Bringing Major League Soccer To OKC
 
By Michaela Marx Wheatley, NewsOK.com, May 17, 2016
 

The Energy FC blasted into town in 2014, and just a year later, they had outgrown their digs at Pribil Stadium on the campus of Bishop McGuinness Catholic High School, playing the 2015 season in Taft Stadium. Early into this season, the visionaries behind the soccer club, owners Bob Funk Jr. and Tim McLaughlin, say the goal of giving Oklahoma City its second top-tier professional sports team is in sight.

Taking lessons from what the Thunder have accomplished, the soccer club, along with sports management firm Prodigal LLC, have been laying the groundwork for the last two years to bring Major League Soccer to Oklahoma City.

“We are a great market for a second major league franchise,” Funk said.

“What’s happening with soccer in North America is unprecedented. We want Oklahoma City to be part of that,” McLaughlin added.

Determined to bring an MLS team to Oklahoma City in the near future, Funk and McLaughlin developed the Energy as a pro team under the United Soccer League's Professional Division. That’s not a coincidence.

Funk said the last five out of six MLS teams were born from USL franchises. However, to realize this dream, the Energy must prove to the organization that they’ve got what it takes: community support and a facility to accommodate the major leagues.

“Can all these parts come together? We have people here who work on this every day,” McLaughlin said. “I look at it as a chain. We had to fill in a few links in the chain. Now we’re lengthening the chain.”

Since the Energy launched, the community has upheld its end of the bargain by embracing the team.

“The support is there. We’re averaging 6,000 people a game. We’re selling out Taft Stadium,” Funk said.

The team has also been connecting with youth soccer throughout the metro area and is building an academy to develop local players.

Giving back to the community and encouraging great local talent is part of the club’s mission. Players coach local youth teams and the Energy hosts a series of youth . Energy players are engaged in programs such as Fields and Futures, where Energy FC donates $2 of every ticket sold to the community program.

The Energy also partners with Special Olympics Oklahoma to provide support, mentoring and friendship to Special Olympics athletes — fittingly named “” — and their families.

“I am very proud of the impact the Energy has on the community. Sport can be a great platform for social change,” McLaughlin said.

Game day fan engagement has been aided by the team’s solid performance on the field. Regional rivalries, a vital ingredient to keeping fans engaged, have developed especially with the Tulsa team, Funk said. Soccer fans are loyal, and the Energy is working hard to create a fan-centric experience.

The next big step is building a stadium. Prodigal hopes to see one in the fabric of the bustling Oklahoma City core soon. Funk said he estimates that a soccer specific stadium is still five to six years out, which is fast in development terms.

“The stadium is essentially a flag, a signal, sending a message to MLS that we’re serious about soccer,” he said.

In addition to having the economic potential to raise funds for the project, Oklahoma City offers loyal fans, prime locations in an urban setting and a growing, evolving infrastructure to support major events — elements other cities lack.

As the Thunder has demonstrated, pro sports teams can add economic value to the community through tax revenue, construction, job creation and generating business for everyone ranging from T-shirt vendors, to bars and hotels. And, as a bonus, the soccer season sits nicely in the OKC sports schedule.

“I love driving around town seeing all the Thunder flags up everywhere,” McLaughlin said. “So when the Thunder flags come down after the season ends, let’s put the Energy flags up. And then the football flags. It’s great.”

The success of the OKC Thunder has put a spotlight on the hunger Oklahomans have for pro sports.

“The Thunder has, in many ways, put Oklahoma City on the national stage,” McLaughlin said.

Funk and McLaughlin said they believe that a MLS team can do the same for Oklahoma City on the world stage, as soccer is undeniably the most popular game on the planet.

So how close are we to a MLS team for Oklahoma City?

“The stars are beginning to align. But we’ll need help,” McLaughlin said.

Added Funk, “He and I have a passion for that, obviously. But we can’t do it alone. In the end it has to be something the entire community wants.”

Check out one of the remaining home games at Taft Stadium in Oklahoma City, and see what the Energy experience is all about.