NewsOK: Oklahoma City News, Sports, Weather & Entertainment

Tramel: Thunder's no-fan decision for games at Chesapeake Energy Arena seems to be supported by fans

Players stand for the national anthem before the Thunder-Jazz game at Chesapeake Energy Arena on Dec. 28, 2020. [Sarah Phipps/The Oklahoman]
Players stand for the national anthem before the Thunder-Jazz game at Chesapeake Energy Arena on Dec. 28, 2020. [Sarah Phipps/The Oklahoman]

Jonathon Clinesmith is a Thunder fan who doesn’t get to watch his team much. Clinesmith, who lives in southwest Oklahoma City, doesn’t have cable, and Sinclair Media, which owns the Thunder’s television rights, has been in a staredown with streaming services.

With the Thunder rebuild, the national networks want no part of the franchise that once was a television darling.

“Life is kind of tough for us Thunderheads,” Clinesmith wrote me. “In the back of my mind, I at least HOPED that, on some level, I might get to catch them live at least once this season.”

But no. The Thunder announced this week that Chesapeake Energy Arena would remain closed to fans for the remainder of this season, which has reached its halfway mark with the all-star break.

A year ago next week, COVID-19 stopped the NBA season, and it eventually concluded in an Orlando bubble. The pandemic remains, but vaccines have arrived, virus spread is slowing and some NBA arenas have re-opened with massively-reduced capacities.

Including places like Boston, New York and Philadelphia.

But not in Oklahoma City.

The Thunder told season-ticket holders that it would fall on the side of safety and not bring back fans. The Thunder also cited that the reduced fan experience would be far below the market’s standard.

And it seems as if the majority of Thunder fans are OK with the decision.

“I am a physician, and I have been super pleased with the stance the Thunder have taken by avoiding having fans in the arena this year,” wrote Dr. Jared Lepley of Oklahoma City. “It’s been a tough year, but this stance has helped prevent the spread of COVID and I am thankful for that. I have taken care of too many COVID patients this year.”

Thunder fans have used me as a sounding board for a dozen years, everything from uniform designs to Kendrick Perkins’ minutes played. And I’ve received virtually no complaints and few questions about when the Thunder will allow the return of fans.

This week, I solicited opinions, heard from more than a dozen fans, and most supported the Thunder decision.

“We have been season ticket holders for over 10 years,” wrote David Haberland of Shawnee. “Really miss not being at the games, but the safety of all, workers, fans, players, cheerleaders, media, all involved, is paramount. We will be back in the arena soon enough.”

Some disagree, of course. Some fans immediately turn it into politics, pro or con, but most fans seem to have a good attitude, whether they agree or not. Cheers to the ones who avoid politics.

“All season long I remained cautiously optimistic Thunder fans would return to the arena,” said Rob Shahan of Oklahoma City, whose devotion is such he has attended Thunder road games in Orlando and Cleveland this season. “My optimism would actually increase as other teams announced their fans would return. But I know this pandemic is far from over, and people need to take the proper steps to continue to fight it.

“I am proud the OKC Thunder made this very tough decision. The team's most important focus is the fan's and team's safety. Yes, I am disappointed, but the team's decision has not decreased my loyalty to the franchise.”

The Thunder pondered allowing fans to return, but the ‘Peake would have been vastly different. No courtside seating. Masks required. No entertainment. Perhaps no concessions in the arena bowl. Loud City would have been Dowd City.

But some would have been fine with that.

“I opted in on our tickets for this year,” said Dr. Linda Thompson of OKC, a medical researcher. “I am disappointed. I bought a case of N95 masks and some face shields and was all set to go when it was announced that there would be no fans.

“My significant other and I are vaccinated, so I was looking forward to getting back into the arena after the all-star break. I think the Thunder underestimated how tolerant hard-core fans would be of less-than-optimal entertainment. I don’t go to the games to see Rumble or the Thunder Girls — I go to watch basketball. I love our team and would love a chance to cheer for them in person.”

The Thunder is in a strange spot. Financially, the franchise is doing well. After years of player payroll well into the luxury tax, the Thunder has cut costs as it starts it rebuild from the superstar era of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Chris Paul. So ticket revenue isn’t vital to the Thunder coffers at this particularly point.

And the with no playoffs on the horizon, the Thunder doesn’t have to worry about a competitiveness disadvantage. In fact, losing helps the cause, since it increases OKC’s draft lottery chances.

“I think the decision to not allow fans at all this year and possibly even the direction to take the team, isn’t necessarily total coincidence,” said season-ticket holder Ed Kleese of Edmond. “I would have ZERO qualms about attending games in person this year. No hesitation whatsoever. And I think it’s silly that they aren’t allowing fans.”

But Kleese said the decision might be a “little strategic” and he’s “also kind of relieved.” In his view, season-ticket holders are getting a guilt-free pass on a season in which the Thunder is not in playoff contention.

“I think the organization is well aware of this,” Kleese said. “The general interest level around town is low — casual fans I know are hardly paying attention. I think the crowds this season given full attendance would have been disappointing at minimum and perhaps even shockingly low.

“I think this move is based on more than just public safety — and I am totally fine with that. I even appreciate it.”

Keith Mitchell of OKC, a 10-year-plus season-ticket holder, said he’s not disappointed with the no-fans decisions and already had decided to push his ticket investment to next season.

Mitchell said he believes the Thunder made the decision based on surveys of fans. The Thunder is in constant contact with its season-ticket holders.

“In a small market, what is the point of cranking up the whole facility, concessions, personnel, etc., for the limited take from a small percentage of capacity?” Mitchell said. “They know exactly what the numbers need to be. and it's probably less of a financial loss to keep it empty.”

Some fans invest more than money. Kaleb Schultz of Bonner Springs, Kansas, five hours from OKC, on occasion drives down with his wife and brother to watch the Thunder.

“I have been waiting, hoping for a chance to attend a game this year,” Schultz wrote. “My wife is an ER nurse in the Kansas City area, and I work for UPS. We have worked through the pandemic and fully understand the risks of COVID-19. Seems to us that the games would be safe with limited capacity and we were really hoping to attend this year.”

So was Clinesmith, the fan who doesn’t even get to watch on television. But he doesn’t fault the franchise.

“It is undoubtedly the right decision,” Clinesmith said. “The experience of going to a game without being able to take off a mask, enjoy food or drinks, or experience the boom of Loud City, just wouldn't be the same. And safety needs to come first.

“We're already at the all-star break. I hope those factors combined with a poor record don't hamper fan excitement for the future. I'm excited, I just hope others are too.”

If the 2021-22 season starts on time, in October, that would mean fans would have gone 19½ months without watching the Thunder at the ‘Peake.

Seems likely when the day comes that the Loud is back in the city, Clinesmith won’t be alone in his excitement.

Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. Support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.

Berry Tramel

Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,... Read more ›