The Ford Center has every intention of achieving big-league status, and in most respects this six-year-old arena qualifies. Excellent location and exterior appearance, coupled with a large seating capacity, good interior lighting, superb sight lines and sound add up to a favorable experience overall. And, yet, you can’t help but notice there’s room for considerable improvement.Year Opened: 2002
Capacity: 19,599 (basketball), 18036 (hockey), 17,868 (arena football), 19,231 (concerts)
Architect: The Benham Companies
Owner: City of Oklahoma City – managed by SMG
Last Visit: October 19, 2007
Cost: $89 million
Web Site: okfordcenter.com
Phone: 405/235-8288 (box office)
Anchor Tenant: Oklahoma Blazers (CHL), Oklahoma City Yard Dawgz (AF2)
Parking: Some metered parking (free evenings) is available surrounding the arena. More than 900 underground spaces available at the convention center across the street from the arena — $6 event parking. Other lots available in downtown and Bricktown retail area.
Directions: 100 W. Reno Av., Oklahoma City, OK. From I-40 East: exit at Harvey Ave., turn right and proceed north on Harvey Ave., turn right and proceed east on Reno Ave. – Ford Center is located at Reno and Robinson. From I-40 West: exit at Robinson Ave., turn right at the bottom of the off ramp and proceed north on Robinson Ave. From I-235: exit at NW 6th St. (6th St. is one-way east), turn left at Broadway and proceed south on Broadway, stay in the left lane and veer to E.K. Gaylord Ave – Ford Center is west of E.K. Gaylord and Reno.
By Jim Robins
The Ford Center has every intention of achieving big-league status, and in most respects this six-year-old arena qualifies. Excellent location and exterior appearance, coupled with a large seating capacity, good interior lighting, superb sight lines and sound add up to a favorable experience overall. And, yet, you can’t help but notice there’s room for considerable improvement.
For two years, Ford Center achieved the moniker of big league — albeit with an asterisk. When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, Ford Center became home to the NBA Hornets for two seasons. Despite the temporary status, the Hornets drew extremely well in Oklahoma City and the popular, permanent CHL Blazers didn’t take a hit. In fact, the hockey team led the hockey minor leagues in attendance last year.
So, Ford Center is a popular place — whether at the minor-league or major-league level. And Oklahoma City is poised to claim big-league status on a permanent basis.
On March 4, 2008, OKC residents approved a 1 percent sales tax extension that was cast as a referendum on bringing NBA basketball to the city. While it was very much possible that Oklahoman Clay Bennett and his Seattle SuperSonics could very well have headed to OKC no matter how the vote turned out, approval virtually guaranteed the relocation, now slated for the 2008-2009 season
You will find a lot to like about Ford Center both inside and out. We are especially fond of the convenient location — a short walk from the bustling Bricktown entertainment district just across the tracks and not far from downtown to the north. From pretty much any angle around the arena’s exterior, you’ll get a very good impression from the steel, glass and light-colored brickwork. On the inside, seating close to the action is also very good with excellent sight lines all around.
But Ford Center is a Jekyll and Hyde experience. The club and suite spaces are sparse and simple, and the broad concourses are oddly dingy for such a recent facility. You won’t find it difficult to figure out where corners were cut to achieve the $89 million total cost of initial construction. You can easily tell that a design process decision was made to build a major league-sized facility with the expectation of finishing improvements at a later date. In fact, that is exactly what will happen with the help of the 15-month, $121 million city sales-tax extension. Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the proposal is carving out an estimated $20 million of the proceeds for an NBA practice facility.
The hockey team is the main tenet of Ford Center currently, and the prospects of watching an arena transformation geared mostly toward the needs of the NBA doesn’t faze Blazers assistant general manager Josh Evans. "Anything that makes the building better helps us 100 percent," Evans said. Indeed many of the proposed improvements, such as expanded suites and a finer restaurant available to general ticket holders, certainly will be a welcomed attraction to Oklahoma City hockey fans.
It can’t hurt that the hockey team held its own and then some when Ford Center successfully hosted the Hornets. As for the competition for business sponsorships, Evans doesn’t see a problem with the permanent entrance of an NBA franchise into the local market. Leading sponsorships for the Blazers cost in the $20,000-30,000 range for the hockey team, but in the NBA "that won’t buy you too much," Evans said. By contrasting the substantial difference, the Blazers can show good value to potential sponsors.
He expects that hockey and basketball can both get their fair share of good weekend nights with a lot of Friday night-Saturday hand offs working as a draw. Perhaps the venue will be a better draw to out-of-town visitors on those weekends. "We want to entertain people from the minute they come in the door to the minute they leave," Evans said.
Although the Blazers have been included in preliminary planned improvements, Evans admits the team will be interested in learning how the specific details will all shake out. One of the more interesting changes will be a shift from the attractive main entrance along Reno Avenue all the way over to the south side of the building. Reno divides Ford Center and the Cox Convention Center where the underground garage provides parking for most of the arena customers. Moving the main entrance might seem like an odd change considering the obstruction caused by close proximity of the raised freeway, but a plan is already in place to realign I-40 much further to the south. In its place, a ground-level boulevard will showcase the renovated Ford Center with downtown as the backdrop.
On the night we visited, it was pretty clear that it was the first game of the year as the ticket office experienced its fair share of confusion. Fans took it all in stride, and one customer commented that the box-office problems that night are something he had never seen. The Blazers are a strong draw most nights, especially when a rival like Wichita or Tulsa visits on a weekend. On our October visit Youngstown proved to be less than an excellent draw on the way to a 4-2 Blazers loss, but the nicely tailored curtain closing off the top level kept the place feeling cozy. On occasion the arena curtain is lifted on one side or both sides, giving the Blazers plenty of flexibility to meet the need depending on demand.
Overall, we were impressed with the basic design of Ford Center. Despite its dim, Spartan appearance, the concourse is well designed and spacious. Food stands are positioned to ensure that even long lines won’t interfere with corridor traffic. Too often, major renovations come at a high cost to the original design, but clearly Ford Center was designed in right from the start for making cost-effective making improvements.
Or, as Josh Evans commented about converting from the original arena to the new design, "You can’t sacrifice the structure." And to their credit, it appears that Oklahoma City residents have embraced the idea of creating a truly big-league venue in a two-step process only six years after completing the first phase.
Perhaps the only disappointment with the conversion process is the classy existing front entrance necessarily will become less of a focal point. Or, look at it from the “glass half full” perspective: Ford Center quite certainly will feature one of the most impressive rear arena entrances you’ll ever see.