SMG in the News: BOK Center Exceeding Expectations 5 Years Later

Originally posted at Tulsa World.

By ZACK STOYCOFF World Staff Writer on Sep 21, 2013, at 6:54 AM  Updated on 9/21/13 at 8:55 AM

Five years are in the books, and Tulsa’s BOK Center continues to defy financial expectations.

The downtown arena had its most lucrative year yet between July 2012 and June 2013, netting $1.7 million in profit as large events boosted attendance at a time when its early successes would have been expected to wane along with public interest.

But that hasn’t happened.

“We’ve had success from the beginning, which is great, but I couldn’t have predicted that the fifth year would be the best so far,” BOK Center Manager John Bolton said.

Since its first show Sept. 6, 2008, the facility has accumulated a profit of $7.6 million, recorded attendance of 3,387,689 over 848 events, remitted $11.7 million in sales taxes and is credited with contributing at least $226.3 million to Tulsa’s economy.

But if you were to ask the experts, it should have lost steam by now.

Five years into their lives, most arenas have forgotten their initial “honeymoon” phase and struggle to make the profits they did in the months following the excitement surrounding their construction, Bolton said.

In Tulsa, the excitement never relented.

BOK Center Finance Director Tom Simpson still sees Tulsans taking photos of the arena like it’s the first time they have seen it – “like they’re tourists,” he said. “There does seem to be pride level, an appreciation level there.”

The BOK Center has consistently been recognized as one of the nation’s top venues, nominated four straight years for Pollstar magazine’s Arena of the Year award and ranked by the publication this year as the 14th most-attended arena so far this year.

It has never made less in a year than $1.2 million – and even that was during its first year, when it was open for only 10 months. Annual profits peaked at $1.65 million in 2010 before dropping off for two years and rising again last year.

All of that goes into the BOK Center’s city-controlled capital improvements fund, where it is used to maintain the building and is spent on construction projects.

City Economic Development Director Clay Bird said those numbers have outperformed officials’ wildest expectations.

The $178 million facility, funded mostly by revenue bonds and a 13-year 0.6-cent sales tax, was the flagship project of Tulsa County’s Vision 2025 initiative in 2003.

“It’s my understanding that most arenas and convention centers lose money, and our arena makes money,” Bird said. “That’s pretty rare.”

What’s more impressive, he said, is the facility’s “transformative” effect on downtown.

Officials credit it with launching an ongoing wave of revitalization that has spurred development in the Brady Arts and Blue Dome districts.

Jeff Keeley, manager of downtown’s Hyatt Regency, won’t argue with that. He said his hotel is “almost guaranteed to sell out” every time a big-name performer plays the BOK Center.

“I think it really all started with the BOK Center,” Bird said. “I can’t think of anything else that’s been this monumental.”

The facility has shown that Tulsa can attract the world’s top performers as often as the top markets in the country, which has boosted community morale, he said.

He adds that “if Elvis rose out of the grave, maybe we’d even have a shot at getting him.”

Top-drawing paid events in the last fiscal year included the 2013 Bassmaster Classic fishing tournament, which sold 43,024 tickets, the Rock ‘n Rib Festival, which sold 41,233, and the Paul McCartney concert, which sold 25,363.

Total attendance in fiscal year 2013 was 675,683, up from 632,882 the previous year. Annual attendance was as high as 740,361 in fiscal year 2010.

The facility is home to the WNBA’s Tulsa Shock and the Central Hockey League’s Tulsa Oilers, which pay the facility rent, and it has also hosted performers such as Elton John, the Eagles, George Strait, Aerosmith and Lady Gaga.