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?"