After nine seasons, the Tulsa 66ers are leaving Tulsa.
The Oklahoma City Thunder will move its minor league basketball team to Oklahoma City for the start of next season, the Thunder announced Friday afternoon.
The 66ers, which have been in the Tulsa area since they were established for the 2005-06 season, most recently played in the SpiritBank Event Center in Bixby. SpiritBank, which owns the arena, recently announced that it would no longer hold major events there.
The Thunder attempted to find another venue in Tulsa but was unsuccessful, according to a press release that announced the move.
“Our two seasons in Bixby were successful, and we were pleased to be there. But circumstances beyond our control made it necessary to look for a new home for our development league team,” Danny Barth, executive vice president and chief administrative officer of the Thunder, said in a statement issued by the team.
The 66ers are owned by the Thunder and play in the D-League, a development league for players trying to rise to the NBA. The Thunder often would assign players to Tulsa and recall them from Tulsa during the season.
The minor-league team’s move to Oklahoma City doesn’t reflect a change in the Thunder’s commitment to Tulsa or northeast Oklahoma, Mahoney said.
“This doesn’t change that at all,” said Dan Mahoney, the Thunder’s vice president for communications and community relations, in a telephone interview. “We had no choice. We would have loved to stay in Bixby.”
Mahoney said Thunder officials have not decided whether the D-League team’s name will be changed.
The Thunder has a preseason game scheduled for Oct. 19 in the BOK Center against Minnesota. It will be the team’s sixth preseason game in Tulsa, and the BOK Center was sold out each of the last two years. Their lease with Chesapeake Arena, however, prevents the Thunder from playing regular-season games away from Oklahoma City.
“We have great support in Tulsa,” Mahoney said. “We know that through TV ratings, through ticket sales, through merchandise sales and through social media following.”
Prior to playing seasons in the SpiritBank Event Center, the 66ers played their home games in Expo Square Pavilion and downtown in what is now known as the Cox Business Center.
“We explored several potentially viable options, but were unable to find a facility in the Tulsa area that meets all of our business and basketball needs, so we made the decision to bring the team to Oklahoma City,” Barth said in the team’s media release. “We offer our sincere thanks to the communities of Tulsa and Bixby, and to all of the 66ers fans and sponsors in the area for their loyal support over the past few years.”
The Cox Business Center (formerly the Tulsa Convention Center), Expo Square Pavilion at the Tulsa Fairgrounds, even the Union Multipurpose Activity Center at Union High School made proposals to host the 66ers.
The BOK Center was never offered, and Mahoney said that it’s simply too big for a franchise that averaged 1,987 tickets sold in 2012-13 and 2,020 in 2013-14.
In June, the SpiritBank Event center publicly announced it would no longer seek events for the 4,500-seat main arena, although it planned to continue booking smaller events within the main part of the center.
The 66ers’ new home could become the Cox Convention Center in downtown Oklahoma City, across the street from the Thunder’s home, Chesapeake Energy Arena.
According to a media release from the Thunder, team officials are in discussions to relocate the team to the Convention Center. The team will train at the Thunder Community Events Center in north Oklahoma City, the Thunder’s original training home.
The 66ers’ first majority owner was David Kahn, who later became director of basketball operations for the Minnesota Timberwolves from 2009-13. In 2008, the Professional Basketball Club, LLC, which owns the Thunder, purchased the 66ers.
The 66ers’ former home has had a tumultuous ownership history. The facility is owned by SpiritBank, which acquired the center in lieu of foreclosing on Remy Cos.’ $28 million debt in 2009.
SpiritBank sold the arena in 2010 to MacPot LLC for $19.25 million. The next year, SpiritBank re-purchased the facility for $19 million.
The NBA’s D-League includes 17 teams from throughout the country. Last season, Tulsa was in a division with Austin, Iowa, Rio Grande Valley, Sioux Falls, and Texas (Frisco).
Tulsa World News Editor Mike Strain, World sports writers Barry Lewis and Bill Haisten and World columnist John E. Hoover contributed to this report.