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updated: 1/10/2014 5:39 PM

Can WNBA survive without L.A. Sparks?

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  • Candace Parker, the Sparks superstar who picked up MVP trophies for the WNBA regular season and the 2013 all-star game, no doubt is eager to hear if WNBA President Laurel Richie can secure a buyer for the Los Angeles franchise.

      Candace Parker, the Sparks superstar who picked up MVP trophies for the WNBA regular season and the 2013 all-star game, no doubt is eager to hear if WNBA President Laurel Richie can secure a buyer for the Los Angeles franchise.
    Associated Press/file

 
 

When I first heard about the collapse of the Los Angeles Sparks last week, I was saddened and shocked.

It's never a good thing when a sports franchise shutters its doors and lays off its entire front office staff, including the general manager and head coach.

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The saga of the Sparks is familiar to WNBA fans, who have said goodbye to at least a half-dozen teams that have been forced to close their doors over the league's 17-year history.

But this case is a little different in the sense that it's the Sparks, a marquee franchise, a cornerstone franchise, a founding franchise of the WNBA.

The Sparks have won championships, have drawn decent crowds and boast one of the best players in the world in former Naperville Central star Candace Parker, the reigning MVP of the league.

This reminds me of when the Houston Comets, a model franchise in the WNBA's early years and winners of the first four league championships, went belly up.

If it can happen to the Comets

If it can happen to the Sparks

Well, you can see where this is going. If it can happen to an A-list franchise, what's to stop it from happening to the less prominent or less successful franchises in the league.

And then, what becomes of the league?

Of course, the silver lining to the death of the Comets in 2008 was that the WNBA went onward, and by many measures, upward.

Since then, the 12-team WNBA has seen attendance numbers increase, sponsorships grow and a national television package with ESPN expand.

"There's no way to sugar coat what's happening with the Sparks. No one's happy about it," said Michael Alter, owner of Chicago's WNBA franchise, the Sky. "But the Houston situation is a good example. At first, so many people were like, 'Oh my God, that's it. It's over (for the WNBA). But the league moved on, and we've seen that it actually got stronger."

And yet somehow the ripple effect didn't reach Los Angeles.

According to reports, the ownership of the Sparks has lost $12 million since 2007, including $1.4 million last season. The team's major sponsorship with Farmer's Insurance, which got its logo placed on the front of the team's uniforms, was also lost.

"I can't really speak on what happened in Los Angeles, just that it was definitely a surprise to all of us (the other league owners)," Alter said. "There weren't any signs that this was going to happen."

Then again, the only signs Alter says he has been paying attention to lately indicate a healthy league overall and a Sky franchise that continues to grow.

Last summer, the Sky earned the first playoff berth in the eight-year history of the franchise and got a serious boost in profile with the addition of superstar forward Elena Delle Donne, an all-star and WNBA rookie of the year.

Alter says Sky attendance is up, sponsorships are being added and that the franchise is within striking distance of breaking even for the first time this season.

That's a significant financial milestone in the WNBA, where about half of the franchises are able to either break even or make a small profit.

"We're closer than we've ever been (to breaking even)," Alter said. "That's always been our goal, and there's a good chance we'll get there this season. That's a very positive sign, and it's within reach.

"We're excited. Despite this setback (with the Sparks), we are very upbeat and positive about what we're doing and we're looking forward to this year."

But first things first.

The Sky and the other remaining teams in the WNBA need a schedule. Usually, the WNBA schedule is released around this time of year. But with the Sparks in flux, there's no telling when the schedule will be finalized.

At this point, the WNBA is scrambling to assess its options with the Sparks. Will it be possible to keep the team in Los Angeles under different ownership? Will the owners of the NBA's Golden State Warriors, rumored to be interested in a WNBA team for years, step forward and move the team north?

Or will the Sparks go the way of the Comets, never to be heard from again?

"I honestly don't know what's going to happen," Alter said. "I know the WNBA is looking into everything and it's a work in progress. The league, the team, the bank are all having a lot of conversations.

"To me the most important thing is that, no matter what happens with Los Angeles, the league keeps moving forward. We want to get the schedule released, we want to keep planning for the season. We want to get going.

"That's important for the rest of the league."

pbabcock@dailyherald.com

Follow Patricia on Twitter @babcockmcgraw

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