As far as inaugural seasons go, they don't come much worse than the one the Tulsa Shock has experienced this summer.
The Women's National Basketball Association franchise -- which moved to Tulsa last winter from Detroit, losing the core of its team in the process -- has suffered through a forgettable season on the court, posting a 5-26 mark through games of Aug. 15, easily the worst record in the league. Tulsa concludes the season with a 7pm game Saturday, Aug. 21 at the BOK Center against Chicago.
"From the basketball side, we're all disappointed," team president Steve Swetoha said. "And (coach) Nolan (Richardson) would be the first to tell you that."
On the surface, things don't appear to have gone a whole lot better off the court, where the team's attendance also ranks among the worst in the league. But for Swetoha, who arrived in town to take over the Shock only four months before the season began, the offseason will present an opportunity to begin addressing the many areas he hopes to improve before next season tips off.
"In our opinion, there's nowhere to go but up," he said. "We want to finish the season strong. It can't come too soon for us."
For Swetoha -- a veteran professional sports administrator who has worked in the front-office operations of the Charlotte Bobcats and Orlando Magic of the NBA, the Pittsburgh Penguins of the NHL, the Jacksonville Jaguars of the NFL and the now-defunct Charlotte Sting of the WNBA -- none of the struggles of his new team's first season came as much of a surprise. The relatively short amount of time he had to assemble a front-office staff here -- coupled with the loss of several highly regarded, veteran players from the Detroit team when it moved south and the difficulty their replacements experienced in learning a challenging new system under Richardson -- virtually guaranteed that this season would be a difficult one in most respects.
But he's planning on putting that behind him as soon as he can and starting anew this fall.
"Yeah, if we can have a full year, I think it changes the whole dynamic," he said. "I got into town on Jan. 18, and it becomes very difficult to complete the process in that amount of time."
Swetoha relishes the chance to put together complete advertising and marketing plans for the team, conduct additional training for his staff and perform dozens of other chores that there was no time to do last spring before the curtain went up on the 2010 WNBA season.
"I think we're all disappointed, but we see this as an opportunity," he said, adding that his staff already is licking its chops to get started on those changes. "Once Aug. 21 rolls around, we've got a whole offseason to reach those goals."
Not everything about the season was a disappointment, Swetoha said. He said the Shock's sponsorship sales were extremely strong, and he said the game-night presentation the staff put together assured that fans would be entertained from the minute they walked in the building until the time they left. He was also pleased at the degree to which the franchise was able to send its players out into the community and establish personal relationships with fans.
"Coming in in January and tipping off in May was a monumental undertaking," he said. "Considering all that, it went fairly well."
But the list of targeted improvements is a long one.
"Obviously, we want to sell more tickets," Swetoha said, addressing concern No. 1.
Unofficially, according to womensbasketballonline.com, Tulsa was averaging 4,651 fans per game through Aug. 6 -- a figure that placed the Shock ahead of only one team, Chicago, which was drawing 4,159 fans per game. New York was leading the 12-team league in attendance with 11,140 fans a night.
But Tulsa wasn't alone in its attendance woes, as half the teams in the league were reporting smaller crowds this season than last year, a likely sign of the weak economy.
Swetoha said he resisted the urge to inflate the team's attendance artificially.
"We're not in the market to give away free tickets," he said. "We could fill the building every night that way if we wanted to, but that's not keeping the integrity of our product."
Swetoha also noted the team did surprisingly well at getting new fans in the building and persuading them to give the WNBA a try.
"Now we have to work on getting them back that second, third and fourth time," he said.
The Shock already has mounted an aggressive campaign to do that, offering a $99 season ticket package next year for 29 percent of the seats at the BOK Center. The package, which covers all 17 home games, equates to an average ticket price of $6 per contest. That $99 price is significantly less than the average of $171 for the lowest price of season tickets in the WNBA.
Swetoha said the club already had sold 90 new season tickets for next year as of Aug. 13, and half of them were through that package. The renewal rate for current season ticket holders sat at 35 percent on that date, and Swetoha noted that still leaves plenty of time for others to renew before the Oct. 1 deadline.
"We're also going to be rolling out partial (season ticket) plans, realizing that not everyone can afford or wants to attend 17 games," he said.
Swetoha said the franchise also will do a better job of identifying its demographic group over the off-season and will tailor its marketing campaign to fit that. An increased effort to attract fans from throughout the region will be part of that, he said.
"I look at it as the entire state," he said of the Shock's market. "First and foremost, it's Tulsa, because that's where we live. But if we can get a few more fans in here, we can get a true home-court advantage because the fans we already have are great."
Nevertheless, Swetoha acknowledged the fact it remains a challenge to build a fan base for women's professional basketball in Oklahoma.
"It's women's basketball; it's not like it's men's football," he said. "It took (University of Oklahoma women's basketball coach) Sherri Coale time to build that program. But we wouldn't be here if we didn't think Tulsa and Oklahoma could help us support this brand of women's basketball."
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