Commentary

Economy tests already frugal WNBA

From sponsors on jerseys to independently owned teams, WNBA changes with the times

Originally Published: July 24, 2009
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

Does it absolutely, positively have to be there overnight? Well, no, come to think of it. The Los Angeles Sparks were used to sending out their season tickets that way, until someone asked why.

[+] EnlargeCandace Parker
Noah Graham/Getty ImagesPhoenix (LifeLock) and Los Angeles (Farmers Insurance) added sponsorship deals for their jerseys this season.

"A guy in our office whose mother works in the postal service said, 'We should check to see how much it would cost to send them through there,'" Los Angeles Sparks co-owner Kathy Goodman said. "And it was like half the price. Every expense becomes a conversation. It's little stuff like that you hadn't really thought about before."

Before the economy crashed, that is, and made an already frugal sports league even more so. That's the thing about the WNBA -- it has no background of extravagance.

"The WNBA has never been a league filled with luxuries, even in the best of times," said Goodman, who bought the Sparks with co-owner Carla Christofferson in 2006. "We haven't gone from absurd spending patterns to bare bones. But I do think that there are interesting ways at looking at how you're spending money."

The WNBA's financial viability has been a continuous topic since the league formed in 1997 as an offshoot of the NBA. All eight inaugural teams were affiliated with NBA franchises, an ownership model that stayed intact until Connecticut became the first independent WNBA team. Now, six (Atlanta, Chicago, Connecticut, Los Angeles, Seattle and Washington) are financially independent from an NBA franchise.

The Sun, who began play in the 2003 season, were a relocated franchise that had been in Orlando. Connecticut has proved to be one of the league's more successful franchises and will host the WNBA All-Star Game on Saturday, the second time the contest has been held at the Mohegan Sun Arena.

The Utah Starzz, one of the league's inaugural teams, relocated to San Antonio for the 2003 season and, like Connecticut, have found much more traction in their second home.

Dan Hughes, coach and general manager in San Antonio and the leader of the West squad in the All-Star Game, worked for two WNBA franchises that eventually became defunct: Charlotte and Cleveland.

And he watched last year as what was the best of times for San Antonio ended up being the worst of times for nearby Houston. The Silver Stars made the WNBA finals in 2008, while the Houston Comets -- one of the inaugural franchises and winner of the first four WNBA titles -- disbanded a few months after the season ended.

Houston Rockets owner Leslie Alexander originally owned the Comets, but grew disinterested in running that franchise and sold it to Hilton Koch in October 2006. But Koch ran into financial issues and put the team up for sale in 2008. The WNBA briefly took over, but did not find a suitable buyer.

"Having been in the league several years, I experienced playing at Houston where the crowd and the environment epitomized what a good WNBA situation was," Hughes said. "The fact that they weren't going to be there anymore … I know things happen and time marches on, but that was hard."

[+] EnlargeKathy Goodman & Carla Christofferson
Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty ImagesAll eight inaugural teams were affiliated with NBA franchises. Now, six of 13 are independently owned. Carla Christofferson, left, and Kathy Goodman are Sparks fans and co-owners.

Hughes said during his season as head coach in Charlotte, in 1999, he felt the city presented a "vibrant opportunity" for the league. But the Sting went out of business after the 2006 season.

"When I'd go back there with Cleveland and San Antonio, I would notice less crowds and enthusiasm about the product," Hughes said of Charlotte. "I did see the signs, but I don't know why it happened. I wish I did."

Meanwhile, Hughes saw what occurred with the Cleveland Rockers as a very different situation.

"I was so busy with my team then, I didn't pick up on any signals. I never thought about us not being there," he said. "That wasn't so much about financial difficulties; that was an owner who didn't want to be in the business anymore."

Gordon Gund no longer wanted to own the Rockers, who disbanded in 2003. Two years later, he also sold controlling interest in the Cleveland Cavaliers.

"There weren't a lot of fiscal signs that jumped out at you back then, and part of it was I wasn't looking for them," Hughes said of the Rockers' demise. "I didn't see subtle signs. But with the circumstances of an owner wanting get to out of the 'owning' business to a large extent, not just the WNBA, I don't see Cleveland as a direct comparison to anything that might be happening now."

So what is happening now? The WNBA, like most businesses in these difficult economic times, has pluses and minuses. On the plus side, both Phoenix and Los Angeles secured sponsorship deals for their jerseys, which WNBA president Donna Orender called, "consistent with the league's innovative mind-set."

LifeLock, an identity-theft prevention company, now appears on the jersey-fronts of the Mercury, while Farmers Insurance does the same for the Sparks. Orender would like to see it happen for all the WNBA teams.

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Goodman said the genesis of the Sparks' deal with Farmers was in their involvement in similar charitable projects in the greater Los Angeles community.

"We kept running into each other, and we knew we had the same view of what we wanted to do in the city," Goodman said. "As to the fan response, our fans tend to communicate either when they love us or hate us.

"We had a lot of fans who said, 'This is so great -- to have a company that feels so strongly about supporting the league and women.' Then we had a small but vocal group that said, 'How can you sell the name? It's too commercial, this is an outrage, we should never cross that line.'

"Given that we play in the 'Staples' Center, I'm not sure that I feel there is some line to cross. Corporate sponsorships are just a part of sports. Some didn't like that the Sparks logo wasn't more prominent on the jersey, but the name Sparks is everywhere in the building and the team has been the Sparks for 13 years. I feel like it was pretty well-established."

Another positive piece of economic news for the WNBA is the interest in bringing a team to Tulsa, Okla. This week, Orender met with a group of potential investors, led by Bill Cameron and David Box, about the possibility of having a team play in that city's BOK Center.

On the minus side, Indiana got a troubling signal from co-owner Mel Simon in March. He told the Indianapolis Star then that his commitment would end to the team if there wasn't significant improvement in attendance and sponsorship. The team has since secured a new sponsor in Kroger, and the Fever are leading the Eastern Conference with a 12-4 record.

"We don't talk about it," said Indiana coach Lin Dunn of the Fever's economic status. "The players have got enough on their minds. Their job is to come in, work hard, get better. And if you do all of that, things will take care of themselves. The last thing they need is to feel the pressure: 'If we don't do this or that, we won't be back.' And we certainly don't want them to feel that way. Because that's not true."

Dunn is the coach of the East squad in the All-Star Game, a position she was awarded because the WNBA championship coach last year, Bill Laimbeer, resigned early in this season.

[+] EnlargeTina Thompson, Sheryl Swoopes, and Cynthia Cooper
AP Photo/Brett CoomerThe Houston Comets ruled the WNBA from 1997 to 2000, winning four consecutive titles. But the franchise suspended operations prior to this season.

Laimbeer's exit was seen as yet another "bad sign" about the WNBA's future, although Laimbeer said economics did not impact his departure.

The fact is, sky-is-falling rumors started just as soon as the league did more than a decade ago. Goodman now has a standard joke when asked about it.

"I always say that in 2027, the headline is going to read, 'WNBA celebrates 30th anniversary … will it last?'" Goodman said, laughing. "Who knows? There might be an asteroid that hits the earth. If you had asked the NBA in 1978 about its future, I don't know what they would have said.

"When a team folds, or a coach leaves, people will say, 'Oh, that's it for the WNBA!' At certain times, it can be incredibly demoralizing. You want to say, 'Would you please stop reporting my death? I'm not dead.' We're still struggling to get people to stop sidelining us and marginalizing us. People write and talk about how the WNBA must be suffering in these terrible economic times. Well, the NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball suffer, too. Everybody suffers in bad economic times."

Some of the moves made league-wide to counter the economic crisis include the cutting of the roster sizes from 13 to 11, and not printing media guides -- either for the league or the individual teams -- and instead making them available online.

In comparison to more established leagues, travel always has been economical. As Goodman said, extravagance hasn't been part of the WNBA. Teams fly commercial. And it wasn't until the latest collective bargaining agreement, reached in January 2008, that veteran players (those with at least five years' experience) earned the right to not have to share hotel rooms on road trips.

Indiana's Tamika Catchings, president of the WNBA Players Association, said "little things" like that were important issues, but by the same token everyone is aware that the league's growth demands concessions from everyone.

For Hughes, being as economical as possible is second nature.

"I come from a background of being a high school coach, a Division III coach," he said. "I've always looked to minimize expenses with scouting and things like that. We don't do things just because the league says we could do it. There's always an eye on, 'How can we best do this in a professional way and still make sense financially?'"

Ultimately, Goodman says her philosophy is to find the silver lining in everything. Including the fact so many college graduates are struggling to find jobs that the Sparks' pool of volunteer interns is both large and exceedingly talented.

"And they get a lot of experience in managing a sports franchise, which they'll be able to turn into a paying job somewhere," she said. "I just think you always look for the bright side.

"And there's a part of me that really does get annoyed by the constant questions about longevity for the WNBA. Look, it's here now."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.