Sparks Are Flying
This isn't your daddy's WNBA anymore, as independent owners take over key teams -- including L.A. -- and an influx of new and returning stars promise the most competitive season ever
When the spirit moves her, Carla Christofferson, a former high school cheerleader and current co-owner of the WNBA's Los Angeles Sparks, puts on the head and feet of the team's dog mascot, Sparky, and happily pads around the team's downtown offices, startling staff members. You can be sure former team owner Jerry Buss, 75, who's known more for chasing young women than for marketing them, never did anything like that. For one thing, there was no mascot before Christofferson and fellow season-ticket holder Kathy Goodman bought the team from Buss, the L.A. Lakers owner, in December 2006. There were also no Indian Princess nights, no games where downtown law firms held partner-associate tournaments beforehand, no Tupperware-like "Influencer Parties" where the goods sold are season tickets instead of plastic bowls. "If a fan brings in 20 friends, a player will come to the party," says Christofferson. "If it's 30, they get [coach] Michael Cooper. Kathy and I are the lowest level. We'll go to anything to get people interested in the Sparks."
Meet the new breed of WNBA owner -- down-to-earth, fan-fixated, female. Goodman, who made her fortune as a lawyer and film executive before becoming a high school English and social studies teacher, and Christofferson, an attorney and former Miss North Dakota, represent the start of what might be a minitrend for the sport: independent female owners.
In '03 the Connecticut Sun, owned by the Mohegan tribe, became the first franchise not tied to an NBA team. Now, when the season begins on May 17, half of the league's 14 teams will have non-NBA owners, with three of the franchises owned by women.
Sheila Johnson, the billionaire cofounder of BET, bought a share in the Washington Mystics in '05. A year later Goodman and Christofferson talked Buss into selling them the Sparks for a reported $10 million. And in '07 a group of four self-made Seattle businesswomen -- Storm season-ticket holders all -- persuaded Sonics and Storm owner Clay Bennett to let go of his WNBA team.
The L.A. owners have focused on increasing the fan and sponsor base, something that's critical to the WNBA as it moves into its 12th season still looking for widespread visibility and profitability. In addition to luring new fans with special packages for legal associates, father-daughter groups and others, Goodman and Christofferson keep season-ticket holders happy with frequent gatherings, which might be anything from a player autograph session to a March of Dimes walkathon. "They bring an energy and passion that's been missing," says longtime season-ticket holder Deb Anderson. "I've seen Carla and Kathy at community events, and it's like they are campaigning for president. They are shaking hands and establishing relationships with people and suggesting that others become part of it. That wasn't how the Lakers' organization did things."
How do the new owners do things? Christofferson, who is 40, and engaged to be married for the third time, and Goodman, 44, who is single ("She's the optimist; I'm the cynic," says the latter.), could be the stars of a female buddy movie.
"I tend to run for the cliff and assume I'm going to get to the other side, and Kathy will either go along or she'll be like, 'Uh, no,' " says Christofferson. "It's sort of like Thelma & Louise, but she controls the brake. She decides which cliff we fly off of."
An all-state basketball player who entered beauty pageants to pay for college, Christofferson graduated from the University of North Dakota and Yale Law School and is now a partner at the prestigious firm of O'Melveny & Myers. She counts former secretary of state Warren Christopher among her mentors, rocker Eddie Van Halen among her former beaus and deer hunting among her hobbies. She is surely the only team owner who has been featured in both Vogue and Bowhunter magazine.
Goodman, a graduate of Harvard and the University of Chicago Law School, didn't play sports growing up in suburban Ohio, New Jersey and upstate New York. "I was a nerdy kid who watched the Watergate hearings and dreamed of a career in the state department," she says. Instead of diplomacy, she went into finance law, made a pile when the London-based Intermedia Films, the independent movie company she helped found, went public in Germany in 2000 and retired at 38 before deciding to become a teacher.
The two women met in 2000 when Christofferson's firm represented Intermedia in a lawsuit. They discovered they were both Sparks season-ticket holders, and a bond was formed. "Her seats were better," says Christofferson, "so I started sitting with her." They eventually got seats together and upgraded to courtside. That's when they started fantasizing about owning the team, which was not for sale. "Then one day Carla said, 'You know what, why don't we own this team?' " says Goodman. "I said, 'O.K., let's do that.' I was totally making fun of her. Then I thought, I wonder if we could buy the team?"
Goodman contacted her Harvard classmate Michael Alter, a real estate developer who is the independent owner of another WNBA team, the Chicago Sky. "I wanted to find out, Is there a business model for independent owners that works, that's not merely philanthropic?" she says.
Assured by Alter that he planned to make a profit someday, the two women approached the Lakers' organization in March 2006. Goodman pitched the team with an analogy from her old life. "I said, 'You're Paramount, and we're little independent filmmakers,' " she says. " 'We've just made a film we love, that's beautiful, that's about a dead cellist. As Paramount, you could spend an hour marketing the dead cellist movie or an hour doing the Mission: Impossible II campaign. If you're a good businessperson, it's clear how you'll spend that hour. It's not because you don't like the little movie; it's a business decision.' We thought we could nurture the Sparks in a way that a combined staff might not have the economic incentive to. They are two different business models. And separating them makes sense."
Buss agreed. Christofferson and Goodman gathered a group of investors, and the deal was sealed in December. The very day the news went public, however, three-time league MVP center Lisa Leslie announced that she was two months pregnant and would probably miss the '07 season. (She and husband Michael Lockwood had a baby girl, Lauren, last June.) Five games into the season the team's other marquee player, Chamique Holdsclaw, quit because she had lost her enthusiasm for the game. Starting point guard Temeka Johnson played in just 11 games because of a knee injury. Cooper coaxed just 10 wins out of his remaining players, and the Sparks tied Minnesota for the league's worst record.
Despite the truism that no one in L.A. will watch a losing team, attendance actually went up from 8,311 a game to 8,695. "It was validating to see that our business plan worked when we lost," says Goodman.
And then there was this silver lining: The Sparks won the 2008 draft lottery, getting the first pick of the most talent-rich WNBA draft ever. On April 9 they selected Tennessee's 6' 5" Candace Parker, the versatile two-time college player of the year who had led the Lady Vols to their second straight national title the night before despite playing with a dislocated left shoulder. A high-profile star -- the rap group Wu-Tang Clan even mentions Parker in its song, Starter -- "Candace Parker has a chance to help the Sparks break through the clutter in Southern California," says David Carter, executive director of USC's Sports Business Institute. "She could attract that casual fan, because I think she'll be one of those folks people talk about. Guess who was at this party the other night? She is the whole package. I think she could drive interest in the team and, by extension, in the league."
Parker has already had an impact. The week she was drafted, the Sparks' season-tickets sales increased sevenfold over the same week last year. Ticket sales for away games have tripled. No doubt the ticket spikes are also fueled by the return of Leslie, whose new book, Don't Let the Lipstick Fool You: The Making of a Champion, came out last month. Leslie says the frontline tandem of her and Parker, who can play all five positions, will be "like David Robinson and Tim Duncan. I have three dimensions, but she has five." Add to that matchup nightmare the reacquired All-Star forward DeLisha Milton-Jones -- who helped the Sparks win titles in 2001 and '02 before being dealt to Washington in '05 -- and a deep supporting cast, and the Sparks will be the team to beat in the West. "This team was built to win a championship," says Cooper.
So, it's Game On in the city, and as a result, certain pockets of the L.A. basin have reordered their priorities accordingly. When the students at High Tech High in Van Nuys, where Goodman teaches, learned that the Sparks' June 6 home opener conflicted with their prom, they knew what they had to do: They changed the date of the prom.