'Employee of the Month' sparks interest

When Heather La Bella first inquired about advertising the Los Angeles Sparks in Playboy to target Southern California's subscribers, she never expected that she'd wind up topless in the magazine.

But that's exactly what happened to the 32-year-old director of tactical marketing for the WNBA team. The August issue, which features a picture of her as the magazine's "Employee of the Month," hit newsstands last Friday.

"Part of my job is to try to increase ticket sales and I think this will work," said La Bella, who has been working for WNBA teams for the past six years.

Athletes like figure skater Katerina Witt and volleyball player Gabrielle Reece have posed in Playboy, and Lakers owner Jerry Buss' daughter, Jeanie, appeared in the magazine nine years ago.

"My dad has always said that that's the only Playboy he's never read," said Buss' son Johnny, who is president of the Sparks. "But this one he will read over and over again."

Last month, WNBA Most Valuable Player Lauren Jackson, a forward with the Seattle Storm, posed nude in an Australian magazine that features Olympic athletes who will compete in Athens.

The untraditional move might turn about to be a marketing coup for the Sparks, who would have had to pay $25,000 to execute La Bella's original idea. Instead, the team received free advertising and La Bella got paid for the picture -- though she won't reveal how much.

La Bella said she sent a picture of her marketing team, made up of six part-time employees, to the magazine in February and asked magazine officials if they would like to feature La Bella's team. A Playboy official called back and asked La Bella if she would do a solo photo shoot.

La Bella agreed after she got the go-ahead from Johnny Buss.

"We're always thinking of new ways to boost awareness," Buss said. "Plus, we're always a little on the edge here in Los Angeles. We're friends with the whole Playboy family. They're part of Los Angeles and the only thing we would have changed is that we would have liked to get a more intricate pictorial."

Buss said Playboy and the WNBA worked together to make sure the league was happy with the final product. La Bella is holding a WNBA-logoed ball in the picture. WNBA officials could not be immediately reached for comment.

La Bella said she took 468 photos, only 15 of which featured her completely nude. Although those didn't make it into the issue, La Bella said Playboy has asked if she would consider another shoot.

"Heather proves that women who have high-profile jobs, can also be beautiful and sexy," said Playboy publicist Theresa Hennessey.

The league is scheduled to take off a month, due to the Olympics, so La Bella said it might be until September until the team finds out if her tactic worked.

"I've signed many covers already," said La Bella. "And, I'll say this: I look better in person."

Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.rovell@espn3.com