Anyone who has viewed the glitz and glamour of televised sports, with everything from celebrity theme songs to bean-dip-sponsored turf, can tell you that athletics clearly is a big business.

According to the Oklahoma Department of Commerce, nearly 17,000 Oklahomans work in a sports-related industry, and the state is expecting that number to grow some 17 percent by 2020 – while the nation is expected to grow by just 13.5 percent. Sales revenues for sports-related activities generate hundreds of millions of dollars for the state, and for every dollar of sales in Oklahoma sports, another $1.83 is earned by businesses that support the industry.

“It’s important for sports to be in our communities,” says Ray Hoyt, senior vice president at Visit Tulsa/Tulsa Sports Commission. “It’s important for the quality of life.”

To witness the economic influence of athletics on Oklahoma’s communities, one need look no further than Norman – a microcosm for the state’s success in the sports industry. Home to the University of Oklahoma athletics powerhouse, the Sooners, Norman sees millions of dollars in revenue every year from college football alone, in addition to other popular sporting events.  

“Sooner Athletics and the support of our fans have always had a huge economic impact on Norman,” says Joe Castiglione, director of OU Athletics. “Six or seven times each fall, the Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium becomes the sixth-largest city in the state of Oklahoma.”

According to Castiglione, the 2010-2011 season generated more than $44 million in on-campus athletics ticket sales. And with an estimated $330 million in planned construction for athletics facilities, the financial effects of OU sports on Norman and its businesses have no end in sight.
While in the past, Oklahoma’s sports reputation was earned almost exclusively by its college teams, the state rapidly is earning a reputation as a fierce competitor in professional sports as well – a reputation with far-reaching economic implications for the state. With the arrival of such professional teams as the Oklahoma City Thunder and Tulsa Shock, national awareness of Oklahoma’s sports industry is changing, luring visitors not only to stadiums, courts and other venues, but to local businesses and attractions as well.

As Sue Hollenbeck, assistant director of Sports Business Development at the Oklahoma City Convention and Visitors Bureau explains, the impact of the Thunder on Oklahoma City’s economic development goes far beyond simple ticket sales.

“A positive impact is also resulted in any nationally televised game,” she says. “Not only do they bring in production crews, but once those crews are in town, they start shooting all around the area, so that impacts what people from around the country see and how they perceive Oklahoma City. There are more bars, more restaurants – usually locally owned – that are now springing up all around the downtown area… One good reason is because there is more business on game nights.

“The Thunder has definitely changed the area, economically speaking, with the influx of monies being spent directly because of a game in town,” Hollenbeck continues, “but also, the Thunder has changed the way the rest of the country perceives Oklahoma City.”

“The Thunder has definitely changed the area, economically speaking, with the influx of monies being spent directly because of a game in town.”

Although basketball is on its way to prominence in the state, and football has always been king, Oklahoma also is becoming a byword for diversity in sports, hosting everything from world-class fishing competitions to Olympic dreams.

In Oklahoma City, what once was blight on the landscape has become a beacon for Olympic athletes, regatta enthusiasts, rowing teams and more. Recent development along a seven-mile stretch of the North Canadian River – now called the Oklahoma River in Oklahoma City – has the urban waterway attracting aquatic athletes and competitions from across the nation. And with plans for a new waterfront park, funded by the MAPS 3 initiative, the area’s enrichment is far from over.

“The planned White Water center and the improvements to the river will make for more events and continue the quality of the events,” Hollenbeck says. “Once the White Water center is open, there will be many opportunities for tournaments for white-water kayaking, training sessions for Olympic hopefuls and youth events. As for the additional improvements on the river, they continue to put Oklahoma City and the Oklahoma River on the forefront for national and international rowing and flatwater canoe/kayaking.”

Tulsa is seeing its own sports renaissance as well. Hoyt says the Tulsa Sports Commission, which has had a $300 million impact on the area since its inception in 1993, has big plans for the city. One of the most highly anticipated events is the arrival of the Bassmaster Classic in 2013. According to Hoyt, the ESPN-backed championship in professional bass fishing will bring more than $26 million to Tulsa businesses.

In addition, the commission is partnering with what Hoyt calls “one of the oldest, most original soccer brands in the world” to create the AC Milan Heartland Cup, an annual soccer tournament debuting this June that will bring teams from around the globe to compete against regional teams in Tulsa each year.

“It’s a big deal,” Hoyt says. “It’s an elite tournament…our aim is to make this a premier youth soccer event.

“I think our goal is to rebrand Tulsa as a sports region,” Hoyt continues, “and we want  to be recognized as a great sports brand not just in the region, but nationally. We want to look at our assets in the community, like Expo Square, the BOK Center and the Oklahoma Aquarium in Jenks and partner with them to bring events in or create events to brand Tulsa as a regional sports destination.”

From enduring athletics traditions to lucrative new initiatives, the sports industry in Oklahoma is filling the seats of its venues across the state. And for Oklahoma’s citizens and businesses alike, the future seems as bright as any Friday-night lights.

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