Team effort propels Oklahoma City

The NBA Finals began this week. The buzz surrounding my hometown Oklahoma City Thunder is all-consuming.

The NBA Finals began this week. The buzz surrounding my hometown Oklahoma City Thunder is all-consuming. After all, no one could have predicted the 45th largest media market would ever support a professional sports team. I am excited about the prospects of an NBA championship, but I am more excited about the unquantifiable brand-building underway benefitting Oklahoma City.
 
We all know perception is reality. In 2007, my agency commissioned a national survey with Zogby to ask the question, “What is your overall view of the state of Oklahoma?” Nearly 50% had a positive impression, but it was concerning that nearly one in three Americans (31%) were not familiar enough with Oklahoma to have an opinion at all. The state didn't have a bad reputation; it largely had no reputation.
 
That all began to change with a few key events. It was September 2005 and New Orleans was reeling from the destruction of Hurricane Katrina. Oklahoma City understood tragedy, having suffered the different, but equally devastating bombing of the Murrah Federal Building by Timothy McVeigh some 10 years earlier. In the aftermath, the city struggled to gain top-of-mind awareness broader than “that place where the terrorist blew up that building.” From an economic development perspective, Oklahoma City came into the new millennia as a place with an uncertain future for talent or business.
 
The good news was Oklahoma City voters had passed a penny sales tax increase a few years before the bombing for major capital projects downtown. One such project was an 18,000-plus seat professional sports arena, then the largest of its kind in the country in a market without and NBA or NHL franchise.
 
Mayor Mick Cornett, a former television sportscaster, saw an opening and reached out to NBA Commissioner David Stern to inquire whether the community could relocate and support the New Orleans Hornets for a short time. The commissioner was skeptical, but Cornett pressed and a deal was struck. Oklahoma City now had an NBA team.
 
The rest is history. The displaced Hornets came to Oklahoma City for two years, where they played in front of full houses and developed a love affair with the community that ended sadly when the team rightfully returned to New Orleans. Then, a local ownership group, through an arduous legal and PR nightmare, bought and brought the former Seattle Supersonics franchise to Oklahoma City and renamed them the Oklahoma City Thunder, where the team went on to sell out 64 straight games. The opening game of the NBA Finals on Tuesday will be sell-out number 65. You may have seen all the blue and white T-shirts on television, a tradition supported by sponsors who plop down $75,000 per game to ensure OKC looks good in person and on television. The trend has spread throughout the league.
 
The largest unintended consequence of this fairy tale story is that Oklahoma City has developed a positive reputation beyond bombings, tornados, and college football.
 
The next logical question is to try to quantify the brand value of skyline shots of Oklahoma City on ABC, AP stories about Charles Barkley touring downtown, ticker scores scrolling major sports networks on a daily basis, and flattering columns penned by every major sports columnist. My only objective response is: priceless.

Will Rogers, the great American humorist and Oklahoma's favorite son, summed it up with, “Get someone else to blow your horn and the sound will carry twice as far.” Just five years ago, a third of Americans had no opinion of Oklahoma. Today, they can hear about us around the world.

C. Renzi Stone is the CEO of Saxum and the president of the Americas for IPREX, a global alliance of public relations and communication agencies. He played in four NCAA basketball tournaments for the University of Oklahoma.

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