overnight, Oklahoma City became a major-league city when it landed an NBA franchise.

In about that same amount of time, everyone seemed to want to buy season tickets " so much so that there's still a waiting list.


Now with an 800-pound big-league sports gorilla in their own backyards, front office folks for Oklahoma City's minor-league franchises say there's still plenty of entertainment dollars to go around.

"We analyzed our numbers and looked at how we were providing our product to our fans at that time and continued to see growth," said Scott Pruitt, co-owner and managing partner of the Oklahoma RedHawks minor-league baseball team. "I think anytime sports entertainment is a focus in the marketplace, it's good for us. We believe that our product is very competitive."

Prior to the NBA, the RedHawks and Blazers hockey were the talk of this minor-league sports town.

College football has been " and probably always will be " king in the Sooner State, but sports fans still had to find something to do in the offseason.

After spring football, there was still a good four months left to settle in to the Triple-A baseball schedule.

And with a 62-plus game slate, the Blazers didn't even hit midseason until after the college bowl games in January.

Oklahoma City's arena football team " the Yard Dawgz " could take football fans the rest of the way, playing in the playoffs until August.

Each minor-league franchise had its own respective niche and seemed to be doing fine.

But what now after a major-league franchise set down in Oklahoma City and started Hoovering up ticket sales, fan interest and the almighty corporate sponsorship budget?

"From our perspective, we've always tried to learn from our major-league counterparts as well as others at our level," said Pruitt, who often spends summer evenings at major-league ballparks. "I don't know if it's as much as what others are doing in the marketplace as much as it's us seeking to improve and provide the best entertainment in baseball in Oklahoma City."

It was a perfect storm of events " one which actually began with a storm (Hurricane Katrina) " that brought a big-league franchise to Oklahoma City.

To help, the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce threw its full weight behind a campaign that helped pass a penny sales tax designed to pull in $122 million so the Ford Center could be re-molded into another NBA haven.

Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett has consistently been a supporter of Oklahoma City becoming a major-league sports city " campaigning initially for an NHL franchise before stumbling on the rare opportunity of earning the NBA equivalent.

"Overwhelming, I think you need to look no further than the number of season ticket holders that responded and the waiting list that has been accumulating," Cornett said in November over the prospects of Oklahoma City's new pro team. "This market reacted in a special way. The idea there are just four NBA teams with a waiting list for tickets and we're one of them is extraordinary. I don't think anybody saw that coming."

While amateur sports in the city can call on the All Sports Association for aid, Oklahoma City's minor-league franchises are on their own when it comes to running their businesses.

Cornett puts the onus on the individual franchises themselves to keep their respective ships afloat.

"When you start getting into minor-league sports, a lot of that has to do with the enthusiasm and interest level of the operators of those franchises," he said. "It's just more complicated than saying every ticket sold is competing against every other ticket sold.

"Fifteen years ago, the Blazers were succeeding and the Cavalry was not. That's not to say there wasn't capacity for basketball; it was just for whatever reason, what was being offered just wasn't working. There are certainly enough people and enough money in the metro to be able to support more than what we've been able to offer so far."

So far, there has been plenty of success. RedHawks fans enjoy a trip to The Brick.

In 2003, attendance for RedHawk games was at 380,000. After Pruitt's group bought the team, the following season attendance surged to 475,000.

Prior to that, there had been a downward trend from the time the ballpark opened in 1998.

"We worked hard to reverse that trend and have seen that happen and continue to see an upswing in attendance," said Pruitt, who welcomed nearly 500,000 through the gates this past season. "Folks were able to come watch them play for $10, $11 or $12 a ticket. When you look at the value of our tickets, the big-league talent we put on the field game in and game out and the fact we have a big-league stadium "¦ when you look at product it's big-league in nature and our prices are not."

After a fire sale of veteran players in the offseason, the Blazers entered December with a 14-2 record and a lot of new faces. Talk also surfaced about an NHL franchise looking to expand its minor-league presence in town.

With shoulder pads and helmets, rock music blaring and gyrating 20something cheerleaders, the Oklahoma City Yard Dawgz have always tried in earnest to be as close to the major-league equivalent of football in this town as possible.

To further that effort, the Yard Dawgz announced former Austin Wranglers Af2 General Manager Dan Kilgras as team president in October. He's still trying to find his way around the city, but said he has a pretty good feel of what makes sports fans tick in this town.

"It's a football market," Kilgras said. "I think Oklahoma City is a real loyal market and for those groups that are a part of it, especially for those locally owned, the Oklahoma City market really supports that."

He was hired for a complete overhaul: to redefine the squad, brand it and sell it all over again.

And it was a pretty successful product before he even crossed the Red River.The Yard Dawgz have finished third in league attendance the previous two seasons.

Just as the inaugural Thunder season will mercifully finish its final 45 days, the Yard Dawgz will kick off the 2009 season in March.

Even going head-to-head against the NBA for a month doesn't have Kilgras fazed.

"I love the NBA. I think it's a great thing," he said. "One thing I'm learning about this city is there have been a lot of changes over the last five years and people have been real receptive to change. I think this is one of those steps in that right direction to continue to build the infrastructure. I'm such a big believer that we're all in this together; we're all brothers and sisters. I think it brings a real limelight to the city of Oklahoma City and I think it helps all our franchises.

"We're all in the business of getting people interested in sports and coming to games. If the Thunder does that and gets more people coming and enjoying the event day, then maybe they'll start to spend more time visiting some of the other options."

Like the RedHawks, the Yard Dawgz are family-affordable entertainment. Tickets go for around $12 and Kilgras said his franchise welcomes those sponsors who maybe can't scrape together enough money to rub shoulders with the Chesapeakes, Devons and SandRidges of the world.

"We think we have something for everybody. We look at it as a partnership and not competition," he said.

But having a major-league sports franchise in town goes a long way in boosting the city's image. Cornett says we're nowhere close to the point of sports saturation.

"I would argue, though, that it's still undertapped," Cornett said. "Every city our size or larger has Division I basketball in its downtown area or in the city. We underserve the market. There's plenty more capacity."

First the NBA comes to town. Now the NHL?

Well, maybe, and sort of.

Media reports surfaced in November that officials with the National Hockey League's Edmonton Oilers were in town for a weekend visit to the Ford Center and the Blazers Ice Centre.

The Springfield Falcons are the Triple A American Hockey League affiliate of the Oilers.

The Oilers' current top farm club resides in Springfield, Mass., and folks there are nervous, especially when its paper mentioned the Oilers apparently are shopping around for a new minor-league home.

Tulsa and Las Vegas have also been thrown out as possible relocation sites. The city's current lease with the club expires after the 2009-10 season.

The Oklahoma City Blazers would be the envy of a pro team, already outdrawing every Central Hockey League club.

By the numbers, Oklahoma City's population is four times larger than Springfield. Who knows whether the presence of an NBA franchise in Oklahoma City will sway the NHL folks. "Dean Anderson

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