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Tuesday, September 4, 2012
Updated: September 7, 12:35 PM ET
No. 1: Oklahoma City Thunder

By Peter Keating
ESPN The Magazine

Serge Ibaka
Serge Ibaka and his Thunder teammates see their franchise as a community trust.

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Sept. 17 Franchise Issue. Subscribe today!

LORAN MAYES IS a captain in the Oklahoma City Thunder Blue Alliance, which means she helps keep Thunder fans connected to one another and to the team, in part by organizing meet-ups. Sometimes fans gather at Mayes' home in Altus, Okla., a town of just under 20,000 people; other times they get together at local bars or bowling alleys, or at a McDonald's so parents can bring their kids. Last Dec. 29, Mayes hosted an impromptu watch party at a local hospital, where medical staff crowded to watch Kevin Durant drain a three-point bomb as time expired to clip Dallas 104-102. The meeting was there because Mayes was about to give birth to her third child. Durant's shot sent her into labor, and out came baby Molly. "Thank you, Kevin Durant!" Mayes says with a laugh.

And that's why Oklahoma City finished first in this edition of The Mag's annual Ultimate Standings. The Thunder turn fans into family.

Every year, through fan surveys and financial analysis, we determine which MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL franchises offer the greatest rewards for all the emotion, money and time fans invest in them. And every year, we're struck by a basic finding: Fans aren't so unrealistic as to demand championships from their clubs every season. Moreover, fans also have indicated recently that they don't care all that much about expensive new ballparks or brilliant coaches. Instead, they want value: cheap tickets, hardworking players, committed owners. Throughout the following pages, you'll see that many teams fail, sometimes spectacularly, to get that message. But providing value is precisely what the Thunder do best.

Oklahoma City made the NBA Finals last season while charging an average of just $62.32 per game for tickets, parking and concessions -- 13 percent less than the league average. And in our fan voting, the Thunder tied for first among all teams in the category of "has likable players," ranked first in the NBA in "has a fan-friendly environment at games" and shared the top spot with the Spurs for "has owners and players who show appreciation to the fans."

Now, it's hard to tell the story of little Molly Mayes (who made it to her first game in Oklahoma City at the age of 3 months) or discuss owner appreciation without tripping over the squalid details of the Thunder's own birth. This is the second transplanted team, after the Indianapolis Colts in 2008, to top our rankings, and the fans whom the franchise stranded when the Sonics left Seattle four years ago are still incensed over the move. Local hoops diehards wander through Pioneer Square wearing T-shirts that say "ROBBED" -- and they're not wrong.

But our rankings measure franchises in the present according to how fans currently grade their favorite clubs. If Red Sox followers love their stadium and loathe their manager (and they do both!), that's what matters in our calculations (see methodology, page 56). And at the moment, our research -- and fans' testimonies -- shows the Thunder and their followers are locked in the early stages of a love affair that's already passionate and still intensifying.


FOR A PLACE that didn't already have a big league team, Oklahoma City was unusually ready to adopt the Thunder. After the 1995 domestic terrorism attack that claimed 168 lives, destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and damaged more than 300 other structures, local political and business leaders came together to plan rebuilding efforts. The city has been investing in its downtown -- looking to add sports -- ever since. Bricktown, an old warehouse district, got a face-lift and a minor league ballpark in the late 1990s. In 2002, to lure an NBA or NHL club, the city opened an 18,000-seat arena, which hosted the Hornets for two years after Hurricane Katrina and now is home to the Thunder. "The Thunder are an exclamation point on a 20-year process of civic development," says Brian Byrnes, the team's senior VP for sales and marketing.

But Oklahoma City is still small -- just the 43rd-largest metropolitan area in the U.S., with the second-smallest fan base of any city with a pro franchise. It's also been a college sports town for about 100 years. So the Thunder set out to create an ecstatic game-day experience for fans, one that would lure them from every neighborhood in the region and persuade them to look beyond old allegiances. During the NBA Finals, you probably saw Thunder-stick-waving fans rocking their arena (now called Chesapeake Energy Arena) with nonstop 100-decibel cheering. But really, that's just the end point to the hoopla that confronts you from the moment you get anywhere close to a Thunder game -- you're inundated by pop-a-shot games and face painters and friendly staff handing out flags or posters or stickers and asking you how you're doing. "We want it to be like opening night 41 nights a year," Byrnes says. "We want you to come to see the Thunder on a Tuesday night in the middle of February when it's 13 degrees outside. We can't depend on opponents for that. It's only going to happen because you want to be part of the experience."

The team also pays close attention to its most loyal customers. Most NBA clubs have a few employees tracking the needs of their season-ticket holders. Oklahoma City has 14. So it's no surprise that the franchise ranked No. 1 in the NBA (and third overall) in having a fan-friendly environment at games. But the Thunder also ranked first among all teams in engaging fans through social media and in connecting fans to information online or via mobile devices. It's not just that Thunder fans love their players and appreciate their owners, it's that they can do both up close and at a distance. And that's where the Thunder really excel: reaching beyond their hometown.

Potential citizens of Thunder Nation are scattered sparsely around towns like Granite (138 miles southwest of Oklahoma City), Woodward (139 miles northwest) and Guymon (295 miles away in the Panhandle). Many fans are hours from Chesapeake Energy Arena and count themselves lucky to get to one game a season. So the Thunder go to them: Oklahoma City players made more than 200 appearances around the state last season, second most in the NBA. Team officials talk about Rumble so often that it sounds like he's an executive with the club, but he's actually the costumed mascot -- a bison -- and he made 300 visits.

And remember the Blue Alliance, for which Mayes is a captain? It has chapters in 110 communities and more than 10,000 members. All of these emissaries bring team news and goodies to fans across the state and encourage them to use Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to stay in touch. It helps their cause immensely that Oklahoma City's players are a young, friendly crew whose voracious social media usage highlights their accessibility. Durant has given away game tickets and shoes on Facebook and occasionally posts his whereabouts just so fans can meet him to hang at the mall. James Harden recently invited his 634,400 Twitter followers to his 23rd-birthday party.


THE THUNDER, LIKE other teams that perennially rank toward the top of our standings such as the Angels, Packers and Spurs, view their franchise as a community trust. In contrast, bad organizations have little regard for the long-term bonds that develop between fans and teams. Many of the worst are either insulated from the consequences of their bad decisions, whether by revenue sharing (Redskins), luxury-box cash (Knicks) or unshakably avid fans (Cubs), or blinded by stadium fights (Islanders, Kings).

But no club underperforms for fans while overperforming for owners quite like our No. 122 franchise, the Maple Leafs. Toronto charges by far the highest prices in the NHL -- an average of $151.95 to see a game, 27 percent more than second-place Winnipeg -- but hasn't made the playoffs since 2004, and finished 13th in the Eastern Conference last season. Toronto has finished between 120th and 122nd in our standings every year since 2008 and routinely bottoms out in categories such as player accessibility, fan friendliness and affordability.

Bell Canada and Rogers Communications, two of Canada's biggest media companies, now own the team. (They closed a $1.1-billion deal to jointly buy 75 percent of Maple Leafs Sports Entertainment, which also owns the Raptors, Leafs TV and NBA TV Canada, on August 22.) But there's not yet much hope for change. The Leafs are hockey's most valuable franchise and turned a staggering $81.8 million profit last year thanks to Toronto's corporate base and general madness for hockey.

Oklahoma City doesn't have the luxury of choosing profits over people. And at the moment, like the previous No. 1 teams in our standings, it's brewing a perfect storm of exciting, homegrown players, low prices and nonstop connection to the team.

You might even call it a Thunderstorm.

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