The Business of Basketball - 405 Magazine

The Business of Basketball

Only 27 out of the roughly 19,500 cities in America can claim an NBA team.

Only 27 out of the roughly 19,500 cities in America can claim an NBA team. 


And Oklahoma City lays claim to the Thunder.

In October, the Thunder took the court to start its 15th season. Somehow even after the glorious years making the NBA Finals, falling in love with superstars like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, following hopeful new talent in recent years and having the Thunder brand become synonymous with who and what OKC is — it all still feels new.

But it’s not. In the last 15 years, the Thunder has helped redefine downtown Oklahoma City, created a new brand the Chamber can sell to outsiders and gave the city a swagger and confidence that matched the booster shot it gave itself with every MAPS vote.

Courtesy of Oklahoma City Thunder.

In a lot of ways, the OKC Thunder and the city itself grew up together. Now, Oklahoma City is the 20th largest city in America and the sixth fastest-growing city in the country, already growing by 3 percent since the 2020 Census. (OKC tips in at 701,266 people in OKC proper alone, up from just north of 681,000 pre-pandemic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.)

It’s impossible to separate the Thunder’s impact from OKC’s growth, OKC Mayor David Holt said. In fact, he said gaining an NBA team in this market immediately increased the city’s credibility on what this city could offer residents, tourists, companies and employees.

“Professional sports teams define a city’s culture,” he said. “And, to a lesser extent, professional sports are your ticket to the top tier. It means you are big enough and have the business and corporate presence and you have the general wherewithal to host one of the world’s greatest brands. Certain-sized cities can’t do that.

“Having an NBA team is an immediate shorthand for a lot of other things – it means we also have great restaurants and great other things that go hand in hand with the kind of city that has an NBA team.”

Measuring the impact

Thunder executives and city leaders point to many hard-to-quantify economic impacts of having an NBA team. Having a 18,203-seat arena packed 43 nights a year certainly spills over to area businesses bringing an energy and vitality to OKC that flat didn’t exist before the Thunder came to town.

In fact, the Thunder does not publicly release revenue figures, and say they do not calculate or estimate the team’s valuation. Outside agencies do calculate such numbers, however. Forbes* puts the Thunder’s valuation at $1.87 billion with total annual revenues around $274 million with operating income of $129 million. While Oklahoma City is the third smallest market for the NBA, having this size of an operation in Oklahoma City is transformational.

Illustration by Christopher Lee. *Forbes NBA Team Valuations, calculated October 2022 and based on the 2021-22 season.

For Oklahoma City, the impact the Thunder has had on a regional, national and international audience during the last 15 years is “incalculable,” according to Brian Byrnes, Thunder senior vice president of sales and marketing. 

“I don’t know how you can put a number on the impact because it’s so far reaching,” he said. “You sell tickets, you sell merchandise, and ancillary things like food and beverage and parking and those kinds of things, then corporate partnerships, television subscriptions, viewership on our app and other streaming devices. There’s so many different ways that create some of this economic vitality.”

Brian Byrnes, Senior Vice President, Sales and Marketing. Photo by Charlie Neuenschwander.

The Thunder has the highest percentage of local corporate partnerships of any team in the NBA, with 26 percent of sponsors coming from OKC-based companies and 34 percent coming from Oklahoma companies, according to Thunder executives and the Sports Business Journal. That’s significantly higher than the league average of 13 percent.

“We have grown our sponsorships every single year,” said Will Syring, Thunder vice president of corporate partnerships. “We’re very proud to have the largest percentage of local sponsorships in the NBA. And we add value to our partners through various ways, whether that’s media advertising, workforce development opportunities or community impact opportunities.

Growing those partnerships is right – the Thunder started in 2008 with a handful of local corporate partnerships. They tip the scale this year at 26 and counting.

“But at the end of the day, it’s about a relationship,” Syring said. “And I think the team from day one, at the highest levels, have done a fantastic job of managing those relationships effectively doing what we say we’re going to be doing and delivering consistent value to key decision makers across the state. We have been consistent, and concise and we’ve treated people fair. And I think that’s really helped us maintain our local base and actually grow that over time.”

Will Syring, Vice President, Corporate Partnerships. Photo by Charlie Neuenschwander.

Devon Energy was a founding corporate partner, and remains a large partner today – through programs like co-branding basketball courts and partnering to bring STEM education programs like Thunder Math Hoops and Devon Thunder Explorers to children.

“The Thunder has a great brand, in and of itself, and the high profile of the Thunder really helps elevate Devon, our brand and the brand of its other partners,” said Christina Rehkop, Devon Energy director of community relations. “The STEM education programs are incredibly important. Through the Thunder, we’ve been able to provide education to more kids and more classrooms than we could ever have done alone.”

Christine Berney, Vice President, Community Engagement. Photo by Charlie Neuenschwander.

Growing Oklahoma City

Mayor Holt ties the current success and past growth of Oklahoma City directly to the Thunder.

“Isn’t it kind of a coincidence that all this progress we’ve had coincides with us having professional sports?” he said. “It just amped up everything. It immediately became our calling card. It’s a gateway to everything else that comes with being a big city in America. Look at where we were in 2008 and 2005 and compare to today. Obviously when you look at completely unrelated things like dining and population growth, we have clearly advanced in the exact same time frame.”

Byrnes said the relationship the city and chamber has developed with the Thunder puts them in many of the discussions when these entities court new businesses, employees or attractions.

“The Thunder is often invited to any of those discussions with our partners at the Oklahoma City Chamber for a lot of these visits from corporate relocation advisors,” he said. “And sometimes it’s the actual brands themselves, looking at the state of Oklahoma, or more specifically, the city of Oklahoma City. And the Thunder is often included in those discussions to talk about quality of life, about living in a marketplace that has professional sports entertainment.” 

Roy Williams, outgoing Oklahoma City Chamber president and CEO, said the Thunder brings in a lot of hard dollars into the OKC community but that its true value is in the prestige it brings to outsiders and the pride it drives for residents.

“When the Thunder first came here, it created community pride around something new in town that was exciting,” Williams said. “And that put us on an international stage. And how do you put a price on that? I don’t even know. I hear countless stories from people that travel all over the world and people comment on their Thunder gear first. The Thunder changed where OKC is in the world and put us in a place we’ve never been before. How can you quantitatively define that? But it has certainly created impact and recognition that we would never, never have gotten otherwise.”

For the Thunder, the executive staff keeps this approach and perspective top of mind. 

Photo by Charlie Neuenschwander.

“That’s what grounds our approach to running the business, we know that it’s bigger than basketball,” Byrnes said. “And it speaks to our perspective on building a brand, and our comportment, our character, our commitment to the community is all connected to having an acute understanding of just how this is bigger than a basketball product.”

To that end, the Thunder partnered with StitchCrew, in 2018 creating the Thunder LaunchPad, which is a space used by the business incubator focused on helping women and people of color entrepreneurs. 

“The Thunder was our first corporate partner, and we launched this together,” StichCrew co-founder Erica Lucas said. “This was pre-George Floyd and pre-pandemic. And no one was talking about equity and equality at that time. We launched with the Thunder intentionally because their narrative has always been to be inclusive.”

Business leaders meet at the Thunder Launchpad, a space created in 2018 to serve as a business incubator helping women and people of color. The Thunder’s partner, StitchCrew, also holds events at the arena.

The business incubator focuses on 6-to-12 week programming that helps businesses get off the ground. And, in the last five years, the organization has helped more than 100 businesses, including one business now working million-dollar contracts with federal defense agencies and another business that developed an app to help people grow their own food, then acquired by the largest food-growing app company. 

“We pair them with mentors and other funders and investors so they can have resources and a network that first-time entrepreneurs often lack,” Lucas said. “It’s important that we have the partnership with the Thunder because a lot of people pay attention because of their brand.” 

Oklahoma’s largest megaphone

When the May 20, 2013, F5 tornado tore across Moore, killing 24, the Thunder team had only been in Oklahoma for a handful of years. In the days following, the team put forward both its mega following and its money to help the residents of Moore. Byrnes said the tragedy helped the team learn lessons that guide their decisions and their need to impact Oklahoma City for the good still today. 

“We learned a lot in that tornado in Moore,” he said. “And what we learned more than anything was that we had a voice. That’s what really developed in that moment was that we mobilized our people and our resources. We saw we have the reach. And I don’t know that we fully saw ourselves like that, in that moment. Now we’re 10 years removed, and we’ve learned a lot. And I think a lot of what we’re doing in the present day is informed from those experiences.” 

The Thunder is Oklahoma’s largest amplifier for brand awareness and communication without close competition. As a part of the NBA family, the Thunder provides national and global reach for brands looking for that level of impact through partnerships like branded jersey patches, naming rights and on-court TV-visible branding and more. And then there is social media: The Thunder’s extensive reach tracks 20 million-plus people across all platforms, which is among the highest social media followings in professional sports.

When the Thunder says something, a lot of people hear it. 

“We position ourselves as the state’s megaphone,” Syring said. “And entities lean on us to help them tell their stories. We constantly hear from partners that if an event is ‘Thunder-ized,’ it will get a lot more attention than one that’s not. And so, we tend to lead with the community investment in the community storytelling, because that’s our bread and butter. And it tells stories for our partners, and it helps solve real problems and real issues in the state. And that’s what we’re here to do.”

This responsibility of carrying around Oklahoma’s largest megaphone isn’t taken lightly either, Byrnes said. A commitment to community leadership is baked into every level of the organization.

It’s in our mission statement, as an organization, to build, enhance and sustain a professional organization and to provide meaningful community leadership,” Byrnes said. “So this is not something that we just, you know, delegate to an internal group. We try to make sure that we’re doing it with authenticity. There’s a purpose behind it. It drives the brand and drives our organizational culture.” 

Thunder Cares

The Moore tornado that helped define the Thunder’s role in the community is also a great one to explain its impact: The Thunder donated more than $1 million to disaster relief efforts in the aftermath of that tornado.

But, that’s just a large example. The Thunder just recently dedicated its 30th refurbished or newly built basketball court throughout the state. Through its Rolling Thunder Book Bus, the organization is nearing 200,000 (182,000 and counting) books distributed to Oklahoma children in just the last seven years. More than 313,000 elementary kids in Oklahoma have participated in the Thunder Reading Challenge since 2009. 

Courtesy of Oklahoma City Thunder.

“We want to use ourselves as a platform to prop up the folks in the organizations that are doing the real work, the hard work in the community,” said Christine Berney, Thunder vice president of community engagement. “We can blow in for an afternoon, and we have a great time, and everybody has a great time. But before we leave, one of our goals is always to make sure that more people know about that community organization, whether it’s Restore OKC, or the Boys and Girls Club, or Big Brothers, Big Sisters, or food bank, or infant crisis services, or you know, any of the 100s of community organizations that we’ve worked with. Our goal is to help them tell their story to more people.”

And, the Thunder are long-term partners too, developing deep roots with organizations in Oklahoma, Berney said. More than 5,000 youth and adults have participated in Thunder Fit Clinics since 2009, including active military and veterans through the Hoops for Troops initiative, and wheelchair clinics to support adaptive youth sports. And since 2009, the Thunder has been fulfilling wishes through Make-A-Wish, has supported the OKCPD FACT Program Hoopsfest, and, along with Homeland, has provided grocery shopping sprees to families who are food insecure.

Every Thunder player, all Blue (the G-league affiliate team) and a lot of the roughly 225 employees participate in the more than 500 or so community projects the Thunder takes on each year. 

Thunder forward Lu Dort takes a selfie with fans at a Thunder Cares event. Courtesy of Oklahoma City Thunder.

“One of the most special things we get to do as professional athletes is giving back to the community and the fans that support us so much,” said Josh Giddey, Thunder guard and first round 2021 NBA draft pick. “It’s great to be a part of an organization that is so heavily focused on giving back and being involved with the community. This team doesn’t function without the fans, and the great fans that we have. So, any chance we get to go out there and interact with the fans, we’ll 100 percent take it.”

Kenrich Williams, Thunder forward now in his fourth season, said he’s participated for years in Thunder literacy initiatives, reading to kids at schools. COVID forced his reading sessions to Zoom, so he said he’s looking forward to participating in Thunder Cares and reading again in person this year.

“That’s up there with playing, in my eyes,” Williams said. “Because we were all once in these kids’ shoes, or whoever we’re giving back to, we were once in their shoes. So to have an NBA player or somebody of a higher profession come back and give, it’s huge. It does something to you. I didn’t have that as a kid, so it’s important now. It’s definitely important now.”

Courtesy of Oklahoma City Thunder.

And, community projects removed, the Thunder organization has coordinated 10,000-plus Thunder player, mascot and entertainer appearances throughout Oklahoma since 2009. 

“(Appearances) are always fun, and it’s kind of humbling too,” said Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Thunder starting point guard, also in his fourth season. “You step outside of your little world, and you see someone’s perspective. It’s an honor to be there, and it makes you grateful for your position. It makes you appreciate where you are more and makes you want to give back more.”

For Gilgeous-Alexander, he said he was particularly moved by giving away turkey dinners during the 2021 Thanksgiving season, seeing the impact the Thunder organization directly had on families. 

“We gave them turkeys, canned goods, whatever food they needed,” he said. “And to just see the families, some were in cars that were broken down, like four kids fitting in three seats. It was unfortunate, but it was nice to know we were giving back.

Thunder center Chet Holmgren talks with a fan at a Thunder Cares community event. Courtesy of Oklahoma City Thunder.

“I think it’s important for people who are on a pedestal to give back and make the world a better place. I feel like it’s a duty because you are blessed and fortunate with things that most people aren’t.”

Thunder forward Luguentz “Lu” Dort, in his third season with the Thunder, recently helped open a new court in Scissortail Park, the most recent court opened and in partnership with Devon. Dort, who also recently started a foundation of his own in Canada, said he wants to bring his foundation to Oklahoma City as well.  

“I want Oklahoma City to see that I want to give back, myself,” he said. “I want to reflect my story growing up in a difficult area and trying to give back to them and giving them some new resources to make life a little easier. So that’s my goal, and hopefully I get to do something here in OKC.”

Creating the NBA standard

Pete Winemiller, who was Senior Vice President of Guest Relations until his passing in 2017, was with the team in Seattle and then in Oklahoma City for more than 20 years.

In that time, he brought national attention to his brand of customer service with a program he developed called Click! This program is specifically trademarked to the Thunder, but the NBA challenged all other teams to develop similar programs that match the standards and effectiveness the Thunder has seen with Click!

Courtesy of Oklahoma City Thunder.

Now, the NBA gives out the annual Pete Winemiller Guest Experience Innovation Award. In the three years the NBA has now given the award, it’s been awarded to vice presidents at the Charlotte Hornets and Miami Heat, and this year the NBA thought enough of the award to honor one person at every team who made a difference during the COVID seasons. And now, every Thunder employee goes through Click! training every year, said Gayle Maxwell, Thunder Director of Communications.

Attention to customer service isn’t just lip service. The 18,000-plus seats at the Paycom Center are filled with about 10,000 season ticket holders, where 85 percent of them come from within 60 miles of downtown OKC. This home crowd does extend throughout the state, though. Season and single ticket buyers have come from all 77 counties in Oklahoma throughout the Thunder seasons. With 8,000 seats in Love’s Loud City, and the average price of a ticket holding steady at $63, and starting at $16, the Thunder crowd represents the diversity of the city it’s in.

And these fans are loyal. Take Dennis Waller, a retired CPA who has only missed six Thunder games in all 15 seasons. And, three of those were last season where he missed two games because he was in the hospital.

“I told the nurse, ‘If you let me go to the Thunder game’ – and I was dead serious – ‘I promise I’ll come back,’” he said.

Of course, Waller loves the game. But he said it was the excellent customer service and lifelong friends he has made that keep him coming back every year. 

Courtesy of Oklahoma City Thunder.

“I mean this sincerely, Thunder basketball is fantastic, but the joy is not the basketball,” he said. “It is the friends I have made over the years and how I’ve been treated when I’m here. From the same lady that greets us at the front door to the older gentleman at the information booth, our longtime usher Kathy and all our friends that sit by us that we haven’t seen all summer – that’s my joy to see all those people that have become such dear friends.”

Susan and Gene Clark have also owned season tickets since the franchise came to Oklahoma City, except she can claim Thunder alum Russell Westbrook as a friend because of her seats.

“I was the ‘Come On Russell’ lady, if you remember that,” Susan said. “I used to stand up and shout ‘Come On Russell,’ before he shot free throws. We used to greet each other before each half. He’d point up to me and I’d point down to him. When I finally met him, and I asked him if my yelling bothered him, he said, ‘No, no, I wait to hear it!’” 

Also from her vantage point, she’s seen the world-wide audience now looking at the Thunder. 

“We have met a lot of international fans that have flown in just to see the Thunder,” she said. “France. Japan. England. New Zealand. Becoming an NBA city has meant so much to Oklahoma City.”

Courtesy of Oklahoma City Thunder.

Salvador Ontiveros, Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center director of finance and HR, bought season tickets the first season when he and his wife were just starting their family. Now the games are a family tradition, with three boys ages 15, 12 and 10. They even take their family holiday photo at the Thunder games each year.

“Listen, these boys like to eat,” he said. “We hit up the Kids Cart, everything there is a dollar, juices, hot dogs, burgers. And I give them each $5, and they splurge. But now I have to give them $10. They don’t know a life of not going to the Thunder.”

Growing up in south Oklahoma City, Ontiveros didn’t think he’d stay in Oklahoma City as an adult. But, now, with the Thunder, he said his opinion of the city has changed – and made him decide to stay. 

“I started to notice a renaissance in Oklahoma City, and there was all this investment and economic development,” he said. “There is something special happening here. There is something brewing. I wanted to stay here and I want to ride this wave. The Thunder has added that value. They’ve added that life value to make families want to stay here.”

Courtesy of Oklahoma City Thunder.