By DAVID LLOYD JONES
Fifteen years ago Jeff Lund was trying to get a fledgling hockey team off the ground and he had no idea what the fan response would be.
Ice Hockey had been a sometime thing in Tulsa. The old Tulsa Oilers played in Sam Avey’s Coliseum for several decades and then the building burned down. The franchise was revived in 1964 but failed financially a decade and a half later.
Fifteen years ago Lund was ready to try it again. “We had absolutely no idea what the public response would be, but on the first morning we were open for ticket sales the phones and we were doing dances in the cradles. We even got a call from one little elderly lady who had season tickets in Row B with the old Oilers and wanted to move down to Row A where another couple had been sitting.
“I was a little giddy with all the business we had been doing and I asked her, ‘what makes you think they’re still available?’ ‘Because‚’ she shot back, ‘the people who had them are dead.’ She got the tickets.”
Lund said he would have been delighted with an average attendance of 1,500 that first year but quickly revised his ambitions upward when the first meeting against Oklahoma City drew a sellout crowd.
“That first year we averaged 5,200 attendance. The second year the average went up to 6,100 per game with 23 of the 32 home games sold out. It was wild.”
The financial history of the Oilers hasn’t been all milk and honey. When the times get bad the corporate sponsors disappear and the fan base dwindles.
Corporate sponsorships are a bedrock of organizations like the Oilers. In return for the package fee a sponsor might get a certain number of choice seats, advertising within the rink, more advertising on the radio broadcasts and anything else the club will agree to such as special promotional nights. “When the local economy is suffering,” says Lund, “corporations cut back on their promotional spending. We’ve had years in which we’ve lost money.
“Over the past decade and a half things have changed. When the team was first restarted in 1992 tickets were from $8 to $12 and it had a salary cap of $4,500 a week for 16 players. Now we have a salary cap of $10,000 per week for 18 players of which we can suit up 16 for any one game. Our ticket prices haven’t jumped as much as you think: they range from $10 to $18.50.
Hockey is not a gentle sport. Fisticuffs are common and the crowd often responds more to the boxing matches than the skating. The language used, in such circumstances, is often not gentile.
“We have gotten complaints from patrons who didn’t want their children to be subjected to bad language so we’ve started a family section where parents are encouraged to take the kids and no alcoholic beverages are allowed. We’ve gotten back a lot of grateful feedback from people who want to enjoy the game without the accompanying profanity.”
Things have loosened up for the Oilers. Where once concessions were the exclusive concern of the facility, now the Oilers share in the proceeds. For fan convenience there are now mixed drinks available. Still, says Lund, every effort is made to keep a lid on rowdiness.
“Our people are instructed in ways to keep the lid of civility on, but we need the help of the patrons. If someone is being obnoxious the ushers need to be told so people can enjoy the game in a suitable setting.”
Lund is more than anxious to move into the 18,000-seat Bank of Oklahoma Center now under construction.
He has seen how the Oklahoma City team has adjusted to the Ford Center and is sure the new facility will bring benefits to his team.
“Oklahoma City can put a curtain around the topmost seats so the arena seems a little fuller, but on a big night they have the extra capacity to satisfy a huge crowd. We’ll do the same here.
“We’re now in negotiations for a lease agreement with the BOK Center. I can’t wait to move in. It’s going to open up a number of new revenue possibilities from fancy boxes to the Jumbotron scoreboard.”
For the time being, the Oilers will continue to play in the Civic Center where things are going very nicely.
“Last year we did about 5,000. This year we have been averaging about 4,800 and this is the worst part of the year for us. When Christmas and the football bowl games get out of the way business really takes off.”