Kevin Durant is a Golden State Warrior now, which triggers dozens of fascinating basketball subplots. But off the court, it will help answer a question I’ve had for a long time: is Oklahoma City actually a viable long-term basketball market?
Because of a million different reasons—basketball history, non-basketball history, competitiveness, and geography are just a few—some areas can support an NBA team better than others. Despite being located a huge metro area, the Atlanta Hawks have always struggled to draw fans, even when good, to the point that an owner wrote a racist email about how to draw fans that forced him to sell. On the other hand, the Chicago Bulls drew the second most fans in the league during the 2000-01 season, when they were an NBA-worst 15-67.
Determinations of “good” and “bad” basketball markets are based somewhat upon the available data—attendance, TV ratings, jersey sales—but are also heavily influenced by unquantifiable perceptions, like whether a fan base is “knowledgable” or not, if they ungraciously boo former players, if they’re rich and perceived as bandwagon yuppies, and so on. It’s an inexact science, but so was Potter Stewart’s threshold test: you know a good basketball market when you see it.
Oklahoma City, all things considered, is a very good basketball market. After New Orleans was hit by Hurricane Katrina, Oklahoma City became the Hornets’ temporary home for two seasons, drawing 18,168 fans per game that first season after having drawn just 14,221 the season before in New Orleans. That stint proved that Oklahoma could support more than just Sooners football, and led to the Seattle SuperSonics relocating there in 2008.
That support for basketball has continued. The worst season of attendance, their first, saw the Thunder fill their arena to 98 percent capacity, and they hit 100 percent most seasons. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook jerseys are incredibly popular across Oklahoma and the entire country. From everything I have read, it appears that the Thunder organization has made itself an integral part of Oklahoma City culture in a short time, and played a role (along with a boom in energy prices) in raising the city’s national profile.
But any reasonably sized metro area in the country—no matter your opinion of its basketball acumen—would have supported the team under similar circumstances. They were the state’s, let alone the city’s, first major professional sports franchise, playing in a nearly brand-new arena, as the region’s economy grew much faster than the rest of the recession-scarred country’s.
And before the honeymoon period wore off, the Thunder became very good, winning 50 games in the team’s second season and advancing to the Western Conference Finals in its third. Thunder fans have basically always been able to cheer for a real contender with two true superstars.
That’s all about to change.
As currently constructed, the Thunder are no longer a championship contender, and instead of fighting for a spot at the top of the West with the Warriors, Spurs, and Clippers, next season they’ll be fighting for a single round of home court advantage with the Rockets, Clippers, Mavericks, and Trail Blazers. There’s a chance they have to scrap with the Jazz, Pelicans, and Timberwolves just to even make the playoffs.
And that’s assuming they even hang on to Russell Westbrook. He’s a free agent after the season, and if the Thunder fear they will lose him for nothing, they might trade him and jumpstart the rebuilding process. Even if they don’t trade Westbrook, it’s his decision next summer whether to walk or not, and practically the entire league will be an interested suitor.
There are other possible dangers. Oklahoma City is the fourth-smallest market in the league, the franchise famously erred on the side of being cheap by trading James Harden, and the guy who owned 20 percent of the franchise died in a car crash in the spring. The energy sector is tanking and taking Oklahoma City’s economy along with it, meaning fewer companies shelling out for luxury boxes and courtside seats, and less discretionary entertainment spending by the ordinary fan. All this while the team is getting worse, and might soon be be downright bad.
More generally, the challenges facing the Thunder expose many of the flaws in the short-sighted free arena strategy the NBA pursued for two decades, a topic I’ve written about in depth. In short, in the quest to find markets willing to pony up public money and give away free arenas, the NBA allowed its teams to move from Seattle (15th largest Metropolitan Statistical Area) to Oklahoma City (41st largest MSA), Charlotte (23rd largest MSA) to New Orleans (46th largest MSA), and Vancouver (metro area of 2.5 million) to Memphis (metro area of 1.3 million). The NBA has no teams in five of the country’s 20 largest metro areas; MLB, by comparison, has a team in 20 of the country’s 21 largest markets.
Back when most revenue came from attendance, it made some sense to prioritize free arenas and new, excited fan bases. But as an increasingly large share of the pie comes from TV, that strategy looks a lot worse. Oklahoma City will never get a local television deal that approaches what they could have gotten in Seattle, because Oklahoma City’s TV market is one third the size. And while the NBA is at the beginning of a massive new national television deal, how much bigger could it have been if the NBA had teams and hundreds of thousands of excited fans in large markets like Seattle, Orange County, San Diego, Tampa Bay, and St. Louis instead of Salt Lake City, New Orleans, Memphis, Oklahoma City, and Milwaukee? (This is why the the NHL pursued its Southern Strategy, to be able to get a national TV deal.)
It is very possible that, in the long term, Oklahoma City continues to fanatically support the Thunder. And that while OKC will always be at a revenue disadvantage to large market teams like the Lakers, it shouldn’t prove calamitous. Small NBA markets like Portland, San Antonio, and Salt Lake City are full of NBA-supporting fanatics, and it’s not inconceivable that Oklahoma City is too, and will support the 2017-18 Thunder as Steven Adams and Victor Oladipo lead them to a 30-52 record.
But for the first time since the Sonics relocated, it isn’t a given that fans turn out in droves, that even non-sports fans watch the team on TV, that Oklahoma City residents stay engaged in the wider NBA. The franchise no longer has a trump card in its battle for local attention with college football. Because Kevin Durant left, for the first time, building and maintaining the Thunder fan base won’t be a given.
Forget the white-outs and the primetime games and all the pride that came with being one of the NBA’s best crowds—now is when Oklahoma City gets to prove how good a basketball town it really is.