By Dave Ruthenberg, Sports Editor
Enid News and Eagle
ENID, Okla. —
With the success of the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder, both OKC and the state of Oklahoma have begun to shake off its dusty trail image.
The next step in making complete OKC’s transformation to the big leagues seems rather obvious.
Last year, right around the Super Bowl, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell stated he could see the league expanding from its current 32 teams to 34 in the near future. Well, that future should include Oklahoma City.
Admittedly, OKC may have an uphill climb in securing one of the two potential expansion slots as Los Angeles recently approved funding for a $1.2 billion stadium, while San Antonio would appear next in line with its ready-made 65,000-seat Alamodome just waiting to be occupied.
But there is no reason OKC couldn’t challenge for an expansion team when and if the NFL moves in that direction.
It’s been 10 years since the NFL last expanded with the Houston Texans franchise and the time seems right for the next wave of expansion, with the NFL’s popularity, TV ratings and revenues seemingly having no upward limit.
An argument could also be made against Los Angeles, which has seen two franchises fail — the Rams and the Raiders —with the league hardly being adversely affected.
Some may argue OKC is too small to support an NFL franchise, but with a population of 580,000 (not including the metro), it is actually larger than no fewer than eight other NFL cities (Miami, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Green Bay, Buffalo, Tampa and Kansas City all come in at less than a half-million in population) and nearly identical in size to Nashville (home of the Tennessee Titans), which has 590,000 residents.
But the reach of an OKC NFL franchise obviously would go beyond just Oklahoma City.
It would be reasonable to assume a team would attract plenty of fans from Tulsa (pop. 384,000) and even a good number of folks from Wichita, Kan. (pop. 396,000) would likely follow the team. That means a potential NFL fan base of more than1.3 million people, encompassing three major cities and again, that number does not even include the metropolitan areas of each city, not to mention the rest of Oklahoma.
Besides, Oklahoma deserves its own team. It’s almost unseemly the Dallas Cowboys are the NFL team of choice for many Oklahomans. There just is something inherently wrong about embracing a football team from Texas.
Assuming OKC can land on the NFL’s radar when it begins to seriously consider expansion, two areas certainly need to come together.
The first is a football stadium and whether the state or the city could afford to fund such an endeavor.
Considering the boomtown atmosphere right now in OKC it would seem reasonable the city could raise the funds. The cost could easily be recovered by selling naming rights and considering the number of oil companies and large, national corporations that call Oklahoma home, it would be an easy sell. And it wouldn’t have to be a palatial exhibit of excess such as we see with Jerry Land in Dallas. Really, a 60,000-seat outdoor stadium would do just fine.
Of course you also have to have an ownership group expressing interest as well, but again, with the number of well-heeled, homegrown business tycoons (hello, Boone Pickens, Harold Hamm) and wealthy entertainment types (hello Garth Brooks, Vince Gill, Toby Keith) that shouldn’t be an issue, especially considering how most NFL franchises are quite profitable and far from being money pits, which is a far cry from when professional football was last tried in Oklahoma in 1984.
The world of professional football has evolved in ways unimaginable when the USFL’s Oklahoma Outlaws played at Tulsa’s Skelly Stadium in 1984 and finished 6-12 before packing up and moving to Arizona. With TV revenues and licensing fees, memorabilia sales, etc. a new franchise today has none of the worries or pitfalls that plagued the Outlaws. Frankly, one would have to be the most incompetent business person in the world to lose money in today’s NFL.
We all know this state is football-mad, with football being a nearly 12-month passion from high school to college football. The Sooners pack 82,000-seat Memorial Stadium and Oklahoma State draws large crowds to 60,000-seat Boone Pickens Stadium. There is no reason to assume that passion and excitement would not translate to the NFL version.
Some may contend Oklahoma is college football country and may not support the pro version as strongly. Nonsense. Many thought the same about the Tennessee Titans. How many thought the NBA would succeed here? Admittedly, winning helps and Oklahomans would need to exercise some patience if a true expansion franchise were to land here.
It’s not too soon for the city and it’s leaders to start making some noise, making some inquiries and taking steps to get the NFL’s attention for when the league next seriously considers expanding.
OKC, thanks in large part to the Thunder, has begun to reach the big time. Sports help shape a city’s perception in ways beyond the games and an NFL franchise would go a long way toward cementing OKC as a major player.
Ruthenberg is sports editor at the News & Eagle. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.