The Oklahoma City Barons finished the regular season with an 11-3-1 record in their last fifteen games, a run that brought them from the playoff bubble all the way to the fifth seed. Their best-of-five first round series against Riley Nash (if he's not busy playing in the NHL) and the Charlotte Checkers begins on Friday, and I'll have a post about OKC's actual performance this season up on Thursday as a bit of a preview. But today, I thought it would be good to revisit the attendance issues the Barons have been having, especially in light of Michael Baldwin's excellent five-part series that wrapped up on the weekend (Part 1; 2; 3; 4; 5).
One of the things that surprised me in that series of articles was the amount of positive verbiage from all sides, especially the indication that "both sides - Prodigal and the Oilers - anticipate picking up a three-year option that would extend [their affiliation] through 2018." This time last year, I mentioned that the agreement between the AHL team and the city could be terminated if attendance fell below 4,000 fans per game, and with Prodigal stating that they "need to average 4,500 fans to break even" I figured that we'd see exactly that this summer if attendance didn't improve in 2012-13.
The result? Let's take at the rolling three-game average for the last three seasons:
Not so good. Attendance declined year-over-year once again, down from 4,155 per game in the first year to 3,684 in the second, to 3,527 in the third, a 15% decline over two seasons. If we remove the first and last games of the season, the fall isn't quite as precipitous (3,883 to 3,581 to 3,449 or about 11% over two years), but the trend still isn't in the right direction. The decline has also come with certain special circumstances you'd think might help attendance: the NBA lockout in 2011 was an opportunity to pick up some market share, and the NHL lockout in 2012 meant the caliber of hockey would never be better.
The Barons didn't take advantage either time. That black vertical line is the first three-game segment after the NHL lockout was over in 2012-13, and as it turns out, the Barons actually saw their average attendance rise after Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Justin Schultz all went to Edmonton. The increase was marginal (3,538 to 3,513) but more substantive if you remove the home opener (3,538 to 3,338). In one of Baldwin's articles, he mentions that the Barons were focused on "developing a long-term strategy rather than promoting NHL players," and the numbers certainly show that to be true: no jump with the arrival of the NHLers, and no dip when they leave. But consistency isn't so good when it's consistently bad and that 3,527 average is the worst number in the league.
So what is that strategy? It sounds like Jon Beilstein, who spent several years working with Grand Rapids, is the man behind the wheel here and he's trying for a slow and steady approach that stays away from highly discounted tickets, which is probably wise. Neal has mentioned several times that the local media haven't generally taken an interest in the Barons, so Baldwin's five-part series in an OKC news source is already a nice accomplishment. Hopefully the extra publicity pays dividends in the playoffs.
Beilstein also mentioned San Antonio as a model that they can look to, and while that's probably true, the Barons are digging themselves out of a significantly bigger hole:
Baldwin's article states that "in its fifth season the [San Antonio] Rampage was averaging 4,132 fans a game," implying that the attendance issues were similar in both places, but I don't really see it. The markets are similar in some ways (close geographically, both dominated by basketball), but OKC's best season is most similar to San Antonio's worst, and 2006-07 was the fourth consecutive season that the Rampage missed the playoffs. In fact, San Antonio has made the playoffs just three times in their eleven-year history compared to OKC's three times in three years. OKC has also advanced further in the playoffs and won their division more frequently. In other words, San Antonio has been able to sell a loser while OKC has had significantly more trouble trying to sell a winner.
That doesn't make the task impossible, of course, just difficult. The positive language coming from all parties with skin in the game shows that there's real commitment to making it work. No matter the challenges, that kind of commitment can take you a long way.