WNBA exploring options for Sparks

The Los Angeles Sparks' ownership group has given up control of the franchise.

WNBA president Laurel Richie told The Associated Press on Thursday that Sparks chairman Paula Madison informed the league right before Christmas that her family-owned company would no longer be involved with the team.

"The current ownership group has notified us that they are no longer willing to support the team," Richie said. "They have shut down operations, and we in turn based on that have begun the process of taking action to return management control to the league."

Madison said in a phone conversation that the team had lost $12 million since her group took over ownership in 2007, including $1.4 million this past year, and that her family couldn't sustain the losses anymore.

"This is a sad time for my family because we want L.A. to have a thriving championship women's basketball team," she said, "and, most importantly, we had hoped to continue employing these great behind-the-scenes employees who worked tirelessly on behalf of women's basketball."

All Sparks front-office personnel, including the team's president and general manager, were laid off on New Year's Eve via e-mail. The players, including star Candace Parker, and coaching staff already have been paid, and their benefits will continue to be taken care of by the league.

The move comes after a banner year for the WNBA with attendance and viewership both up.

"My initial response was one of surprise," Richie said. "Both in terms of how well the league was doing and is doing. I didn't have any prior communication from the team that this was going to happen."

Richie said several groups have expressed interest in owning a WNBA team and the league is now exploring those options in regards to the Sparks. She said that while final numbers aren't yet in from this past season, almost half the franchises were profitable this year. The Sparks weren't one of them.

"After we went through the budgeting process, we saw we'd lose over a million again in 2014," Madison said. "We lost our marquee sponsorship with Farmers because they had to redirect local spending to Farmers Field."

Madison said she would love to see the team stay in Los Angeles.

"We absolutely hope we can find a buyer who would want to keep the team in L.A. and manage the team," Madison said. "We want to work cooperatively with (the) WNBA."

Richie said it was too early to tell whether the Sparks would be playing this season, which begins in four months.

"I'd rather not speculate on that," she said. "What I can tell you is our team is working steadily and in a dedicated manner to move through all this and truly explore all our options with respect to the Sparks."

Madison became the Sparks' chairman in 2007 with an ownership group that included Kathy Goodman and Carla Christofferson, and former star Lisa Leslie was added to the group after her retirement. Before that, the late Jerry Buss owned the team.

The franchise won titles in 2001 and 2002, and has made it to the playoffs in five of the past six seasons. The Sparks were knocked out in the opening round by Phoenix this past season.

Los Angeles was one of the original eight franchises when the league began in 1997. The WNBA grew to 16 teams before several franchises folded, the last of which was Sacramento in 2009.