Longtime Storm executive Karen Bryant resigned on Friday. The team is searching for a replacement for when her term ends at the conclusion of the 2014 season.
“I feel that now is the right time to step away from the Storm,” Bryant said in a released statement. “I am so proud of all that we have accomplished the past 14 seasons. Right now, I am focused and excited about the upcoming celebration of the Storm’s 15th anniversary season.”
Bryant, 46, was the team’s first employee when Seattle was awarded a franchise in 1999. She previously was part of the defunct Seattle Reign, helping the city transition from harsh perceptions about the WNBA and its possible involvement in the dissolving of the ABL in December 1998.
A native of Edmonds who currently resides in Leschi, Bryant used her Washington roots to build the Storm into one on the league’s ideal franchises with a passionate fan base and perennial All-Stars Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson who led Seattle to two WNBA championships (2004, 2010). The Storm advanced to a WNBA-record 10th playoff appearance in 2013, losing in the opening round to the eventual champion Minnesota.
Bryant led the Storm through four ownership groups, three coaches, two championships and one split from the NBA when the Sonics left for Oklahoma City in 2008.
News of Bryant’s departure comes at a tenuous time for the WNBA. On Thursday, Los Angeles Sparks chairman Paula Madison announced her family-owned company could no longer be involved with the charter franchise. NBA commissioner David Stern, who initiated the birth of the league, is retiring in February and the CBA expired in September.
But those involved emphatically claim the issues are unrelated
LA’s front office employees were sent a memo notifying them they had been laid off effective of Dec. 31. Players, many who are now competing overseas, were paid for the season and will continue to receive their benefits through the WNBA.
“This is a sad time for my family because we want LA to have a thriving championship women’s basketball team and, most importantly, we had hoped to continue employing these great behind-the-scenes employees who worked tirelessly on behalf of women’s basketball,” Madison said in a statement.
WNBA president Laurel Richie stated Thursday the league would not assume control of the team, however. She told The Seattle Times last summer that multiple people were interested in owning WNBA teams. Richie, who’s entering her fourth season as head of the league, said the WNBA wouldn’t expand beyond its then-12 teams, but now it is reported she is reaching out to those potential buyers.
“This is an issue for a particular ownership group,” Richie told the Los Angeles Times. “We are very respectful of that and we are knee deep in exploring what this means for us and what our plan is going forward.”
The league and its players’ union is also in the midst of negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement, which expired Sept. 30. The duration to reach a new deal isn’t an impasse, according to those with knowledge of the meetings, just a break from talks. Yet, the LA news caught even Richie by surprise, so more time may be needed as the league determines the future of the Sparks organization.
The WNBA’s draft is slated for April and the season is expected to begin mid-May in order to conclude in time for players to compete with their respective national teams in the FIBA World Championship in Turkey from Sept. 27 through Oct. 5.
Fans will likely read the big three stories as a sign the WNBA is near folding. However Richie reported last fall the WNBA was moving toward long-term stability.
There are reports majority of the teams saw a slight profit in 2013. The league saw a 1 percent increase in attendance, averaging an all-time low in 2012 (7,457 fans). The Storm, however, dipped to 6,980 fans in 2013. It averaged 7,489 fans in 2012 – which ranked seventh in the WNBA.
Ticket sales during the regular season improved by 8.9 percent. Games on ESPN2 averaged 231,000 viewers, a 28 percent jump from a year ago. Traffic on the league’s website has increased, too. Richie also re-branded the WNBA with a new logo and color scheme while ESPN extended its television contract through the 2022 season.
Even though LA is the second-largest media market, survival without a charter team has been weathered in the past, too.
Houston starkest example, abruptly disbanding in December 2008 when Hilton Koch, a former football player turned furniture dealer, couldn’t juggle his private business with a financially struggling sports franchise.
After purchasing the team from Houston Rockets owner Les Alexander in January 2007, Koch turned the team over to the league in protection of his $10 million investment in 2008. The WNBA was in the midst of signing a deal with ESPN for its broadcasting rights – a first – and selling “marquee” sponsorships where companies like LifeLock and Farmers replaced names like “Mercury” and “Sparks” on jerseys. But then-president Donna Orender couldn’t find an owner quick enough to spread the wealth in Houston.
There was a dispersal draft a week after the Comets folded, rookie Matee Ajavon going to Washington, Sancho Lyttle getting picked up by Atlanta and Roneeka Hodges eventually resurfacing in Tulsa. All are still playing today.
“It was so easy for us to lose that team, so that’s still a, ‘Wow’ moment for me, considering,” said Tina Thompson, who starred on the Comets’ four championship teams before retiring in September after 17 seasons. Houston remains the only team to win multiple successive titles.
LA was the last to win back-to-back titles, doing so in 2001-2002.
If the Sparks were to fold, it would leave the New York Liberty and Phoenix Mercury as the only remaining teams of the original eight charter franchises. The Utah Starzz relocated to San Antonio in 2003.