Native American Appreciation Night is just one of OKC Thunder nights planned to honor the team’s diverse fans. (Zach Beeker / provided)
By Michael Kinney
NBA seasons can feel very long. From late October to mid-April, teams play 82 games in different arenas around the country.
One of the ways Oklahoma City Thunder helps alleviate the monotony is by hosting special theme nights that can get fans, players and local businesses involved.
“Theme nights give us an opportunity to create different experiences for our fans throughout the season, since we always work to integrate our themes throughout the game presentation,” said Brian Byrnes, Thunder senior vice president of sales and marketing. “We also have the support of our business partners for certain theme nights, which gives them a chance to connect with and recognize our diverse fan base. We strive to make sure our theme nights have maximum impact and serve a purpose in helping us build meaningful connections with our community of fans.”
Each year, the Thunder develop a roster of theme nights for the upcoming season.
For 2016-17, they include Opening Night at Thunder Alley outside Chesapeake Arena (Friday), Native American Heritage Night (Nov. 16), Mascot Mania (Feb. 3), Black History Appreciation Night (Feb. 26), Military Appreciation Night (Feb. 28) and Hispanic Heritage Night (March 7).
“In the past, we’ve used some of the special player-worn warm-ups on theme nights in support of our Thunder Cares Foundation as auction items for fans to purchase or as donations to support other causes,” Byrnes said. “On Military Appreciation Night, we offer a special T-shirt for sale, and when fans purchase one, we donate another shirt to service personnel stationed overseas or to military families.”
Fans can pick and choose which theme night they want to take part in.
“Every year, we challenge our staff to find new ways to create unique content that embraces our theme nights, whether on social media, on the web, for the game presentation or in our Thunder Shop,” Byrnes said.
Every team in the NBA has its version of theme nights that are unique to each city, state or region.
But there are also leaguewide themes all 30 franchises take part in.
“The theme nights are a combination of league-wide initiatives and team influences,” Byrnes said. “For example, the NBA has taken the lead in recognizing Black History Month and Noches éne-bé-a, but our team has created traditions such as Native American Heritage Night and Military Appreciation Night to connect with other communities that are strong in our state.”
Native American Heritage Night was created specifically by Thunder brass last season.
It was so popular that it returns again this season when Oklahoma City hosts the Houston Rockets.
“For Oklahoma, Native American culture has been extremely important and influential, as it has been for our team, including the influence of choosing a bison for our mascot, as the bison has a strong presence in the symbolism of many tribes,” Byrnes said. “We work closely with several Oklahoma tribes for ticketing and more on this theme night.”
Black History Appreciation Night is just one of the events Thunder holds during Black History Month. One of the goals has always been to get kids involved in the celebration.
“We do plan to hold our ninth annual Black History Heroes Challenge this year,” said Christine Berney, vice president of community relations.
The contest asks students from across Oklahoma to submit an art piece or essay about an outstanding individual in black history or an impactful African-American in their lives.
“It’s a great way to get kids to express themselves creatively and to dig into black history on a personal level,” she said. “We’ll recognize the contest winners on court during Black History Appreciation Night on Feb. 26 and display their artwork on the concourse.”
For Byrnes, there is one night that stands out from the rest.
“We’re always proud of the response from our fans for Military Appreciation Night and the diversity of people and institutions we honor that night,” he said. “From Thunder staff and arena personnel to season ticket members, we have a lot of folks we honor that night and others who take part in making that night special.”
Through donations from season ticket members, Thunder typically provides over 1,000 tickets to local military groups, Byrnes said.
This story appeared in the Oklahoma Gazette