Commentary

Sky clearing, only partly cloudy

Originally Published: June 12, 2009
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPN.com

CHICAGO -- Michael Alter knows where this is going. He is going to be asked the same question he is asked every season, the same question that seems to challenge both his resolve and his good sense, the question that seems to make his teeth clench.

He would probably be asked it at the dry cleaners and the grocery store if more people recognized him. But then, if more people recognized him, there would be no need to ask.

"I think you're implying if the team does not make money, how long would you continue?" said the principal owner of the WNBA's Chicago Sky.

Well, yes.

"I don't know how to answer that," Alter said. "I don't have any answer to that. There just is no point in time [to decide the Sky's fate]. Hopefully we'll be successful, we'll make progress and it will be a moot point."

The formula the team is banking on is not exactly original. Just win. Win, and the fans will come. Win, and you won't have to give away tickets as the Sky do by the bucketful each game. Win, and their fervent little core of supporters will grow. Win, and more people will give themselves a chance to enjoy the product and the league, now in its 13th season.

But is that even the case after this last offseason, when the WNBA had to ward off ominous predictions after the Houston Comets, one of the league's eight original franchises and four-time champions, suspended operations?

Alter is not the only owner in professional sports, in the WNBA -- or even in Chicago -- not turning a profit. The WNBA's Phoenix Mercury this year sold their shirts, getting a sponsor on their jerseys a la Europe's pro sports teams, to help stay in business.

League president Donna Orender said she is optimistic and cites the addition of "two significant team sponsors, merchandise sales doubling before we even opened the doors this season and television ratings up double digits from our first ESPN2 game last year.

"But the most important thing," she continued, "is the competition, the quality of athletes, the excitement and enthusiasm around that has never been better."

The Sky's 81-73 victory over Chamique Holdsclaw's Atlanta Dream in Chicago's home opener Friday night was a considerable improvement over a disappointing 17-point loss to Minnesota in the season opener, despite a ragged finish.

"If you win, they'll come," said Sky coach Steve Key of the concept of substance over style. "I don't think we should worry necessarily about getting people in and running fancy stuff and losing. Then there's nothing behind it. So I would rather plod along, learn, get better, win games and then have people attracted to the fact that we're winning and playing good basketball."

Under three different head coaches in their first three seasons (Dave Cowens left for the NBA and Bo Overton quit under pressure, replaced by Key, an assistant under both), the Sky went from 5-29 to 14-20 to 12-22, dropping out of last season's playoff picture with five losses in their last six games.

Team president Margaret Stender said expectations, intensity and accountability simply have to rise -- that the "culture" has to change.

"The [Minnesota] loss was terrible and it's what we talked about," Stender says. "The good news about that game is we came out roaring, we led 13-4, and I'm like, 'Oh my gosh, they got it.' But as soon as they got challenged, they reverted back to old behaviors. I could see it in their faces, 'Oh gosh, here it goes.' They were confused on defense, turnovers started. …

"I didn't care about the loss. It's one loss, one game. But what it did tell us was that we're not done with this culture change and that this is a long process. It's part of the credibility of breaking through the sports landscape here. This is a challenging market. There are a lot of choices and people want to be associated with this team that's vibrant and really going somewhere."

The Sky, with only three players from their original team -- their first draft pick and two-time All-Star Candice Dupree, Jia Perkins and Brooke Wyckoff, all starters -- are deeper than ever before. They've gone international with 6-foot-5 Chinese center Chen Nan. They like their top draft pick, Kristi Tolliver, chosen third overall, and the fact that Olympian Sylvia Fowles returns healthy after being sidelined for 17 games last season.

"I had no idea what to expect," Alter admits of his first years in the league. "Being an expansion team is very tough and in this league in particular, they don't make it very easy for you in terms of the players you get to choose, though we've made some changes with that. Atlanta is in much better shape in their second year because of some of the changes we've [the league] made. "

The Sky have made changes as well. And they've learned.

They could hire an NBA Hall of Famer as their head coach and hold auditions to ensure the most charismatic mascot in the league, as they did that first season. They could bring in more flattering uniforms in Year 2 and the new jumbo scoreboard in Year 3, both of which made the UIC Pavilion just a little more fan friendly.

They could even bring in a roof-raising gospel choir to perform at halftime, aptly, the Monument of Faith Evangelical Church, as they did Friday night. But, as Alter says, "Winning makes everything come together. The Blackhawks didn't have to win the Stanley Cup but they were competitive, exciting in every game, and made it to the playoffs. At the end of the day, everyone likes a winner."

At the end of Friday, everyone in the UIC Pavilion liked the Sky, even if everyone filled only about three-quarters of the place (announced attendance was 5,689).

"I think [management] has done more than any other team has done in terms of marketing and placing us out there in the community," said Wyckoff. "Chicago is a hard market but for a Chicago team to get people's attention, they have to win. Especially us.

"I think that's our last thing -- just to win."

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.

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