Could the Oklahoma City Blazers leave Bricktown and the Ford Center in the near future for a privately owned facility? Express Sports President Robert Funk Jr. said it's an attractive option, but not a likely one in this relatively young sports market.
"Any sports organization knows that owning your facility and playing in your own facility (are) key," Funk said. "You can do a lot more with it " not just from a hockey standpoint, but other events. A summer tenant, whether it's an AFL team or some other sport, you could put in there, or even just concerts in general.
"You can really maximize your revenue opportunities from that standpoint. It's pretty attractive and it's a really good business model."
For now, the Blazers share space with a wildly popular, although not wildly competitive, NBA franchise. And as the minor league tenant, the Blazers are often stuck getting the hand-me-downs when it comes to priority scheduling dates.
Attendance is down for the Blazers, but team officials contend it's due to a change in ticket policy. This year, the Blazers mandated no more free tickets, as it was too easy in past seasons to score a plentiful number of gratis seats.
Since the Thunder rolled into town, the Blazers and the City of Oklahoma City have agreed to enter lease renegotiations at the request of the Blazers.
Tom Anderson, special projects manager with the city manager's office, oversees private leases for the AT&T Bricktown Ballpark, State Fair Park, Cox Business Services Convention Center and the Ford Center. He's the one negotiating right now and said it will be the fourth lease modification with the Blazers since 2000.
Under the existing agreement, the Blazers pay the City of Oklahoma City three different rental fees depending on what night of the week they play, ranging from $8,000 to $12,000 per game, plus staffing fees that are capped at between $2,100 and $2,600 per home game, Anderson said.
The Blazers get 100 percent of the ticket revenue, an equal percentage of any merchandise sold and take a 25 percent cut of the concession sales.
"I'm not just saying this about the Blazers, but generally speaking when it comes to sports activities at the Ford Center "¦ it's basically a break-even proposition for us to open up and operate the building on most sports activities," Anderson said. "What really keeps us afloat is the concerts. I look at activities like this as a complement to our events schedule. It's a quality-of-life kind of activity that caters to folks that are hockey fans.
"Really, whether or not the city is financially successful or breaks even or maybe loses money on it, it's kind of like a lot of things the city does like bus service. We don't necessarily make money on transit service, but it's something the city expects. There (are) a lot of hockey fans out there and a lot of fans that enjoy Blazers hockey."
Anderson said it costs close to $25,000 to open the Ford Center and operate it for an event.
In December, he said the city received notice the Blazers had exercised their first renewal option to renew their lease through the 2011-2012 season.
"I know there's a lot spinning around in the rumor mill about 'are they going away or not,' but from our standpoint, we're proceeding and we expect them to be here and play hockey and are working in good faith with them to have a financial model that is fair and equitable for everybody," Anderson said.
He noted the Cox Center is not an option for the Blazers anymore since the machines for making ice would require $3 to $4 million in repairs.
But it would all be a moot point if the Blazers simply owned their own facility like some northern hockey clubs and even some NBA franchises do.
"Absolutely. I'd love to explore that," Funk said. "My dream or my vision for the hockey team and Express Sports in general is to continue to grow it not from just a business standpoint, but for our fans that have been so loyal over the past 15 years. We've had fans that have been season ticket holders that have been with us "¦ since the early 1990s. For those people, we feel like we want to continue to grow the team.
"Getting into our own facility, I would love to look at it at some point and time, but I don't think the economics are here now quite yet. I don't think Oklahoma City has matured enough, but it's going to get there."
The Blazers have had some successful promotions. Feed the Children night in January raised money for the charity and brought an estimated 10,000 fans to the Ford Center.
"It's those types of partnerships that make the biggest difference for us," Funk said. "Everything's tough right now " sponsorship, sales " across the board for the industry when it comes to team sporting events and special events, everyone is hurting."
As far as a ripple effect from the Thunder, he downplayed any.
"In some respects, we will be competing with the NBA," Funk said. "But we have a different type of product than the NBA has in terms of the type of team we put on the ice. We're very involved with the community "¦ and I don't think we'll see a whole lot of competition. We'll see some, but at the same time we have a lot more affordable pricing on a lot of our tickets than they do. I think it will even out. We'll retain, if not grow, our base."
Funk said he would actually like to partner with the Thunder in the future.
"The NBA impacted our schedule quite a bit, but I don't think the obstacles are insurmountable," he said. "It's up to us to market our product, and the ability to do that is still there even with the NBA in town. There (are) still enough dates open and available that they can be successful and so can we." "Dean Anderson