Tuesday, July 21, 2009
Mike Strain of Tulsa World has written about the possibility that the WNBA might take up residence in Tulsa. Initial articles were conjecture, but now we have names.
Bill Cameron, the head of American Fidelity Insurance and David Box, a concert producer are listed as primary investors. The BOK center in Tulsa is looking for a tenant, and why not the WNBA? According to Strain, a press conference has been set for tomorrow at 3 pm Oklahoma time where Cameron and Box will probably discuss the effort in greater detail. On Wednesday night, WNBA President Donna Orender will meet with those interested in becoming premium seat holders.
With names and places finally set, I believe that anyone interested in the WNBA should be thinking seriously about the impact of Tulsa as a WNBA city, as well as whether the new franchise will be an expansion or a relocation.
In an earlier post, I wrote about William Haarlow's Five Rules for League Survival. Rule #2 comes to mind:
2. Markets must be selected based on potential. There must be a determination of the criteria that is most likely to influence the league's appeal and the economics of a franchise, i. e. size and growth of market, degree of saturation by other sports, target audience, operating cost, and previous experience with an attitude toward other leagues or teams. The league must avoid expanding into new markets at the expense of the talent pool.
Let's examine the potential of Tulsa as a market. Tulsa is the 44th largest city in the United States, and the metropolitan area of Tulsa includes almost a million residents. It grew by about 13 percent in size between 1990 and 2000, and the trend is that of increasing growth over time.
Older people probably still think of Tulsa as a small Oklahoma town, but the numbers prove otherwise. Atlanta and Sacramento are not that much bigger than Tulsa. Tulsa is bigger than Minneapolis, and definitely bigger than Uncasville, Connecticut (although the Sun are a special case). There's nothing obviously wrong with Tulsa in terms of population.
How much is Tulsa saturated by competing sports? There are several sports teams, but no pro team is at the major league level. There are the Drillers (AA baseball) and the Oilers (Minor-league hockey). There is the Tulsa 66ers, which is an NBA Development League, but not only does its attendance numbers not match the WNBA's (you can assume similar inflation goes on in both leagues - NBA D-League attendance is dismal) - the 66ers are an affilate of the Thunder which is situated in Oklahoma City.
There isn't much competition in Tulsa. The University of Tulsa has Division I football and basketball, but those teams generally haven't been very good. One would suspect that the overriding sport in Oklahoma is University of Oklahoma college football, which has the potential to knock any news about a Tulsa WNBA franchise to the back of back pages - a fifth-string linebacker could stub his toe in Oklahoma and it would get three columns. However, the Dream face the same problem when Georgia football warms up.
What about the target audience? That's a different story. Tulsa is a very conservative city. In the 2008 presidential election, John McCain won Tulsa Country with 62 percent of the vote. Every wide spot in the road west of Philadelphia likes to call itself the "buckle of the Bible Belt" but Oklahoma is very conservative in religion as well as politics. Oral Roberts University is headquartered in Tulsa.
There is the famous anonymous statement - wrongly attributed to Clay Bennett, the owner of the Thunder in Oklahoma City - in which it is claimed that the reason the Seattle Storm didn't move to Oklahoma City to join the former Sonics is because he didn't want "those kind of women" (lesbians) in Oklahoma City. Many WNBA players are lesbians, and many fans are lesbians. Would the Tulsa community support a WNBA team, or would women's basketball face a hostile reception?
Aside from that, if Tulsa is not doing much to support its current sports teams, why are investors so sure that Tulsa would support a WNBA team? One answer might be that a WNBA team would have the advantage of not being a minor league team, and not being a mid-major university team. Like it or not, the WNBA is major league. It might be major league in a niche sport, but the WNBA is as far up as you can go when it comes to women's basketball in the United States. Tulsa would be rubbing shoulders with New York, Chicago and Los Angeles - at least on the basketball court and in the sports pages. Having a WNBA team is another step toward Tulsa being recognized as a big-time city.
Furthermore, there is another advantage. If you're big in Tulsa and you're a supporter of the Tulsa franchise, that makes you a pal of Donna Orender. And if you're a pal of Donna O., you're a pal of NBA Commissioner David Stern. Tulsa might get in the NBA through the back door of having a WNBA franchise first.
One question worth asking - an important one - is that if Tulsa gets a WNBA team, would it be a relocated team or a brand new team? If the team is an expansion to 14 teams, one has to ask if there is enough talent to support a team in Tulsa.
The first year of the Atlanta Dream was horrible - a 4-30 record where the Dream players were the castoffs of the WNBA. Chicago, a team founded in 2006, still doesn't have a winning season. You can imagine that a Tulsa expansion team will be terrible - and I mean terrible at the 1998 Mystics/2008 Dream level - unless there are some rules changes in terms of the draft and in terms of protecting players to bring a Tulsa squad up to speed more quickly.
Tulsa's new team would have a lot of fans right off the bat - the first year, at least. But what about the second year? Atlanta's team has suffered the biggest drop in attenance from any team from the year before, because the novelty has worn off and too many fans were traumatized by that horrible first season. Could Tulsa survive a dropoff?
Furthermore, do Cameron and Box have the cash to make a Tulsa franchise work? I've not been able to find out how much capital either of these guys have. Would this be another Hilton Koch situation, or are Cameron and Box's pockets deep enough to weather the inevitable initial losses of owning a franchise in a historically new league?
I don't know how this will play out, but I can say one thing - it is worth paying very close attention to anything reported out of Oklahoma.