Watching recent WNBA news swirl the past week about the loss of the Los Angeles Sparks owners seems like most feel the league is one Tinseltown from becoming Bikini Basketball — some obscure version of hoops never to be heard of again.
A league spokesperson on Friday told The Seattle Times there is no update to report. The WNBA hasn’t even acknowledged the story on its website and the Sparks’ site streams along as if nothing has happened, Ticketmaster allowing you to purchase packages, too.
LA’s last tweet on its Twitter account was Dec. 27 asking for more followers. The Sparks have more than 28,000 as of Sunday morning.
Don't forget to tell your friends/fam to follow us! We need 30,000 by 2014 for someone to win the ultimate Sparks experience. #WeAreSparks
— Los Angeles Sparks (@LA_Sparks) December 27, 2013
Everyone, including Storm co-owner Lisa Brummel, states the league was blindsided by the dropout, so it’s natural some details haven’t been broached. Like the NBA, the WNBA doesn’t open its books, so none publicly knows the real financial state of the league. A major television network has even dumped money in a failed league before (XFL anyone?), so ESPN investing in the WNBA through the 2022 season doesn’t cement stability.
Still, the WNBA isn’t going to crumble without LA. The NFL surely didn’t.
There’s a passionate fan base that’s started a petition to keep the team in the city. But honestly, the WNBA has long needed to return to the Bay Area.
I’m the last survivor of print beat reporters who regularly traveled, always making the trip to LA. It never had a fan base like the Sacramento Monarchs, whose fans reappeared last spring during the fight between Seattle and the city over the NBA Kings.
The former Kings’ owners, The Maloofs family, abruptly disbanded the Monarchs in November 2009 due to financial concerns outside of the WNBA team, which reported profits when the team advanced to postseason. Sacramento, a charter WNBA team, made nine postseason appearances in 13 seasons, winning a championship in 2005.
“I was always fond of the Sacramento market,” Storm coach Brian Agler said. “They drew well, their teams were always good, they got a lot of support in the media and they were respected in that community.”
Sacramento Major Kevin Johnson used the WNBA’s return to sweeten the deal in securing the Kings’ future in the city. Vivek Ranadive, majority owner of the team, is a fan of the women’s game after getting his introduction to the sport through coaching his daughter’s youth team.
More supporters of the sport are within the Oakland Warriors front-office brass. The group didn’t purchase the team until July 2010, missing an opening to possibly save the Monarchs from folding when then-WNBA president Donna Orender searched for a solution.
The current Warriors ownership group has publicly stated it has had conversations with the WNBA about acquiring a team and it has long been rumored the women’s league would eventually end up in the Bay Area.
The Warriors owners are Stanford women’s basketball supporters. More specifically, co-managing owner Joe Lacob was the primary investor and pioneer of the defunct ABL while Jim Weyermann, who’s head of Warriors new franchise development, was a general manager of the Seattle Reign its three seasons, working as deputy director of the Seattle Center for 10 years prior to the ABL. Lastly, Rick Welts, the Warriors’ president and CEO, was an ardent supporter of the Mercury when he held a similar position in the Phoenix Suns organization and helped launch the WNBA in 1997.
On the collegiate level, No. 4 Stanford leads the Pac-12 in attendance at more than 4,000 fans. Its latest treasure is a Sparks All-Star in Nneka Ogwumike. The Card’s Bay Arena fans would flock to see her play, again, and much like when Mercury All-Star Diana Taurasi returns to Connecticut, the games would be an instant sellout when Nneka’s younger sister Chiney travels to the Bay to play for the first time as opponents. Chiney is pegged as the April draft’s No. 1 overall pick to, coincidentally, Connecticut.
Regardless of team Chiney suits up for, you wouldn’t get that extra bump in media exposure and ticket sales without Nneka and the Sparks being in the Bay Area. I’m talking about annual. As long as this sister duo remains healthy, the matchup will be basketball’s version of tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams.
Add proven WNBA draws in the Big Three and a likely return to the heated rivalry with Seattle and the Bay Area seems a can’t-miss move.
Logistics in reaching that point is the hardest part, of course. Sacramento scraped up nearly a billion dollars to save the Kings in a matter of months. Does the area have more available money to piece together the going rate of $10 million for the WNBA team?
The Oakland Warriors already owning a facility is a major plus. It’s arena availability with the already set WNBA schedule that’s now put on hold that has to be coordinated. But how many times have WNBA teams been kicked out of their buildings due to some concert or, ahem, Microsoft meeting? Yeah, enough to know it’s awkward but bouncing a new team around to, oh, Maples Pavilion or San Jose’s HP Pavilion, wouldn’t hurt sales the inaugural season.
If you believe rumors, now substantiated by LA owners saying they lost $12 million since purchasing the team in 2007, the Sparks didn’t sell anyway. The fancy numbers were “announced,” many being comps distributed randomly around town. There could actually be a monetary increase in tickets and true attendance if relocated.
The Storm’s sell in 2008 shows a fleeced staff can recover, too. Although Karen Bryant, the team’s president and CEO, had to operate the opposite way in losing the backing of a bloated NBA staff that stretched resources to marketing, ticket-sales and game operations. She had to scramble to piece that together in 2009 and reported a 5 percent drop in attendance due to the transition, averaging 7,874 fans.
A return sell to a NBA team would make day-to-day front office operations manageable given the knowledgeable resources already in place to run the men. Another plus is you don’t really have to alter the Sparks’ colors or get rid of the uniforms at all, gold fitting in nicely with the Warriors and purple fitting the old Monarchs vibe — if a team went that route.
“The WNBA is probably as strong, in regards to the business side, as it’s ever been,” said Agler, who said he keeps in contact with Weyermann from their ABL days. “That being said, that doesn’t mean that it’s just going to prosper on its own. People have to make really strong, efficient business decisions in running their organization. And there has to be patience.
“Our organization does an excellent job in making efficient business decisions and I feel it in some of the things we do. I wasn’t happy to see what happened in LA but I’m confident that our league and the people that are running the business side of our organization are all going to make good decisions and work through this.”
In Seattle, it’s business as usual, sort of. Bryant announced her planned resignation at the end of the 2014 season and the Storm promoted Jenny Boucek to associate head coach. She left Sunday for China to checkup on All-Star Lauren Jackson, who the team hasn’t seen play live in more than a year. A three-time league MVP, Jackson underwent hamstring surgery in January 2013.
“(The promotion) highlights Jenny’s abilities to get a head coaching job somewhere whether it be in the WNBA, overseas in Europe or the collegiate league,” Agler said. “At some point, she wants to be a head coach (so) it’s somewhat of a reward for her hard work and efforts and a respect toward her. I have a lot of trust in her and really respect her abilities. I have to make decisions, but we have conversations about decisions throughout our organization. We’ll bring her tighter in the circle of decision making.”
Agler is still searching for a replacement for Nancy Darsch, who left the team in September. He expects to have that position filled by late February or early March. The WNBA draft is slated for April and training camp is expected to begin at the end of the month.
Without a new collective-bargaining agreement, however, those dates aren’t confirmed and free agency can’t start February 1. Teams were supposed to be able to speak to players/agents this week about contract negotiations.
For the third assistant position, Agler is looking for a candidate who’s highly skilled in scouting and video breakdown.
“We have to feed our players a lot of information in a very efficient way, so us having a lot of the work done behind-the-scenes is extremely important,” Agler said of the position. “There are many people that have that expertise.”