USL PRO Feature
Friday, August 16, 2013
From the inception of the Oklahoma City Barons in the AHL in 2010, Bob Funk Jr. and his management team with Prodigal LLC have put a strong product on the ice.
Next year, Funk is aiming to do the same in USL PRO. After last month’s announcement that Oklahoma City would become the league’s 15th franchise in 2014, Funk and his associates are now getting set to bring another successful team to a city that is passionate about sport.
“I was just looking for what was going to be the next best option for Oklahoma City that had the growth opportunity over 10-to-15 years in the sporting industry here,” Funk said by phone. “With soccer out there, having seen what was going on with MLS and how the league was growing, my thoughts were, ‘Oklahoma City isn’t ready for another major league team, but they might be in another 10-to-15 years, and how do you open the door to that market? How do you open the door to that sport in Oklahoma City?’ ”
Funk’s initial interest in USL PRO came about soon after the establishment of the Barons, who have been to the AHL Playoffs each of their first three seasons. While other leagues were considered by the Funk and his management group, when the time came to make a decision, it was an easy one to make.
“I had discussions with a couple of different people out there, people that I’d worked with in the United States and had conversations about both leagues, about which one was preferable, and I think the hands-down choice at that point was just a no-brainer for USL,” Funk said. “That was even before the partnership with MLS. That was what started us down that path to see the vision for where Oklahoma City was going to go, soccer fits well from an outdoor sport standpoint, we have a great record of support here that continues to grow year after year, we’ve already shown great numbers here in our local community.”
The main focus now for Funk and his team is to make sure the franchise hits the ground running. The club has already announced plans for a soccer-specific stadium, initially set to house 7,000 fans with the potential for future expansion that will be designed by the same local architecture firm that built the beautiful Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark in downtown Oklahoma City. The organization is also on the search for a general manager and head coach that will bring attractive and winning soccer to Oklahoma City.
Away from the field, Funk is focused on making sure his past experiences with not only the Barons, but also the Oklahoma City Redhawks, are replicated in USL PRO.
“I would say the lessons I’ve learned, in all my experiences, whether it was with sports teams, sporting events, special events, the rules are very much the same,” he said. “There are 10, 11, 12 basic rules that need to be followed. To me, all events are the same, and when you’re looking at something that is appealing, that is entertaining, that is dynamic and that people can get behind, we have to focus on those components when you’re looking at any sporting event or sports team, and be able to make the judgment on whether it’s going to be successful or not. Once you do that, it’s really a matter of following the basics and doing it the right way.”
For Funk, doing things the right way doesn’t just mean putting a successful team on the field. It also means becoming part of the city’s wider soccer community, and offering opportunities through the USL PRO side that might not otherwise be available to young players in the region.
"I think there are some opportunities with the PRO team to establish a really good development model here in Oklahoma,” Funk said. “With the number of grassroots players that are out there and the interest in athletics in our youth system and high school systems, I think there’s a good opportunity.”
The new franchise is also going to be actively seeking an affiliation with an MLS club for its inaugural season, as the Barons have with the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers, as they aim to offer the highest level of soccer below Major League Soccer while getting ready to compete with traditional league powers such as Orlando City, the Charleston Battery, Richmond Kickers, Harrisburg City Islanders and Rochester Rhinos.
“We’ve had a good experience with our experience with the Barons, and previously to that with the Redhawks and our affiliation with the Texas Rangers,” Funk said. “Having that major-league affiliation is a great marketing piece, it’s a great development model for us, it’s a great competitive model, we feel like, and it brings a lot of value on the field and off the field as well.
“When you have these athletes in and around your community that the local youth get to be exposed to, getting to know what kind of individual they are, what they have to strive for to get to that level, so we have had great experiences with Edmonton and the Redhawks having that local player involvement on the youth side and with our fans as well. It makes a big difference.”
In the long-term, Funk and his organization are also aiming higher than USL PRO, with the goal of become a franchise in MLS a long-term project Funk aims to accomplish. With a current candidate for MLS expansion currently in the league in Orlando City, and USL’s history of providing the platform for clubs to make the jump into the top flight, Funk is hopeful Oklahoma City can follow a similar path.
“I know [Orlando’s] story and how they went about in their plan in getting an MLS franchise, and I’m looking forward to talking with them more about the details of that plan when I get to the Board of Governor’s Meetings because we’re currently going through those processes now in finding our development partners and investors locally to start developing that plan,” Funk said. “Our building process is very important, so I tend to take a very long-term view of things. Getting with those guys in Orlando, having a conversation with them will be crucial to us mapping out our plan over the next 10 years.”
For now, though, Funk is aiming to establish Oklahoma City as a power in USL PRO, and a name that resonates with the Oklahoma City community. With a growing and diverse population, Funk believes that the local community will bring the passion it has for sports in general to its newest franchise.
“We have such a culture here that revolves around sports,” Funk said. “We have Thunder basketball, we have OU and OSU football which are the giants in this marketplace, but you have a city of 1.3 million people here with very diverse interests in sports. I think our hockey team is an example that there are other opportunities, there are other diverse offerings in sports, soccer obviously being one of them, that is important for the Oklahoma City community.
“I’ve been a big proponent of providing Oklahoma City, first of all, options, and with those options the best options possible, that are attainable, that they can come to be a part of and enjoy. We rely upon that sport culture to drive that, and being involved in USL PRO fits right into that mantra and our philosophy at Prodigal where we offer them the highest quality sport available.”