Tulsa certainly has its share of spectator sports, but to be honest, Tulsans are more doers than watchers. Yes, there are professional and college teams and they have their followers, but probably the biggest event of the sports year is when Union High School plays Jenks in football. It’s such an intense rivalry that it’s dubbed the “Backyard Bowl.”
The sentimental favorite sport has got to be baseball because of the town’s long history with the game. The first official Tulsa baseball team was the Oilers, founded in 1905. During the years of their affiliation with the St. Louis Cardinals, later-greats like Dizzy Dean and Nellie Briles played in Tulsa. Another baseball great, Warren Spahn, coached the Oilers from 1967 to 1971. Tulsa’s had a baseball team off and on ever since.
Other professional sports haven’t fared as well. Tulsa had a professional football team, the Oilers (do we detect a theme here?), who played in the Texas Professional Football League in 1966. In 1967 they played as the Thunderbirds, then moved to Bartlesville and folded. The city had brief flutters with the American Football Association, first as the Mustangs, later as the Thunder. Then in 1983 a United States Football League team from San Diego played in Tulsa as the Oklahoma Outlaws, with Doug Williams as quarterback. A year later the team was off to Arizona.
Professional soccer with the Roughnecks of the North American Soccer League lasted from 1978 until 1984. They may just have been ahead of their time—soccer’s one of the fastest growing sports and lots of Tulsans are playing it. In the mid-’80s about 6,000 people (youths and adults) were playing soccer in Tulsa. In 2009 there were 21,000 participants.
The Fast Breakers were Tulsa’s first professional basketball team. In their first year in Tulsa, 1988, they won the Continental Basketball League championship. They left Tulsa in 1992. Both the University of Tulsa and Oral Roberts University have had some great basketball teams, and they both have faithful followings. For the last couple of years, pro fans have cheered the 66ers. They are now owned and operated by, and directly affiliated with, the NBA Oklahoma City Thunder.
One of the sports highlights of the year is the annual Henry P. Iba Award Dinner, sponsored by the Rotary Club of Tulsa. This event salutes a male and female athlete of the year, chosen on the basis of community involvement, drawing major sports figures from across the country. Past winners have included Drew Brees, Shannon Miller, Karl Malone, and Ozzie Smith, and keynote speakers for the event have included Tommy Lasorda, Archie Manning, and Lou Holtz.
Hockey has a long history in Tulsa. The first minor league team, named—are you ready for it?—the Oilers, joined the American Hockey Association. They won the AHA championship in 1929 and 1931. They played the next season in Minnesota but came back to Tulsa mid-season. The team lasted until World War II.
After the war, the Oilers were back—this time part of the United States Hockey League. This stint lasted five seasons before the league disbanded. The Central Hockey League (CHL) had the same up-and-down history, and for a few more years the team came and went. The current CHL started in 1992, and the Oilers have played in Tulsa ever since.
So much for the past. What’s going on today?
Today Tulsa baseball fans cheer for the Drillers, a Double-A affiliate of the Colorado Rockies, and the home team since 1976. Since 1932, Tulsa’s teams have played in the stadium at the Fairgrounds. In 2010 they are scheduled to move into a new state-of-the-art ballpark, ONEOK Field, in the historic Greenwood District in downtown Tulsa.
The 66ers, the development team for the Oklahoma City Thunder, cover the court for basketball fans. And the Golden Hurricanes (University of Tulsa) and the Golden Eagles (Oral Roberts University) are perennial fixtures on the local sports scene.
The Central Hockey League Oilers are still here, and fans love them. The rivalry between Tulsa and the Oklahoma City Blazers has always been a fierce one. The Oklahoma City franchise closed up shop in the summer of ’09. Sad for Oklahoma City, but sad, too, for Tulsa fans who enjoyed the intense competition.
Tulsa’s other pro team is the Talons, a minor league arena football team. The team’s been very successful—appearing in the play-offs every season since the team started.
Oklahoma is horse country and there are many equine events for spectators. Check the schedule at the Fairgrounds—all the big horse events are there. Throughout the year, you’ll be able to see almost any breed, from Arabians to Welsh ponies. All the shows will have action classes—depending on the breed, it could be jumping, cutting, reining, trail, or dressage. And there’s a short horse-racing season at the Fairgrounds, too.
For a different kind of horsepower, try the drag strip of raceways. And if you get tired of watching, consider taking a course. Over the years, golf fans have been able to watch their favorite players at PGA events hosted by Tulsa’s Southern Hills Country Club. Tulsa University hosted the NCAA Women’s Golf Championship in 1999.
Fans hope there will be more events like this in the future.