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.