Madison: Sparks 'had a tough time'

Paula Madison and her family couldn't afford to lose any more money with the Los Angeles Sparks, so she decided it was time to get out.

Madison informed the WNBA just before Christmas that the league should look for new owners for the team.

Since taking over the franchise in 2007, Madison said, she and her family had lost $12 million -- including $1.4 million this past season.

"Our team has had a tough time from year to year, and we went into this not because we wanted to own a franchise, but because we wanted to support women's basketball," Madison said in a phone interview late Thursday night.

While half the league's teams are connected to NBA franchises, the Sparks were independently owned, which has made reaching profitability more difficult. From arena costs to separate front office staffs and office space, a lot more money is spent by independent owners. It didn't help that the Sparks' major sponsorship deal with Farmers Insurance ended this past year.

Madison credits WNBA president Laurel Richie for improving the financial situation of the league, but it wasn't enough.

"The deal with Boost Mobile and ESPN, had those things not happened and been passed on to the team, this would have happened much sooner," Madison said.

While the franchise hasn't been successful financially, the Sparks have been one of the best on the court and have led the league in attendance the past two seasons. They won titles in 2001 and 2002 and made it to the playoffs in five of the past six seasons. They were knocked out in the opening round by Phoenix this past season.

Los Angeles, which is one of only four original WNBA franchises left, also has one of the league's marquee players in Candace Parker, who won the league's MVP this past season.

All Sparks front office personnel, including the team's president and general manager, were laid off on New Year's Eve via email. The players, including Parker, have already been paid, and their benefits will continue to be taken care of by the league. Most of the Sparks players were overseas playing basketball when they heard the news.

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

The move comes after a banner year for the WNBA with attendance and viewership both up. While final numbers aren't in yet, almost half the franchises were profitable this year, according to Richie.

"My initial response was one of surprise," she 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."

Madison hopes to find a buyer that will keep the team in L.A.

Richie said that several groups have expressed interest in owning a WNBA team and the league is now exploring those options. She said it was too early to tell whether the Sparks would be playing in the upcoming season, which begins in four months.

The WNBA could run the franchise in the short-term rather than allow it to disband entirely. The league ran the Houston Comets for a short time before that team was ultimately disbanded. The league, however, chose not to take over the Monarchs when the Maloof brothers stopped operations in Sacramento.

"I'd rather not speculate on that," Richie 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."