As a veteran of the front-office operations of professional sports franchises such as the Charlotte Bobcats and the Orlando Magic of the NBA, the Jacksonville Jaguars of the NFL and the Pittsburgh Penguins of the NHL, Steve Swetoha knows a thing or two about major-league cities--and how a community that aspires to become one positions itself to reach that level.
Swetoha--who last week was named president of Tulsa's new WNBA team, the city's only major-league sports franchise--said the first part of that equation has to do with population, and he acknowledged that Tulsa will be perhaps the smallest market he has ever worked.
But the second element is perhaps more important, he said, pointing to the importance of first-class facilities. And with the recent construction of the BOK Center, Swetoha believes his team will be playing in a top-tier building.
"There are several factors that show me Tulsa is taking a step up," Swetoha said by phone from Charlotte, N.C., last week, where he has served as executive director of the Charlotte Regional Sports Commission and executive director of the local organizing committee for the Atlantic Coast Conference Football Championship since 2008.
"We're going to be playing in one of the finer arenas in the WNBA," he said. "With the amount of new facilities that are being built there (in Tulsa) and the rest of the things that are happening downtown, it's showing this city is ready to expand."
That is why Swetoha is making the move from a city that already has established itself as a major professional sports market to Tulsa, which has flirted with big-time sports in the past but never cemented its reputation as a community that can support a major-league team.
Swetoha, who is in his middle 40s, said he was asked to apply for the job in Tulsa. He received a call from Bill Sutton, a consultant who works with the NBA and WNBA, asking if he'd be interested in the position.
"The more I researched, the more I liked about the opportunity," Swetoha said. "If one of your goals has always been becoming the president of a team, what better opportunity could you ask for?"
Swetoha eventually became the choice of Bill Cameron, chairman of Tulsa Pro Hoops LLC, the entity that owns the franchise. Cameron said he regarded the Pittsburgh native as a perfect fit.
Swetoha's experience in putting together the front office for the WNBA's Charlotte Sting in less than five months in 2003 no doubt influenced Cameron's decision, as did Swetoha's success in the Charlotte Bobcats' front office, where he nearly doubled the NBA team's revenue and increased new ticket sales by 37 percent in his past three years.
The new team president is expected to bring even more credibility to a franchise that already had created a splash by hiring former University of Tulsa and University of Arkansas men's basketball coach Nolan Richardson as its head coach and general manager.
Swetoha acknowledged the gamble he is taking by moving to Tulsa, especially to run a women's professional basketball team--something many critics have contended will never attract a sizable enough audience to be financially viable during the long haul. Swetoha has heard that before, and he has a strong response.
"We think this is women's basketball at its highest level, and Oklahoma is big into women's basketball," he said. "With Coach Richardson already on board, it's even more exciting for us. This is a league backed by the NBA, and I firmly believe this franchise will put Tulsa on a national stage."
Having spent the entirety of his adult life working in professional sports, Swetoah said the franchise--which will unveil its team name, colors and logo at halftime of the Harlem Globetrotters game scheduled for 2pm Saturday, Jan. 23 at the BOK Center--is planning to engage the community on a number of levels.
"This is not just about a basketball game," he said. "Tulsa is growing, and we're trying to be part of that entire mix. We're going to try to reach a cross-section of fans.
We believe if we can get them out once, we can get them back."
As for those who dismiss the appeal of women's basketball, Swetoha said, "That's OK--we're not going to reach everybody. There are a lot of great sports brands in this country that not everybody is a fan of."
He pointed to the expansion of the NHL into the Sun Belt throughout the past two decades and the increased interest in soccer in the United States as evidence that American sports fans will come to embrace something new.
"We're not going to be able to get every fan we want, but we're going to branch out there and get those who are on the fence," he said.
Swetoha began his work in Tulsa on Monday, Jan. 18, leaving him less than four months to finish assembling his front-office staff before the May 15 season opener at the BOK Center against Minnesota. Still, given the work that already has been done, he feels better about the situation in Tulsa than he did when he was hired to work for the Sting in 2003.
"We are leaps and bounds beyond that," he said. "Compared to that, we are way ahead."
Even so, Swetoha won't have any shortage of items demanding his attention. He said his agenda consists of everything from finalizing a lease with the BOK Center to breaking down every department within the franchise and analyzing what needs to be done. There is training to schedule for the sales department, tickets to be designed, signage to be ordered, uniforms to be ordered, a practice facility to be lined up, and meetings to be scheduled with the arena staff to go over guest relations and customer service.
"Everything you can imagine," he said.
Swetoha is framing the new franchise as a "big fish, little pond" scenario, believing the team can help lead a sports renaissance in Tulsa, despite the previous failure here of such entities as the Roughnecks of the North American Soccer League and the Outlaws of the United States Football League.
He's encouraged by the construction of ONEOK Field, the new downtown baseball park, and Tulsa's ability to land first- and second-round games in the 2011 men's NCAA basketball tournament, as well as its support in the past of major golf championships at Southern Hills.
The next four months promise to be hectic ones for him, but he views Tulsa's WNBA debut as a chance to erase any lingering doubts about the city or the league.
"It's all a work in progress, but by May 15, certainly, we'll be on our way," he said.
Share this article: