By Michael Kinney
For the first time in close to two years, the Oklahoma City Thunder will play a home game in front of fans when they take the court Sunday against the Philadelphia 76ers at Paycom Center. It’s a day Thunder vice president of marketing Brian Byrnes has been looking forward to for quite some time.
“The fact that we can tell you it’s exactly 592 days from March 11, 2020, to opening day Oct. 24 tells you everything you need to know,” Byrnes said. “We have literally been counting the days. We have 150 staff that works for the Oklahoma City Thunder and everybody has been counting the days to opening night.”
Yet, during that nearly 600 day gap, it wasn’t as if the Thunder staff weren’t putting in work.
“The opportunity for us was to use that time to think about what’s it like when we bring fans back,” Byrnes said. “I’m really proud of our organization for thinking long term about what does the Thunder experience really means and how do you really bring it to life? One of the things we are really excited about is that we’re bringing all these things back.”
Some of the new elements include bringing in the franchise’s first in-house DJ in MC-1. He will be located on the entertainment deck which looks down on the court in the south end of the arena.
The game night experience will also include new food selections such as funnel cake fries (my favorite), smoked wings, a cheddar BBW Smokehouse Burger, loaded brisket potatoes, and the Big Three box, which contains three different hot dogs. Also, you can’t forget about the large chocolate chip and fudge cookie and milk.
“Almost everything you can see has been refreshed. We have a completely revamped food and beverage experience,” Byrnes said. “We’ve tried to add as many new elements as we can so that the fan has a sense of its new, refreshed. It’s exciting, energetic.”
To go along with the Paycom Center’s new cashless mode, one of the newest elements being added to the Thunder experience is the Zip in Power Forward in section 108. It’s basically a self-serving beer kiosk.
“There are 21 camera sensors located in the celling that register when you enter the power forward. You put a credit card in and that immediately identifies you as a consumer,” Byrnes. said. “As you begin your shopping experience and take products off the shelf, everything is connected digitally so that it’s a digital cart. As you exit, it closes out your transaction because it knows what product you have taken off the shelf, it associated that to your credit card. When you walk out, it charges you and you move on. It’s a completely seamless experience.”
The average time from start to finish for a customer using the Power Forward is 15 seconds. Oklahoma City is just the fourth arena in the NBA to have this technology, according to Byrnes.
Byrnes also wanted to ease any fears fans had about using such new technology.
“This is not a facial recognition thing. This is not a data collection thing. Camara sensors are identifying you by what you are wearing. It’s tagging you by your sweater, your shirt, your jacket. It’s finding something on your person that it can then associate to your credit card,” Byrnes said. “Once you conclude, your file is closed out. No data collection. Just a way to track you through the process and make sure only what you are purchasing is associated to your credit card.”
While the Thunder have gotten off to a tough 0-2 start to the season, returning to Oklahoma City for their first home game could give the young team a boost.
But just as important is the boost having the fans back inside the arena will give to the entire organization.
“It’s just so obvious that when we were playing these games inside the arena last year without fans, just what an impact it has on the business,” Byrnes said. “The lack of the energy of the fans, the fact we were not activating all of the guest experiences, all the things that go into the theater of the game, it was really telling.”