Update on OKC Energy’s stadium and MLS plans

Part-owner Bob Funk Jr. explains the challenges of a new stadium.
Bob Funk

OKC Energy co-owner Bob Funk Jr. Credit: The Oklahoman

Bob Funk Jr. and his co-owner Tim McLaughlin do not make snap judgments.

Just a few weeks ago, it seemed likely that Funk’s OKC Energy club would be building a new home in the Bricktown area of Oklahoma City. The site was a 40-acre mill called Producers Cooperative Oil Mill (colloquially referred to as the “PComm” property). But on June 1, news broke — rather under the radar — that Funk and his partners had pulled out of the deal.

Prima facie, this leaves Energy in a precarious position — no immediate plans for MLS, a team playing at a site that doesn’t meet USSF requirements and a relaunching of exploration of potential sites. Funk spoke to Soc Takes and it soon became clear that he sees an upward trajectory toward MLS and considers most of these issues to be minor perturbations.

PComm

The plans for the PComm site included retail stores, a hotel and housing as complementary to the soccer stadium.

“The price was too high at first because of which we looked at other opportunities. We talked to a group in Edmond and Norman about potential sites. Also in Northwest Oklahoma City, but everyone agreed that critical mass is downtown, so we decided that the stadium had to go downtown. The Mill site made sense in terms of location at that time.”

Having seemingly selected the site and then deciding against it, many have wondered why. Funk was hesitant to discuss the reasons, citing confidentiality issues, but perhaps one of their initial concerns – an inflated price for the property – contributed to their decision. In support of this, OKC Business writer, Steve Lackmeyer previously suggested that he suspected the “co-op has a greatly inflated asking price” as reason for reneging the bid.

While OKC soccer fans may understandably be upset at a further delay in the possibility of seeing their checkered jerseys traversing a soccer-specific stadium, Funk believes that perhaps this isn’t the right time for a stadium or an MLS bid.

“Timing is everything,” he said. “Pursuing something at the wrong time might kill the dream.”

The dream

Joining MLS has always been the goal for Energy. “The way I’ve looked at it – since we made it our franchise official, we wanted to talk about MLS. We were thinking 8-10 years ahead and a new stadium was our intention from the beginning. I didn’t want to be an USL owner forever. The vision has always been to get to MLS, and therefore, a stadium was on our minds from the beginning.”. “

“It’s not easy, there are risks bringing an MLS franchise here. But, we’re also generating economic benefits for the city. Yes, owners are building facilities, but they are taking a  significant risk. Owners only invest if the public wants it. Therefore, it’s not as simple as ‘let the owners build it by themselves.’

Future plans for the stadium

Image credit: OKC Energy

While the earlier plan involved retail and other amenities, Funk says that going forward, a stadium-only plan is more likely. He is also hesitant to commit to the exact financial plan. While declaring that private money will be involved, Funk says level of public investment would be contingent on the idiosyncracies of the site itself.

OKC problems

When asked about how receptive the legislature is of their current and future plans for a stadium, Funk said, “They’ve been receptive. Because we’ve pointed out that we want to make it multi-purpose . I think everyone loves the idea. The big skepticism is how much will it cost? And how are we going to pay for it? Finding a location, coming up with a plan of how this will work, and then meeting with local officials/business leaders and keeping them constantly updated, so that when the time is right, we want to pounce. We’re going to continually ask for civic leaders and the public’s input to get complete buy in.”

While these sorts of measured responses are to be expected from owners, Funk’s blunt and informative analysis of why securing public funding is problematic in OKC was a pleasant surprise to this author. Funk explained that before he felt comfortable asking significant public investment, he felt that more pressing issues in OKC needed governmental investment.

“We have some issues in OKC. Mainly, education, criminal justice reform – via mental health, drug rehab facilities, etc. , infrastructural issues (such as streets, roads, etc; public safety ( Funk explained later that he believed the city police department to be understaffed by ~500 officers). These social problems need to be solved first and then we can talk about MLS landscape. That’s why we are being cautious and careful of our approach. Especially if we need to go to the voters to ask for funding.”

When it was pointed out to him that these issues would require longer than a 5 year arc to be resolved, Funk clarified –

“We’ve had a pretty good record in OKC of identifying problems and fixing them. I don’t think we’re going to solve the education problem, but we’re going to try to sort out the funding issue w/ education, for example.”

Taft Stadium

One area of worry is the current site of OKC Energy’s home games. The stadium does not meet the width requirements for USSF “by a

Bob Funk Jr. Credit: OKC Energy

 few feet”. Energy’s stadium size was one of the waivers that USL had to apply for last year. Funk remains calm although he admits that it is an issue that has to be addressed.

“Yeah, we realize it’s an issue. I’m at a loss how to fix it. Even in Norman, there isn’t a stadium that seats anything over 5k that fits a soccer field that’s grass. Do i think our fans are complaining about the field width? No. It’s important from my perspective from division II that we find a way to comply. It keeps us out of hosting US Open Cup, too.”

When asked if the Energy will apply for a waiver again this year, Funk responds rather tongue-in-cheek, “As long as NYC FC are applying for waivers, I’m not concerned.”

The takeaway

Backing out of the PComm proposal sounds like a financially prudent move. But, it is important to note that having not put in an MLS bid this time around, Energy’s MLS dream is contingent on the announcement of further expansion slots by MLS.  Unless MLS opens up more expansion slots, for now, the OKC to MLS dream is dead.

Bob Funk Jr has a strategic plan for OKC Energy. Yet, he understands that he doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

Instead, he exists in the mercurial valley of lower-division soccer. Sometimes there are avalanches of a fleeting new local team, sometimes the clouds strike the mountains of aforementioned sociopolitical turmoil causing unexpected delays. Sometimes, the sun comes out, and you sign an exciting all-encompassing kit deal with Under Armor. Sometimes, the relative calm and subsequent tornado of USSF sanctions strike the valley. But, Funk Jr understands the power of two words in lower-division soccer: continuity and preparation.

As their logo says, “Labor Omnia Vincit” — labor conquers all.

You can follow Nipun on Twitter @NipunChopra7.

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Nipun divides his time between his two great loves – neuroscience and soccer. You can find him discussing both of those, as well as regular updates (pupdates) on his wonderful doggo, Octavia on Twitter. Get in touch with feedback/story suggestions at @NipunChopra7 or nipun.chopra@SocTakes.com

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