- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Last week, someone who is, shall we say, in the know about the WNBA's business told me there would be more franchise movement in the league. What wasn't made clear, though, was how soon it might be coming.
Friday, it was confirmed: The Maloof family, wanting to focus on the status of its Sacramento Kings franchise of the NBA, said it no longer will be involved in owning the WNBA's Monarchs.
The WNBA announced that it hopes to move the franchise to the nearby Bay Area, a region virtually everyone who follows the women's league has considered a market with a good chance to succeed. But owners and a venue still have to be nailed down there.
And considering that the WNBA typically finalizes and releases its upcoming schedule in December -- although that has been done as late as January before -- time is of the essence. If nothing can be completed for the 2010 season, the Sacramento players will have to be relocated via dispersal draft and the league will play with 12 teams next summer.
"I remain bullishly optimistic about the league in general," WNBA president Donna Orender said via phone Friday evening. "When you build businesses, you have to do so from a position of strength. And when you have an organization that is lacking strength, it's probably best to move forward."
Sacramento, which won the 2005 WNBA title and made the playoffs nine of its 13 years of existence, definitely lost strength this past season. A much-criticized decision by general manager and former coach John Whisenant to fire coach Jenny Boucek in July and replace her with himself did nothing to improve the Monarchs' season.
They still finished with the worst record in the league, 12-22, compiled by a roster with only one All-Star caliber player, Nicole Powell, and only one other player whose scoring average was in double figures this season, Rebekkah Brunson.
The WNBA's interest in the Bay Area has been long brewing. In fact, the idea of the Monarchs being shifted southwest has been floated by WNBA observers in years past. But the Maloofs' commitment previously seemed pretty firm.
Their decision to abandon the Monarchs was kept hidden until the last second, so that even team members and employees were surprised. Many of them, like longtime fans and season-ticket holders, found out via press release.
However, perhaps it's really not that big a shock. Like many NBA teams, the Kings have faced some financial worries, coupled with the Maloofs' disenchantment with 21-year-old Arco Arena.
Now, the Maloof family says all its energy will go toward the Kings, whose future in Sacramento isn't exactly rock-solid, either. There remain those undying rumors about the possibility of the Maloofs moving the Kings to Las Vegas, although they've previously denied them.
A look at the Kings' history, in fact, provides a prime example of the painful but frequently inevitable franchise movement that is part of professional sports leagues.
The Kings started out as the Rochester Royals in 1945 in the old National Basketball League. The franchise, which joined the NBA in 1948, spent 12 years in New York before moving to Cincinnati. The Royals stayed in Ohio until 1972.
Then the NBA tried to experiment with having two cities that were three hours apart share the franchise. (Hey, it was the swingin' '70s, when some folks thought spouse swapping was a good idea, too.) Thus, the Royals became the Kansas City-Omaha Kings for three years, but Omaha was then dropped.
The Kings stayed in K.C. until 1985, when -- after enduring a Kemper Arena roof collapse and average attendance dipping below 7,000 per game -- the franchise headed west to Sacramento. There, for the past few years, the Maloofs have been vocally unhappy playing in what they feel is an outdated facility.
A look at the Royals/Kings' time line puts the Monarchs' history into perspective. The Monarchs are one of the original WNBA franchises, starting when the league did in 1997. Today, Monarchs fans are crushed, realizing that something that's been part of their lives for 13 summers is being taken away.
Unfortunately, though, it's not a new emotion for sports fans. It's how those who were loyal Royals/Kings fans in Rochester, then Cincinnati, then Omaha and then Kansas City felt, too. In its different incarnations, the franchise featured standouts such as Maurice Stokes, Oscar Robertson, Jerry Lucas, Tiny Archibald and Phil Ford. In all but Omaha, the team was in town for at least 12 years and became a part of people's lives. Then -- poof! -- it was gone.
I don't want to be insensitive to fans' sadness, which is legitimate. But in regard to franchises folding/relocating while a pro league continues, the analogy that always comes to mind is that of a wagon train headed west in which not everybody completed the trip. Those who continued sincerely patted the stricken family on the back, and they did empathize with their grief. But they had to keep moving.
It's been a rough journey, no doubt, for the WNBA in the past year. In December 2008, four-time champion Houston folded. Last month, three-time champion Detroit relocated to Tulsa. Sacramento is either folding or moving -- although the move (if it happens) will not be that far away.
The good news for the league is that although Indiana also looked in trouble before this past season began, the Fever's run to the WNBA Finals and a subsequent spike in fan interest convinced Pacers owner Herb Simon -- whose co-owning brother, Melvin, died in September -- that the WNBA franchise was still worth the investment.
Also, the Shock didn't fold as some expected but instead were purchased by a group in Tulsa eager to have the franchise for the city's still-like-new arena, the BOK Center, which opened in 2008. And in Atlanta, where original Dream owner Ron Terwilliger said he couldn't maintain his investment because of business setbacks, another owner, Kathy Betty, stepped forward in October.
The Maloofs' divestment in the WNBA also continues a trend of NBA owners leaving the women's league and being replaced by independent owners -- a business model that didn't begin until the 2003 season with the Connecticut Sun.
Among the 12 current franchises (not counting the in-limbo Monarchs), there are seven independent owners and five NBA owners. The franchises still operated by NBA owners are Phoenix, the reigning WNBA champion; Indiana; Minneapolis; New York; and San Antonio.
At the All-Star Game this past July in Connecticut, I chatted with Sacramento's Powell, who was picked as a replacement player for injured Lisa Leslie. A Stanford graduate, she has a keen understanding of the state of the WNBA. She said her fellow players need to realize that the league is still in what she expects will be a decades-long process of establishing itself and that nothing can be taken for granted.
Powell's thoughts seem all the more prescient now, as she must wait to find out where she will play next summer.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
15dBonnie D. Ford