Ownership Group Sends Tremors Through Los Angeles Sparks

lasparksavail 500The start of 2014 brought surprising news to the WNBA: WNBA president Laurel Richie announced that that family-owned company controlling the Los Angeles Sparks franchise was ceasing its involvement with the team. If there has been one constant with the WNBA, it’s been unexpected change. The former ownership group certainly upheld that tradition. So…the question is, what’s next?

On the surface, the only immediate problem is money. The league needs to find someone willing to take on the expense of a WNBA team. They’d likely lose money for a bit (the reason for dropping the Sparks was consistent annual $1 million-plus losses), but that isn’t carved in stone. Richie said that, while final numbers for the 2013 season aren’t in, it seems about half the franchises turned a profit.

That is a key to finding new ownership: potential profitability. Perhaps the arena, Staples Center, is too big and too expensive. Perhaps L.A., despite its theoretical market potential, isn’t the town to support a WNBA team — they’ve tried and failed to support NFL teams, after all, so this isn’t new for the city.

What does this mean for the WNBA and the team for 2014? There have been several ownership groups rumored to be champing at the bit to acquire a WNBA franchise. If the league isn’t expanding, then you have to wait until someone folds. Since the Sparks’ break is still fresh, the organizational core is still there to basically have a team with simply an influx of cash — provided the facilities are available.

That’s the second fly in the ointment. The team, whether it stays in L.A. or is relocated, has to have an appropriate facility available for the WNBA season plus playoffs. It’s possible that the Staples Center has already sold off dates. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Staples has always been a bit cavernous for the Sparks.

The third ointmented fly is location. If the team moves away from L.A., there is no infrastructure in place to immediately support a WNBA team. Ask Tulsa how important that is. If L.A. moved, where could it go? Well, the Bay Area has been talked about ever since the Sacramento Monarchs disappeared. I’d assume Portland and Denver might also have some interest. Maybe Las Vegas. It’s hard to say since the cards are always played so close the vest in these matters.

Will the WNBA have a full roster of teams for 2014? I think that’s probable. The likeliest scenario I see, and mind you this is being pulled out of my hat, is that that Sparks stay in L.A. for at least this season, though I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s not at Staples. Using earnest money from an ownership group, the WNBA may take over the franchise for at least the first part of the season or may let a group jump in with both feet. At the end of the playoffs, who knows?

In the end, the success of WNBA franchises depends on three things: quality of team, passion of the owners, and location, location, location. It’s sad to bring this up again, but you don’t want to have a repeat of the Tulsa debacle where the majority of the players from the moving team chose to go another way. It’s possible that the Shock will rise, phoenix-like, from the ashes of the old franchise — it just hasn’t been pretty and is not something you’d like to revisit.

As I said, the Sparks will probably survive. The population of L.A. alone gives it an advantage many others do not. Even an arguably marginal sport there should be able to garner the necessary thousands of traditionally late-arriving, early-exiting fans.

The league just had a really good year, I don’t think they want to follow it up by limping through the next one. Thing is, do they have enough time to get their ducks in row before league-wide commitments for 2014 are set? I guess we’ll see in the next few weeks.

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