POSTED ON NOVEMBER 7, 2012:
"Your ... Thunder!"
Could the NBA survive in Tulsa for more than just one night?
I walked around the concourse of the BOK Center just before player introductions began for the Oklahoma City Thunder's exhibition game against the Phoenix Suns a couple weeks ago. The place was packed. Hundreds of people were still lined up outside the south entrance of the BOK Center, waiting to have bags checked and their tickets taken.
It was clearly the biggest event Tulsa had seen in a long time. More people filed through BOK's gates to see Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook than they did for David Lee Roth or Carrie Underwood.
Once introductions began, the crowd erupted. Led to the court for pregame warm-ups by the Thunder girls and a group wildly waving around oversized flags bearing the Thunder's logo, the players took the court to a -- pardon the pun -- thunderous ovation.
Then, something strange happened -- the PA announcer made a slight deviation from the norm.
"Ladies and gentlemen, your ... Thunder!"
I'm sure it went unnoticed by most in attendance, but the decision to omit "Oklahoma City" from the team's introduction sent a louder message than the collective ovation of the 18,000-plus fans in attendance.
It was even more awkward when the Phoenix Suns were announced as just that, "the Phoenix Suns."
Throughout the rest of the pre-game festivities, Oklahoma City was never referenced. During the customary, vividly produced player introductions, the Thunder were referred to as if they were an all-star team, representing more than just a single city.
"And now, the starting lineup for ... the Thunder!"
All night it was essentially "the Phoenix Suns" versus "the Thunder."
Not until midway through the first period, when the Thunder's customary "O-K-C" chant rang out over the loudspeakers, was the fact that the team hailed from Oklahoma City acknowledged. Suspiciously, the audio that leads the chant was cut off much quicker than usual.
The absence of all things Oklahoma City was so obvious that it seemed as if the Thunder's public relations team instilled a "no OKC" policy before the game. The only thing that could have been a more obvious indication of the Thunder's apparent motive not to alienate Tulsa fans would have been covering up the OKC logo on their shorts with masking tape.
But who could blame the Thunder for such humility? They are certainly aware that a large portion of their fan base extends throughout the state of Oklahoma. Why risk alienating those fans by reminding them that the Thunder isn't exactly their city's team?
A classy move, if you ask me.
After the Thunder's victorious 107-97 exhibition at the sold-out BOK Center, local chatter about Tulsa's likelihood of acquiring a major league sports franchise began. Local news broadcasts tried to make a compelling case for Tulsa's ability to support an NBA franchise like big brother, Oklahoma City, using interviews from a variety of fans insisting the turnout for the Thunder-Suns exhibition was a great indication of the city's ability to house a major league team.
Talk of NBA and NHL franchises coming to Tulsa was all the rage in the days following the sellout exhibition game.
Which existing franchises could potentially relocate to Tulsa?
Which cities would Tulsa have to compete with in order to win a bid for a pro franchise?
The questions even bordered on ridiculous, with overly optimistic debates about which current franchise might relocate to Tulsa and what potentially to name a local team.
While it's great fun to imagine Tulsa someday playing host to wildly exciting -- and relevant -- NBA or NHL games, the reality is that Tulsa is just too small a market to survive the major leagues.
Consider this: The Oklahoma City Thunder is the Western Conference champion of the NBA. They currently employ two of the most widely known NBA stars in Durant and Westbrook -- both of whom were part of this year's U.S. Olympic team. Outside of the trio of stars that play for the Miami Heat and the cast of characters recently constructed by the Los Angeles Lakers, there is probably no other team with the star power the Thunder possesses.
It's a no-brainer that fans would come out in mass to see the Thunder -- they're one of the best and most popular organizations in the NBA.
What excessively hopeful fans fail to realize is that the success of the Thunder is what sells out the BOK Center, not the city's undying love for basketball. Everyone loves a winner, but a true major league city has one unique trait: the ability to sustain maximum attendance during the difficult times.
This year's exhibition wasn't the first time your Thunder has played in Tulsa. Back in 2009, another exhibition game was hosted at the BOK Center involving the Miami Heat. Coming off a sub-.500 season, the Thunder managed to draw a relatively dismal 10,427 fans -- over 8,000 less than this year's exhibition -- for a game that included the likes of Durant, Westbrook and Harden.
After that particular exhibition, nobody was talking about major league sports in Tulsa. That same year, more people attended a WWE Smackdown! event at the BOK Center than did the Thunder-Heat matchup.
Now, after selling out a game involving last year's NBA championship runners-up, many around Tulsa feel as if this city could do a better job in supporting the Thunder than the team's own OKC.
Such thinking is borderline absurd.
Think I'm wrong? Check the attendance records for Tulsa's WNBA franchise, the Shock. In 2012 they compiled the lowest attendance in the league, averaging just 5,204 fans per game. Furthermore, anyone who's ever attended a Shock game would be quick to think an average of over 5,000 was a rather generous assessment.
As for the NBA Development League's Tulsa 66ers: about half as many as the Shock.
Attendance aside, though, the main question that surrounds the idea of Tulsa acquiring a major sports franchise is how well the city would support, not top-tier NBA talent, but rather a team far less talented than Scott Brooks' OKC squad.
What if, by some sort of miracle, the NBA awarded Tulsa an NBA franchise, and that group had a pool of talent similar to the Milwaukee Bucks or Sacramento Kings? What if that team took to the floor of the BOK Center 41 times during its first season and managed to win just 15 or so of those games? What if Tulsa's best player was not Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook but, say, Marcus Thornton (currently Sacramento's leading scorer)?
Outside of the initial hysteria that would surround a new franchise, the odds of Tulsans religiously filling the BOK Center for such a team would be miniscule.
Winners draw fans, and major league cities draw fans despite winning. Unfortunately, packing the BOK Center on a night when the Beatles are in town says far less than selling out a Michael Bolton show.
For now, Tulsans should graciously accept that they have a top-tier NBA franchise just a couple hours away. Their uniforms may not bear the logo of the Golden Driller, and they may not spend a great amount of time in Tulsa, but they're still very much "your Thunder."
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