An empty Cox Center doesn't equate when the team is so strong. What's happening in Oklahoma City?
As you arrive in downtown Oklahoma City on a brisk December evening, you'll notice a pale colored building that sits in the shadows of the ominous Oklahoma City Arena (formerly the Ford Center). This pale building, known as the Myriad Convention Center for years, but most recently the Cox Convention Center has stood as a landmark to Oklahoma City's urban renewal beginnings. Along with the adjacent Myriad Gardens, the Convention Center was built with premier hosting and entertaining in mind. Built in 1972 and renovated in 1993 and again in 2010, the Convention Center has seen some memorable faces. Sonny and Cher, Elvis, Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, AC/DC, The Rolling Stones, Prince, Janet Jackson, and wave upon wave of other headliners. Sports gatherings are no stranger to the Convention Center as well. The NBA and NHL have each hosted exhibition games in the Convention Center along with track meets, NCAA basketball tournaments, wresting matches, and a slew of other sporting events.
The longest tenured professional sports team in Oklahoma City history, the Oklahoma City Blazers, resided in the Convention Center for a combined 15 years while in the Central Hockey League. The longest consecutive run in terms of years for the hockey team was from 1992-2002, which ended when they moved to the Ford Center across the street for the duration of the teams existence. From '92 through '09 the team led the league in attendance by a wide margin as they nearly doubled the second and third place attendance totals each year. Quite an incredible feat for a non-traditional hockey market, and for a Central League team. Five times during that span they averaged well over 10,000 average attendees (highest was 10,438 in '93/'94), and never once dipped lower than 6,500 (that was in the team's final year).
Now that the history lesson is over, flash forward to 2010 and the Oklahoma City Barons who now call the Cox Convention Center their home. The Barons total home attendance through 18 games is 71,561 which places the average at 4,048. 12 teams have a worse average attendance (Springfield is no surprise, but Toronto might be). The Hershey Bears and Manitoba Moose are the heaviest hitters in the AHL market as both are well above 8,000 on average.
The attendance at Barons games is equally confusing as it is intriguing. Let me put this in perspective for you. The night Linus Omark scored 5 goals in one game (plus a shootout goal)? 2,781 in attendance. No one in Oklahoma City knew it happened, yet his name was trending on twitter in Edmonton that evening. So what's the problem? Is there a solution by which this attendance can be fixed? How does an OKC team in the Central League double up the attendance of a team in OKC in the American League? I have a few ideas, and an abstract solution.
It was certainly no surprise that very few Oklahoma City Blazers made it past the Central League. It was accepted as such by players and fans alike. Yet the players loved the game, and played passionately. It was fun to watch, but clearly several steps below the level of hockey we see in the Barons of the AHL. The game in Oklahoma City has become more akin to what we see in the NHL in almost every facet of the game. While the AHL brings a "better game", it also brings less year-to-year commonality of players. By this I mean the faces you see today might be gone tomorrow. It comes as no surprise that another professional team in the city, the Oklahoma City Redhawks, who play baseball in the Pacific Coast League (and farmed for the Texas Rangers) have a similar battle. Seeing a rotation of players throughout the years seemed to hurt attendance in monumental ways, and may have been one of the deciding factors in the Rangers decision to nullify their affiliation with OKC after 27 years. (they are now farming for the Houston Astros). Die-hard hockey fans embrace development because of the draw to see a Baron play in the NHL, but even the casual fan will lose the connection between development and success.
I've said it so many times that even I get sick of hearing it; the Barons are a new team, in a town with a niche hockey market. The Oklahoma City hockey public relations isn't about selling a team, but more so about selling the game. Trying to overcome those hurdles is a tough task. The newness of a team that virtually no one knew about until October, has become evident in ticket sales. That fact alone, coupled with so many unfamiliar faces on a hockey bench that had noticeable, local celebrities for years is going to take time to appear familiar. No one could have projected this, but they certainly could have anticipated it. As the newness wears off, the unease of unfamiliar faces and product will dwindle, but out of the gate familiarity is hard to surpass.
The lack of news outlets covering the Oklahoma City team is uncanny. The lone Barons beat writer, Ryan Aber, does a yeoman's job of covering the team over at News OK and the Daily Oklahoma. The baby Oilogosphere is quickly on top of breaking news. Forums are ripe with conversation. Outside of those few outlets there isn't much to celebrate. The local televised news affiliates briefly mention the team from time to time, but have yet to grab hold of a young team that demands attention. The NBA Thunder, OU/OSU football, and high school sports get the most coverage, leaving the Barons as a mere afterthought. Is this a case of sportscasters and news departments trying to tread uncharted waters? Sure. But with good teams comes good word of mouth. The heaviest news hitters, for now, have chosen to be silent about the chatter. In the end, it's about what sells, and with very little stock in hockey, local affiliates are choosing what benefits them. This unfortunately includes covering sports that don't require skates.
It's In The Cox Center
I'll be the first to admit that I enjoy hockey in the Cox Center. It's a lot more cozy than the OKC Arena, and offers a simple seating variety that places you in a good position throughout the room no matter where you sit. However, it's an old building that shows its age even with recent upgrades and modifications. The things that matter to people when they attend sporting events, mainly food and beverage selection, are less than desirable when compared to the selection at the Ford Center. There was a reason that the OKC Blazers moved from the Cox to the Ford in 02-03; better sound, better food, more space, more ticketing options, and it was new. The big league feel of the Ford Center connected purchasers to a big league team, whether it was indeed big or not. The real head-scratcher comes in knowing that a CHL team could put people in the seats in this same building ten years ago, but they can't today. However, that was all that downtown Oklahoma City had to offer. When you see the full potential that sports arenas can achieve, as in the OKC Arena, you look next door, and can't help but see the Cox Center as an aging beauty.
I'll tread lightly here as I discuss ticket sales, because Oilers fans know a thing or two about expensive hockey tickets. Tickets in Oklahoma City might appear expensive to those that haven't purchased a ticket since the CHL team was in town, but the truth is that the pricing, packaging, and season ticket benefits are similar to markets in San Antonio, Houston, and Texas of the AHL. So why dub them expensive? It goes beyond the expense of the ticket. Parking, dining, and product purchases can add up quickly. There are ways to save money, but number crunching ticket buyers see better value in other downtown options that might not include a Barons game too frequently. And there is the key, frequency. Will the expense of a night in the Cox Center warrant a return visit, or is it one and done on the year?
For a new team, in a new town, with a new game, the solution to the Barons attendance "problems" can be summed up in one word - TIME. This hockey team is strong, and is building a winning reputation. The public relations department is trying to throw darts at what will or will not work, but have struck the bulls-eye on more than one occasion. Over the last couple of weeks players have been in schools, libraries, and other public settings that introduce this group of individuals to the community at large. For now the attendance is low and slow, but by being patient and promoting well, the attendance will slowly rise as it has done over the last 4 home games (a 300+ upswing). With time, all these things will work together for good. My words of advice to fans (and myself) who find themselves bothered by the lack of numbers? Be patient. It's going to get better.