Although its efforts to recruit investors, sponsors and fans will continue this week, the group hoping to bring a WNBA franchise to Tulsa essentially has completed putting together its proposal to land a team and could know as early as Friday, Oct. 9 if that effort is successful.
David Box, who along with partner Bill Cameron is leading the effort to land a WNBA franchise for Tulsa, said on Oct. 2 Cameron was headed to the league's championship series last weekend in Indianapolis to visit with commissioner Donna Orender and discuss the issue.
"We're close to the finish," Box said. "We should know something by the end of (this) week."
When Box and Cameron announced their intention to seek a team at a July 22 press conference, they indicated there were several benchmarks that needed to be met before they took their proposal to league officials. Box said last week that the group had come close enough to meeting many of those benchmarks to proceed to that next step.
"We're meeting with Donna on Friday," he said, adding that the meeting should give Cameron and himself a very good idea of the chances of their proposal being accepted.
Asked if that meant the decision about Tulsa's fate as a potential WNBA market would be made by the commissioner at that point, Box replied, "She's the head of the league. She will have a tremendous influence on this discussion."
But first, Box said, Cameron was due to meet with Orender during the finals to iron out some details.
"There are a few things we want from the WNBA to do this, and they want a commitment from us," Box said. "They don't want a team that's going to fail."
Box and Cameron initially had set a deadline of Sept. 1 for their recruiting and marketing effort, but that date was pushed back a month. By the end of that additional time, Box said, they felt they had made enough progress to meet with the commissioner.
He said the team has lined up two major sponsors, the BOK Center and SpiritBank. At the end of last week, he said, several other proposals remained on the table with local businesses, and Box said he expected to receive a response to those sometime this week.
The team has sold 18 of the 32 private suites it has available at the BOK Center, where the club would play its games, and Box said a series of special events over the past couple of weeks had netted almost $65,000 in ticket sales.
One more major event for potential sponsors and fans was scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 6 at the arena, he said, during which the team hoped to increase those numbers.
Box said the effort to land a WNBA franchise for Tulsa already had earned the city some valuable publicity through such national media outlets as The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and ESPN.
"So the exposure has already started," he said. "Soon, we're going to be playing in Madison Square Garden. It's going to be cool. I can't wait for people in Tulsa to see these games. We just have to create an awareness of a great game people haven't seen."
Although Tulsa doesn't officially have a team yet, Box and Cameron announced last week they had reached an agreement with former University of Tulsa and University of Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson to lead the squad, serving as coach and general manager, should the franchise become a reality.
While the timing of that might have seemed odd to some observers, Box said it was a move that demonstrated he and Cameron are intent on making their proposal a success.
"Bill and myself thought it was a pretty good move," he said. "There hasn't been one person who has talked to me who has questioned it.
"We're serious about this. If you hire Nolan Richardson as your head coach, you're serious."
Box said he negotiated the deal with Richardson personally, adding that it took some time to get the deal completed.
"He has certain things that he wants, because he wants to win," Box said. "Nolan gives us credibility. He gives us as much credibility as anybody."
Box said he has no doubts that Richardson, 67 years old and several years removed from coaching the Razorbacks, has enough left in his tank to make Tulsa a winner.
"Oh, yeah," Box said, chuckling. "He looks like he's 55. He's lost 30 pounds since he left Arkansas. He's ready for the challenge. He works out every day. He looks awesome."
Despite the addition of Richardson, not everyone has bought into the idea that Tulsa and the WNBA would be a good match. Bruce Coursey, an assistant coach for the Oklahoma Flame, a Tulsa-based team that was a part of the Women's Basketball Association in 1994 and 1995, has big doubts about whether a women's professional basketball team can attract enough support to survive.
"The last time Tulsa had women's pro basketball, we were playing to crowds of 50 people," he said.
Coursey said he enjoyed his experience with the team, though the league operated on a much smaller scale and had a much lower profile. The Flame played its home games at local high school facilities.
"Those ladies busted their humps," he said of the players. "They didn't get paid the exquisite salaries these ladies get paid."
Coursey said his motivation for speaking out was not based on a desire to see a potential new franchise fail. He just wants people to be aware that women's pro basketball in Tulsa is an idea that's been tried before. And it failed.
"We seem to be the team that Tulsa has forgotten," he said.
The Flame was coached by league founder and director Lightning Mitchell the first year and Jamie Collins the next. The WBA was not affiliated with the NBA like the WNBA is, and it operated mainly a bus league, with teams in such locales as Louisville, Ky.; Memphis, Tenn.; Omaha, Neb.; Chicago; Minneapolis; St. Louis; and Kansas City. The Tulsa franchise originally was placed in Miami, Okla., but moved down Interstate 44 after its first season.
The league's level of talent was not as high as that of the WNBA, featuring a mix of NCAA Division I and Division II players, and many teams signed players with local ties to help attract fans.
Coursey is aware that the WNBA has many advantages the WBA did not, including a national television contract with ESPN, but he has his doubts a team can make a go of it in Tulsa over the long run.
"The only thing I can compare it to is the Talons," he said, referring to Tulsa's arena football franchise. "When the Talons first came, they were a big deal. Now the BOK Center is about one-third full when they play.
"I think the newness of the toy will draw people at first, but once the new wears off the toy, well ... "
Box, part of the Talons' ownership group, took exception to Coursey's claim that interest in the arena team has waned. He pointed out the team's attendance this season was up about 600 people per game over last year.
Coursey, now a furniture salesman, said he believes Oklahoma City residents Box and Cameron are well intentioned, but he fears the damage a failed franchise could do to Tulsa's reputation.
"If this fails, people in Oklahoma City will point their finger and say, 'See, it was Tulsa,' " he said.
Box said he appreciates Coursey's right to voice his opinion, but he said he respectfully disagrees.
"I'm sure he knows a lot about basketball, but that was 14 years ago," Box said. "That was 1994 and '95. That was 14 years ago. A lot has changed in 14 years. This is a different league, one that's owned by the NBA, and we know how well that league does with its marketing."
Ultimately, Box said, he believes the time has come to give women's pro basketball another chance in Tulsa.
"We're putting our money in, and we're taking a big chance, but it's an educated chance," he said. "The thing is, this will be great for every little girl out there who wants to be a professional athlete."
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