News came in on Wednesday that Oklahoma City had agreed to a lease for the Cox Center with Prodigal Hockey LLC, a deal that will enable an AHL franchise to move to Oklahoma City. Oiler fans may remember that the Oilers have previously expressed interest in Oklahoma City as a potential market for their own AHL affiliate, currently tied to the Springfield Falcons. In early July, Oilers President Patrick LaForge told Dan Barnes of the Edmonton Journal:
"Yes, we have an interest in Oklahoma City as a market. Of course, we wish them luck and hope to do business with them (all terms to be determined) if and when they are legally clear and ready for entering into a negotiation. I also hope we can get to that point soon because the 2010-11 AHL season is closer than we think."
Oklahoma City has been a strong market for minor-league hockey. Their most recent franchise, the Central Hockey League's Oklahoma City Blazers, drew 8,000 fans per game at the Ford Center. The Blazers ceased operations July, blaming economic conditions as the reason for withdrawing from lease negotiations with the city and closing shop, leaving behind a legacy of the most successful franchise in CHL history. The ownership group began immediate negotiations with the AHL in an attempt to bring a franchise to the city.
To get a closer look at Oklahoma City's impending AHL franchise, their lease deal and the city itself, I spoke with Mayor Mick Cornett. Cornett was a sports reporter and and anchor in Oklahoma City for twenty years prior to entering politics and was the play-by-play man for the Oklahoma Wranglers of the Arena Football League. Mayor Cornett is wildly popular in Oklahoma City, having served since 2004, and in 2006 was re-elected as Mayor by the widest margin in the city's history. He was instrumental in arranging for Oklahoma City to serve as host for the New Orleans Hornets during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and played a large role bringing the NBA's Oklahoma City Thunder to the city.
I'd like to thank Mayor Cornett for taking the time to talk to us about the lease and new franchise.
C&B: With all of the work that you did in bringing basketball to Oklahoma City, including bringing the New Orleans team in to play during Katrina and the aftermath and bringing a franchise to the city permanently, can we assume that this was one of your initiatives as well?
Mayor Cornett: Well, in a sense. I want Oklahoma City to have the best brand of hockey that it can support. I feel like we're a really good hockey market, we've supported hockey in the past and I think our market has matured to the point where we deserve and can support a higher level of play. We almost got an NHL franchise in 1998. We came right on the edge of getting one, but I think Columbus got the franchise. We were in the final running for it but didn't get it. I think that was reflective of the growing market and the fact that we've supported hockey. In 2005, when I was seeking a major league sport, I was in New York meeting with Commissioner Bettman and Commissioner Stern, then Katrina occurred and ultimately things took off in a different direction. I was seeking an NHL franchise or an NBA franchise at that point, but hockey was in a work stoppage at the time.
C&B: When I was looking into Oklahoma City hockey, I was shocked to learn that the Blazers were drawing over 8,000 fans a night including 1,800 corporate ticket holders, which was really amazing to me. Do you expect even more support for an AHL franchise?
Mayor Cornett: It's a really interesting question. I was looking at it myself and trying to be objective about it. If you look at the history of hockey in our market, we hard our first team in 1965. That franchise, we were dealing with the CHL which was essentially "Triple A" hockey at the time for Boston and Minnesota, lasted until the early 1980's. At that time, the market had just slipped to the point where it wasn't worth doing anymore and we didn't have hockey for about ten years. Then new people came in and brought a new league which in the beginning the league owned all of the franchises in then what was the new Central Hockey League and the thing was just gangbusters.
One of the things to remember in Oklahoma City, when you've got hockey, you own the sport. In basketball, we've got high school basketball, college basketball, all sorts of basketball going on. If you're doing this with hockey, it's pretty much yours. I think that helps the business model. The key here will be that if the market matured with this last Central Hockey League team, do they start with a new round of enthusiasm, or do they pick up where they left off? I think it's going to be somewhere in between, but that's just guesswork on my part. The market's changed because of the NBA experience. We're now in our fourth NBA season if you count the Hornets. Because of that there is a higher capacity for sponsorship dollars. The Blazers pushed the market to the limit of what they could get and now with the NBA in town, the market is suddenly used to much higher figures being presented to them. I think there's a nice increase for hockey, it will be well below what the NBA team is getting, but hockey will be getting more than it was just a couple of years ago.
C&B: What will forty plus games in the arena mean to the city?
Mayor Cornett: Well our downtown has a lot of vitality to it, and getting another forty nights builds up the restaurants and the parking garages and hopefully fills up the arena. You can't ignore the economic impact of professional sports and having a hockey team down there that's going to play that many games. It's significant.
C&B: A friend of mine attended a few Blazers games and was surprised at how busy downtown Oklahoma City was. A bustling downtown area is not something that comes to mind when you think of Oklahoma City.
Mayor Cornett: We're fairly new to being a great city to visit. We've always been a good place to live and a great place to raise a family. But it wasn't until this decade that we've become a good place to visit and our tourism numbers have increased exponentially. It's to the point now that events succeed because they're downtown. People are looking for reasons to come to downtown Oklahoma City from all over the region and if you give them an event, in this case hockey, people will come because they're looking for reasons to come down there. We have a great entertainment district that's just adjacent to the arena, so people travel regionally to come see what we have to offer. I think that there will be great interest at this higher level of hockey for people to see what they have in store.
C&B: The Cox Center has an impressive capacity for an AHL team, 13,399, which is a big a venue for an AHL team. You're also doing $4.5 million in renovations to the arena - are there other hockey events in the future, regional tournaments, things like that in the future of the arena?
Mayor Cornett: I would pursue whatever the market can reach. That will be up to the ownership group as to what they want to pursue.
C&B: When do you plan on the renovations being completed?
Mayor Cornett: That's a good question as I haven't seen the timetable. Interestingly, we're also improving the basketball arena at the same time - we're putting $100 million into that facility. There's a lot going on in our sports arenas, but I don't have a timetable for this. Part of the capital improvements here are going towards the ice-making equipment to make sure that it meets the standards that the NHL is going to demand for it's affiliated teams.
C&B: Teams in the south are often chided for having bad or choppy surfaces, so it's interesting that the city is putting the forethought into the playing surface standards.
Mayor Cornett: We want the NHL to feel good about their player's safety and the caliber of play and we want Oklahoma City to be a good experience for them. We feel our reputation is on the line when there is a game being played. It's our arena and it reflects on us so we don't want other teams in the league speaking poorly of our arena or our ice.
C&B: The trend lately has been that publicly-financed stadium and arena construction is a much harder sell to the taxpayers. Did you have trouble selling the renovations to the Cox Center and the Ford Center?
Mayor Cornett: We're a little different. We have had great success getting our citizens to invest in projects like this. Last week we passing a nearly-billion dollar initiative to build a new convention center, a new transit system downtown, new parks downtown and some other things. It largely wasn't sports-related, but to go, in this economy, to your voters and ask them to tax themselves for public improvements is pretty bold to try and to be successful, which we were, I think speaks well to our economy and to the faith that they have in this project. I suspect that what you'll see a slight ticket surcharge to pay for the capital expense. Also, it should be noted that since we're going to be building a new convention center, the facility that we're discussing, the Cox Center, will probably have a new convention center in ten years. Ten years is a long time, but we'll be opening up a new convention center and it won't have a sports arena in it. So beyond ten years I don't know where we'll be playing hockey. I don't know if we'll move back over to the Ford Center or what we'll do with the AHL franchise. We could stay where we are. We have no plans to tear down the existing center, but we have plans for the new convention center, and we've put off a next-use or continued-use for that building because we don't have to make that decision today.
C&B: To switch topics up a bit, you're back in business with the Funk family. The lease agreement was signed with Prodigal Hockey, which is run by Bob Funk Jr. - did the previous group and the Funk family have an active role in the community and do you expect that to continue?
Mayor Cornett: Yes. Bob Funk Jr., who we're talking about now, his father held a little bit of a more active role previously, but I think this will be his franchise to run, as I see it. They're a very prominent family in the community, they've created a lot of jobs, they also own the baseball team and they've been very supportive of wanting Oklahoma City to have the best. One of the reasons they wanted to own the hockey team and the baseball team is that they didn't want outside owners coming in and moving the franchise. I think that they did it for the right reasons. When you're a mayor, what you look for is local ownership who cares more about the city than they do their own bottom line. And although everybody wants to make a profit or at least break even in professional sports, it's nice to know that they're not looking at this as a make or break investment.
C&B: I did notice that the lease has an opt-out after five years for the leaseholder. Is that a business decision based on some of the changes that you mentioned previously, or is there a different long-term plan for Prodigal Hockey and the arena?
Mayor Cornett: I can't speak to it because I wasn't part of the negotiations. I can tell you that we want them to be successful and we will do everything feasible to see that they are successful. Any length of time there is just numbers - we'd like to think that this team is going to be around for twenty years.
C&B: Are you aware of any teams that are currently interested in affiliating with Prodigal Hockey and Oklahoma City?
Mayor Cornett: I don't have any first-hand knowledge of it. Even if I did, I'd let the team make the announcements, I wouldn't want to rain on their parade. I've read the stories about Edmonton's interest in that type of thing, but I don't have any first-hand knowledge of which teams, if any, they are talking to at this point.
C&B: Are there direct flights from Oklahoma City to Edmonton?
Mayor Cornett: There are no direct flights to Edmonton.
C&B: Are you a hockey fan?
Mayor Cornett: I am. I was a television sportscaster for nearly twenty years and I covered a lot of games involving the Blazers through that time period.
C&B: Do you plan on being a ticket holder or attending games with the new AHL team?
Mayor Cornett: I'll be there.