There have been some fantastic WNBA playoff games so far, most notably Indiana’s 2-point win over Connecticut on Monday night in the Eastern Conference finals. It was secured by a swishing jumper with just 0.5 seconds remaining.
Imagine the fans of those teams. Their stomachs must have been in knots during crunch time.
Michael Alter’s stomach was in knots that night, too. But not because he was nervous about the outcome. The owner of the Chicago Sky was frustrated, and has been throughout the playoffs as he wonders what it’s going to take to get his franchise to the elusive Promised Land so that he can watch playoff games in person at Allstate Arena, and not on TV.
It’s been seven years since Alter, a North Shore real estate mogul, brought the dream of WNBA basketball to Chicago. Fans of the Sky are still waiting for the team’s first playoff berth.
Once again, the Sky came up short, finishing the regular season last month with a 14-20 record. The Sky, which started off the season at a franchise best 7-1 but was then crippled by long-term injuries to its two biggest stars, was one of four teams in the WNBA that did not qualify for the postseason.
“It’s been very tough to watch the playoffs, especially this year,” Alter told me this week. “Things were going so great for us at the beginning of the season. We were leading (the Eastern Conference) and we had every reason to think we would be contending.”
But then star guard Epiphanny Prince went down with a broken foot and once she came back, Olympic center Sylvia Fowles started missing games with various injuries. The Sky lost game after game and then fell into a tight race with New York for the final playoff spot in the East.
The Sky lost that race in the final days of the regular season.
“I try not to get too up or too down about anything,” Alter said. “But it’s hard not to be impacted when the end result is so painful.”
Speaking of pain, perhaps the most relevant question at this point is what is Alter’s tolerance for it?
Not only has he been experiencing the pain of the franchise missing out on its biggest goal year after year, but there’s also the very real pain in the pocketbook that every WNBA owner experiences. This is no get-rich-quick proposition, no matter what the market.
It goes without saying that WNBA teams that don’t win consistently or make the playoffs have it tough. But even good teams lose money.
Remember, it was just four years ago when the Houston Comets, winners of the first four WNBA championships, folded because of financial troubles.
Life in the WNBA is a true labor of love, and the business model can be fragile. Does Alter worry about whether or not he has thick enough skin, ample patience and the insatiable competitiveness that is needed to keep plowing ahead?
“I worry about a lot of things, and it certainly doesn’t help that we’re not winning and getting to the playoffs,” Alter said. “But I’d really like to find out what it’s like to have a winning team, a playoff team. I’d like to see how a winning team would impact the business side of it, too.”
Even in rough economic times, the Sky continues to make admirable strides on that end.
Attendance was up this summer to its highest average in franchise history: 5,600 per game. Group ticket sales were up more than 20 percent from the previous season, and sponsorships also increased. The Sky is also one of the only teams in the league to broadcast almost all of its games on local television.
“We continue to see improvements in a lot of different areas,” Sky president Adam Fox said. “People forget that it took the NBA a long time to get to where it is now. Remember, you were still watching the NBA Finals on tape-delay in the 1980s. There has to be some patience for the kind of growth we’re looking for.
“I think Michael (Alter) is tremendously committed to this franchise. He knows that once we get a consistently successful product that it’s going to be something that even more people are going to enjoy and want to be associated with and that’s when things will really take off. I also think the passion that got him into this is the passion that keeps him going.”
Alter first discovered the WNBA about 10 years ago when he went to an NBA All-Star Game. He met some WNBA players, learned about the league and was fascinated with the positive impact that WNBA players and teams tend to have on kids, specifically girls, in their communities.
Alter and his wife Ellen have three children. They loved the grassroots family feel of the WNBA.
“I still have that passion for the WNBA,” Alter said. “As bad as I want to win, I also want to see this league be successful because I love what this league stands for. I’m knee-deep in that.
“But I also think a big part of making this league successful is having a winning team in a city like Chicago. So, we just trying to figure out what to do next to get there.”
The Sky is in the process of extending its lease at Allstate Arena and extending the contract of head coach Pokey Chatman. The team is also working on getting a title sponsor and an even better television deal.
The Sky will take another big step in April during the WNBA draft. The team beat some significant odds and won the No. 2 pick in the recent lottery. That will give the Sky a chance to draft one of three highly touted college seniors: Brittney Griner, Elena Delle Donne or Skylar Diggins. They are the headliners of what is widely considered one of the best draft classes in WNBA history.
“I get a great deal of support and appreciation from our fans,” Alter said. “They are still so grateful that we’ve got a team here. They love that. But I know they are frustrated, too. We’ve got to figure out what that missing piece is.”
Maybe it’s just a draft pick away. Stay tuned, Sky fans.
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