Tulsa’s BOK Center at 10: How One Arena Changed a Town

Once known as the Oil Capital of the World, Tulsa, Okla. has transformed itself over the last 15 years into a magnet for entrepreneurial millennials who are drawn to the city of approximately 403,000 because of its affordability and strong cultural offerings. Since 2008, the BOK Center — named after its sponsor, Bank of Oklahoma — has been a high point of that transformation. The 19,199-seat venue, which celebrates its 10th anniversary on Aug. 30, draws the top tours in music — Bruno Mars, Panic! at the Disco, Ozuna and Fleetwood Mac will play there in the coming months — and has become one of the country’s top 20 arenas in the process, according to Billboard Boxscore, attracting fans from adjoining states Arkansas, Kansas and Missouri.

“It’s no longer just an oil town,” says Joe Giordano, the 28-year-old director of booking at the BOK Center, one of many young executives who have moved to Tulsa and brought popular live acts such as P!nk, Justin Timberlake and Depeche Mode to a city that mainly supports country music. Giordano, who hails from Pennsylvania, works on a team of mostly non-Tulsa natives, led by GM Jeff Nickler and assistant GM Casey Sparks, who were put in place by SMG, the venue’s management company, which also operates Los Angeles’ Greek Theatre, Soldier Field in Chicago and the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans.

SMG, which helped design and construct the BOK Center, uses the venue as a training ground for its managers and bookers. “They’ve taught me to really believe in this brand, believe in the BOK Center and believe in SMG Tulsa,” says Christina Foley, the arena’s brand manager whose job is to create “outrageously excellent experiences” for everyone from ticket buyers to roadies.

With its swirling glass and stainless-steel facade, the César Pelli-designed BOK Center is arguably Tulsa’s most distinctive landmark. Its inner workings are Instagram-worthy as well, and include tributes to famous Tulsans such as the Hanson brothers, Leon Russell, Woody Guthrie and the town’s unofficial global ambassador, Garth Brooks.

There is also a Zoolander-themed gym available for touring productions, designed by BOK Center director of special events Lindsey Bollinger, and the Super Secret Speakeasy for after-parties where bands, promoters and agents enter through what looks like a port-a-potty, only to find a high-end bar where every performer has a personalized cocktail glass. “It’s 360 marketing,” says Sparks. “We look at what we can do backstage to get the attention of the tour or the artists so they can repost it to their social media, and then it just keeps going and going.”

Leading the young team is Nickler, 37, a West Virginia University graduate who has been at the BOK Center since its opening in 2008 and worked under the building’s first GM, John Bolton, before being promoted to the position in 2014. (Bolton now handles arena booking for SMG.) As the venue enters its 11th year serving Tulsa, Nickler spoke to Billboard about how the city has evolved from fly-over territory to a must-stop on most agents’ itineraries.

How does the arena’s 10th year compare with its first?
This year will be our busiest in the venue’s history. That’s 35 to 40 concerts, plus our family and nontraditional programming on top of that. We have a special-events department that creates content, including a 50-day outdoor winter fest where we build a giant ice rink. We do an adult dodgeball tournament, and we’re launching a beach volleyball tournament [in August]. These events are important to the city because we know that not everybody can necessarily afford a concert. We know locals can afford to come to one of our special events, whether it’s an outdoor ice-skating experience or the all-you-can-eat wing fest. We’ve created [different] price points where everybody can enjoy this building in some way.

After announcing his retirement a few years ago, George Strait played Tulsa in June. How were sales?
They [were] incredible. Taken separately, each show would be the highest-grossing show in venue history. Combined, they are going to gross more than $5 million. Part of that is because the shows [were] held in the round, which means a higher overall capacity. And the ticket prices were aggressive.

How aggressive?
Tickets cost from $1,500 to as low as $60. Now, some of the higher-priced tickets included VIP packages with meals and other entertainment, but Tulsa has proved that it can support high ticket prices. These were the third and fourth shows in the last month — Justin Timberlake and U2 did it too — that grossed over $2.5 million. [The Eagles have subsequently racked up a similar seven-figure gross.]

Do the high ticket prices of these shows raise any concern that residents of Tulsa won’t be able to afford them?
No, they don’t. One of the greatest benefits we have is that we don’t have a professional sports team in Tulsa. When you put a professional sports team in a market, every game takes $1.5 to $2 million out of the city. We have the luxury of not having to compete with a professional sports team, which makes us the only game in town.

What makes Tulsa such a strong market for music?
Live music has always been strong — long before we were here, Cain’s Ballroom [where the Sex Pistols famously played on their 1978 tour] was one of the top-grossing clubs in the country. And we’ve convinced promoters like Live Nation Global Touring COO Gerry Barad with Madonna’s first show in Oklahoma that Tulsa could handle these ticket prices. That’s what brought us shows like Justin Timberlake and U2.

What kind of music works in Tulsa?
Country and rock do really well, but we’ve spent the last decade proving that pop does extremely well here too. Bruno Mars sold out two nights. P!nk sold out, as did The Weeknd and Timberlake. Madonna did her first show in Oklahoma at this building. U2 rehearsed here and then launched their North American tour.

The BOK Center has hosted the opening night of a number of massive tours. Not having any professional sports teams frees up the calendar, but what are the economics of launching a tour in Tulsa?
The city is very inexpensive, and we have a great record for hospitality. We work to curate a very unique experience, and we make sure that our hospitality is world-renowned. When we had U2 here, we rented out the Dust Bowl, a retro throwback bowling alley in town, and threw a party for the crew. We changed the names of the local streets to “No Name” in honor of their song [“Where the Streets Have No Name”], and we did whatever we could to make this their home for the week.

Talk a little about the Super Secret Speakeasy.
It’s actually featured in [Apple Music’s documentary series The Chainsmokers — Memories]. They’re shown hanging out there, having a singalong and dance party for Alex Pall’s birthday. We’ve had Hall & Oates hanging out in there, as well as all of U2’s tour management. Tonight’s show is being promoted by Louis Messina, so there’s a special playlist for him. And local brewer Partisan Artisan Ales even created a special BOK Center beer, which we have given to touring shows and mailed to agents. Everything we do is carefully curated to always keep Tulsa top of mind.

What kind of marketing best works for the BOK?
That’s the third prong to our success — besides ticket sales and hospitality. We’ve worked very hard to outline a large geographic area of fans who travel from Northwest Arkansas, Kansas and Missouri. Our data shows that 41 percent of our ticket buyers come from outside of the Tulsa area for shows. That’s 800,000 visitors a year and 13,000 [hotel] rooms within a 15-minute drive of the arena.

What kind of capital improvements do you have planned for the future?
We have added 10 suites for a total of 48 and plan to build four more. The demand has been so strong that there is a giant waiting list to get a suite. It’s a minimum five-year commitment and includes all events. We’re also renovating the ONEOK club seating area [for exclusive club members that includes complimentary concession items, two cash bars, multiple TVs, climate-controlled air and restrooms], which has 680 seats.

How has the venue changed the city?
Before this building opened, downtown Tulsa was a ghost town. A decade later, there has been $1 billion worth of private development, with another billion dollars flowing in right now. There are new restaurants and retail corridors that didn’t exist before this building opened. The BOK Center is an example of how building an arena can change the entire story of a city. 

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 4 issue of Billboard.

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