Oklahoma City Thunders into NBA Finals; Louisville Watches

Last year’s NBA Finals brought an interesting global story line to the table, with German Dirk Nowitzki leading the Dallas Mavericks over the Miami Heat, coached by Filipino-American Erik Spoelstra.

When this year’s NBA Finals tip off on Tuesday night in Oklahoma City, it will be a David-and-Goliath story:  small market versus big city.  The Oklahoma City Thunder, young (average starter age of 24.6) and organically constructed (Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka all drafted by the organization) versus the Miami Heat, veteran laden (average starter age of 29.2) and the product of a record $327.7 million free agent spending binge (LeBron James, Chris Bosh and the re-signed Dwayne Wade).

While Miami has been the odds-on Vegas favorite to win the title since the season tipped off, it would be hard to argue that Oklahoma City has not developed into the best home court advantage in the NBA.  Thunder fans have embraced their team and created a game-day environment that rivals any college basketball arena or European soccer stadium.  While the Chesapeake Energy Arena might not draw the celebrity star power that Miami’s American Airlines Arena draws, the crowd atmospheres couldn’t be more different.  The energy and enthusiasm of the Thunder fans contrasts sharply to the star-gazing, inattentive Heat fans, many of whom do not arrive until the end of the first quarter and leave by the middle of the fourth.  (In the spirit of full disclosure, I used to be a multi-year Heat season ticket holder in both the old Miami Arena and the current American Airlines Arena.)  Clearly, Oklahoma City loves its team.

Surely a small market like Oklahoma City cannot support a successful NBA franchise, can it?  After all, Oklahoma City is only the 43rd largest metropolitan statistical area [MSA] in the U.S. (1.28 million) and only the 45th largest television market.  The city has only two Fortune 500 companies headquartered there and only four in the entire state.  Oklahoma University with its powerful athletic programs is a mereThunder fans are rocking the Chesapeake Energy Arena during the 2012 NBA playoffs. 13 miles outside the city limits and Oklahoma State University with its powerful athletic programs just 55 miles away.  Even worse, there is another NBA franchise, the Dallas Mavericks, 185 miles away.

Despite all these ‘limitations,’ the Oklahoma City Thunder are in the NBA Finals and averaging 18,203 fans per game–100% of arena capacity.

So how does Louisville stack up to Oklahoma City?  Louisville is the 42nd largest metropolitan statistical area in the U.S. (1.29 million) and the 50th largest television market.  The city has two Fortune 500 companies headquartered here and five in the entire state.  The University of Louisville with its powerful athletic programs is just outside of downtown and the University of Kentucky with its powerful athletic programs just 67 miles down the road.  The Indiana Pacers are 115 miles up the road in Indianapolis.

While the two cities appear strikingly comparable, Louisville enjoys one significant quantifiable advantage.  Neither Cincinnati (90 miles away/27th largest MSA/2.14 million) nor Nashville (155 miles away/37th largest MSA/1.62 million) have NBA franchises and are potential fan markets for an NBA team in Louisville, just like the Cincinnati Reds and Tennessee Titans market heavily in Kentucky.

Oklahoma City does not have any similarly sized metropolitan markets in its market radii, which the NBA defines as primary markets (within 50 miles), secondary markets (within 100 miles) and tertiary markets (within 150 miles).  The largest MSA within Oklahoma City’s market radii is Tulsa (97 miles away/54th largest MSA/0.95 million).  Nonetheless, Oklahoma City has excelled as an NBA city.  And their rabid fans may just motivate and cheer on the Thunder to an NBA championship.

There is little reason to doubt that Louisville could not do the same if given the chance.  This year we’ll have to settle for watching it on TV.