Spring Weekends In Central Oklahoma Are At A Premium; the metro has developed a tremendous amount of possibilities to see, do and enjoy. On this particular day, options vying for the citizenry’s time included an OKC Ballet performance, Edmond’s monthly Heard on Hurd street festival, the final regular season home game of the OKC Barons — plus, the western skies were looking pretty grim by early evening. Nevertheless, thousands upon thousands of Oklahomans streamed into Taft Stadium for a sellout event; many wearing green, all ready for some football. No, not that kind of football. With pigskin pursuits on summer vacation, a new franchise has charged into the scene, bringing football in the classic sense — that is, soccer — into the metro’s hearts and minds. OKC has a whole new Energy.
A Bit of Background
If you’re just catching up with the idea of a pro soccer team in OKC (post-Slickers, that is), you haven’t missed all that much yet; this is only the franchise’s second year of existence. Operated by Prodigal LLC, the OKC Energy FC (Football Club) competes in the United Soccer League, which is considered Division III by the U.S. Soccer Federation under Major League Soccer (Div I) and the North American Soccer League (Div II), but General Manager Jason Hawkins cautions against putting too much stock in semantics, saying “Once you get past MLS, when you step onto the field in a competitive sense, teams from Div II are just as competitive as Div III with each other.” There’s nothing amateur or minor-league about the franchise – “For the Energy players, this is their full-time job,” Hawkins explains. And while local college athletes train with the team, they can’t join the roster without losing collegiate eligibility.
The Energy is an affiliate of Major League Soccer team Sporting Kansas City (where Energy coach Jimmy Nielsen spent four years playing before taking the reins here). That connection exists to allow the teams to send players back and forth, and in Hawkins’ view the closer nature of this specific professional relationship spares teams and players the here-today-gone-tomorrow instability sometimes evinced by development leagues in other sports.
“When we sit down with Kansas City and talk about players, we talk about guys that we say, ‘Who can you send us at the beginning of the year that you would likely see with us for the whole year or most of the year?’ Because it is easy then for them to be a part of our regular routine, a regular part of our roster – and an influential and helpful part, if it’s done in that fashion. Player development is one of the principles we believe in, but also putting a professional winning side on the team and on the field.”
The KC partnership also allows OKC access to a top-tier scouting network; Energy players hail from Denmark and Cameroon in addition to Dallas and Virginia Beach. And there’s even a door by which you can pursue your own pro soccer dreams; Hawkins says “We’ve got two local players [Bryan Byars and Ray Clark] on the roster currently, both happen to be goalkeepers. We also do local open combines.”
Plugging Into a Network of Fans
Speaking of local involvement … meet The Grid, the Energy’s fan-driven support organization. Besides being a staunch presence at games (more on that later), they’re enhancers of the greater experience. “It’s really about embracing soccer, spreading the word about the sport, across Oklahoma City and the state,” says The Grid’s John Knight. Members tailgate before games, cooking out and selling merchandise and trading banter, and host watch parties for away games at Skinny Slim’s in Deep Deuce.
“It’s completely free; we encourage new members, it takes nothing but a couple of minutes to get your email and sign up. It’s effortless.” Check out gridokc.com, and keep in mind that buying season tickets for next year through The Grid will get you a 10 percent discount. It’s a good source for boning up on your chants, too.
Home Sweet Home
Its first year, the Energy played in Pribil Stadium at Bishop McGuinness High School. For 2015 and the immediate future, the home turf is historic Taft Stadium on N.W. 23rd and May, built in 1934 and the target of a substantial renovation (which kept the distinctive east wall intact). GM Hawkins is greatly enthusiastic about the stadium’s potential to adapt and serve the needs of OKC Public Schools teams, and also says it’s great for the Energy.
“We love it, the players love it, the fans love it – the neatest thing, I think, about Taft is that we now have a home that we can also really mold to our different sectors of our fan base, who all love the Energy, but don’t necessarily all want to participate in the Energy the same way. A family of five is looking for something different than the millennial who’s 23 years old and hanging out with his buddies.
So we’re now able to create custom areas and packages and experiences that they all want. We’ve held fast to the idea that we have to have $10 tickets for families to be able to come, so we created the Family Zone, [and] we even hold those zones until game day and only sell those as walk-up tickets, even though we could have sold right out of them. Because we want different people to be able to experience it.”
Knight is also a Taft fan: “It’s just a really nice facility in my opinion, and has a lot of character. Prodigal has added some suites on the north side, so if you have some money, or you have a big group coming out, you can rent those, and it comes with different perks.” And if your enjoyment is enhanced by sitting with The Grid members in the more raucous Fan Zone on the south end of the stadium, or via enjoying some beer (there are cans for sale in the concession stands or from bleacher vendors, and the Anthem Brewing tent is behind the Fan Zone bleachers), so much the better. The language gets a little salty, but it’s the place to be to hear a few dozen people shouting, “I’m blind! I’m deaf! I should have been a ref!”
Hawkins opines that one of soccer’s unique qualities is its audience interaction. “When you think of most other sports, it’s very announcer/stadium driven – the chants that are started are through the video board and it’s the announcer that’s saying get on your feet, stomp your feet. If you look at what happens in a soccer environment, it’s far more organic, far more driven by the fans.”
That’s the specialty of The Grid. “Soccer is a game of passion,” says Knight. “I think the best thing to understand coming in is just to do what you can to help the team win. Just be boisterous, that’s kind of what we embrace in The Grid. We try to get under the other team’s skin, because there is some utility to that: being able to yell at the other team, get them rattled a little bit.”
The Energy Experience
So what’s it like at a game? I have to agree with John that an intricate understanding of the rules isn’t a prerequisite; I hadn’t watched a game since the ’08 World Cup, and couldn’t tell you anything about how the offsides rule works, or when you get a corner kick versus a throw-in from the sidelines – but even if this is your first-ever encounter with the sport, the broad strokes are pretty obvious.
Plus, when you’re watching a game in person you can tell a lot from context and crowd reaction: Observers will murmur things like “Nice!” and “Man, that dude is fast,” and “Aw! Good try, good try, let’s go, let’s go, come onnnnn!” and “Get some glasses, ref!” We react with delight when Michael Harris does his specialty move of throwing the ball in from the side via forward somersault. We groan in sympathy when a guy inadvertently takes a strongly kicked ball right in the schnoz. We boo opponent flops in OKC – don’t bring that business in here.
And when the green and white score a goal, we simply erupt. Horns, wild cheering, a tumult of applause, a cloud of emerald smoke drifting up from the Fan Zone … it’s pretty epic.
I saw tiny kids decked out in green playing a clapping game and chanting in Spanish while ignoring their surroundings completely; a clump of high-school bros laughing about how one of their number totally could not jump as high as #4; a middle-aged couple investing their time in line at the concession stand in sharing a few kisses; a wizened matriarch placidly announcing to no one in particular “That was a terrible pass”; thousands of people having a good time. I feel like I saw a community forming. And it looked like there was room for a few more.
“We feel like as long as we keep the experience right, then the demand will only grow,” says Hawkins. “I always say to people, ‘you don’t fall in love with it until you’ve been to it.’”
“That’s what we’re targeting,” adds Knight, “to get people more excited about the possibilities. Because ultimately, if the city keeps supporting the Energy, and we’re at least somewhat successful for several years, we have a very good chance of building a bigger stadium and possibly getting into the MLS. So, the sky’s the limit.”