OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - In just five short seasons, the Thunder has taken Oklahoma City by storm. They’re the talk of the town. The team has some of the best players in the league with an NBA crown within its grasp again this year.
“We’re so excited to have an NBA team here,” said one fan.
A Thunder ticket is one of the toughest tickets in town. The team easily sells out every game. There are 14,000 season ticket holders and 3,000 people on the waiting list.
Oklahoma City’s road to the NBA began 20 years ago when voters agreed to a penny-on-a-dollar sales tax increase to fund a host of projects to try and revitalize a destitute downtown. No project would prove more critical to the city’s success than what was an $89 million bare bones arena.
“We built an arena whose only tenant was a Double-A hockey team,” said state Senator David Holt, who wrote a book on how the Oklahoma City became a big league city. “We didn’t really know what would happen and whether we would get this big time payoff that we have.”
That’s the $350 million question right now in Virginia Beach. Is there a big time pay off out there? If the city now builds a bare bones arena, will the NBA eventually come?
“If we had an arena today, I believe we’d have an NBA team today,” Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms said. Oklahoma City not only had an arena to attract the NBA, it was deep in discussions with the league about a team when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005.
“No community has ever had an NBA team on a trial basis and I doubt it will ever happen again,” Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett said.
Cornett, a former sportscaster, knew the New Orleans Hornets needed an arena, fast. The NBA knew Oklahoma City would do whatever it took to host the team. The team temporarily relocated and became the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets.
In its two years in Oklahoma City, the Hornets drew huge crowds. There was strong support from the business community. The trial run showed the NBA that Oklahoma City was a big league city.
“I think what we showed though is there’s a large market for NBA entertainment in these medium-sized markets like Oklahoma City and like Virginia Beach,” Cornett said.
Then In 2008, Oklahoma City’s bare bones arena deal paid off yet again. Local investors bought the Seattle Supersonics. When arena upgrades were rejected by voters in Seattle, the team moved to Oklahoma City.
“It’s added so much spirit to Oklahoma City,” a fan told us.
Voters also agreed to $120 million in upgrades to what’s now the Chesapeake Energy Arena, the home of the Thunder.
“About half of Americans live in a metro with professional sports. The other half that don’t are often made to feel out of the loop. And now we are in that loop,” Holt said.