League seeks new owners for Sparks

News broke Thursday that the Sparks' ownership group has given up control of the franchise. Bruce Yeung/Icon SMI

Putting a team in Los Angeles was a landmark achievement for the WNBA back in 1997, so much so that the league played its inaugural game on the Sparks' home floor.

Losing Los Angeles 17 years later is almost unthinkable.

Shock waves rippled across the women's basketball universe on Thursday with the news that the WNBA is searching for a new owner for one of its core franchises after the Los Angeles Sparks' ownership group ceased operation of the franchise and laid off the team's entire front-office staff, including general manager Penny Toler, coach Carol Ross and her assistants.

But that's probably nothing compared to the shock waves rippling through WNBA offices in New York, where league president Laurel Richie is scrambling to come up with a fast fix for one of its highest-profile pillars.

"The news was absolutely a surprise to us," Richie said by phone Thursday night. Richie said she heard from Sparks chairman Paula Madison just before Christmas.

"I got the call from Paula that she and her family were no longer able to support the team," Richie said. "I have known Paula to be a passionate and committed owner, and I think it was a matter that she took on more than she could handle."

Richie confirmed that Madison's group has shut down operations and said the league is working to "figure out next steps for the Sparks as an entity." The league clarified on Thursday night that it is not taking over the Sparks franchise, merely leading the search for a new owner.

"All of this is moving very quickly," Richie said.

Players, many of whom are spending the WNBA offseason playing overseas, have been paid for the season and are still receiving their year-round benefits, Richie said.

Richie wanted to make it clear that this issue is confined to one franchise, one ownership group, and should not be a reflection on the health of the league overall. The league has "weathered the storm of change in the past," she said.

"What's so surprising is that it was a terrific year for the WNBA," Richie said. "Viewership and attendance were up. We had extended our partnership with ESPN, overall sponsorship and conversations with new potential partners were increasing. We had unprecedented media coverage with our '3 to See,' so, yes, it's a surprise in light of all that."

And now, questions abound about the WNBA's future in Los Angeles. The Sparks were one of the league's original eight franchises.

It's not inconceivable that the WNBA could run the Sparks in the short-term rather than allow it to disband entirely. It's not unprecedented. The league ran the Houston Comets franchise for a brief time before the team was ultimately disbanded.

But the WNBA chose not to take over when the Maloof brothers ceased operations in Sacramento, and scrambled to find new ownership in Atlanta several years ago, allowing the Dream franchise to continue.

Richie said that the league has been in touch with "a handful of folks" in the past two years who have expressed an interest in running a WNBA franchise.

"They appear to be very qualified prospects," Richie said. "They understand the league, the women's game, they having contacts and roots in the community. When we got the news, we immediately reached out to those who had expressed interested and began conversations."

Does that mean the Sparks could leave Los Angeles? Richie did not give a definitive answer, nor did she seem attached to the idea that the league needed to have a team in L.A., saying she did not place value of one franchise over another.

"It's premature to speculate on what the next steps are," Richie said. "The one thing we know now is there are some very interested and very capable folks out there expressing interest in the Sparks."

The Sparks should be one of the WNBA's most appealing franchises for a new ownership group, with a winning tradition, a pair of titles (2001 and 2002) and one of the league's signature players in Candace Parker -- who was getting her jersey retired by Tennessee in Knoxville when this news broke on Thursday.

Should the team stay in Los Angeles -- it would seem to behoove the league to explore every possible option inside the nation's second-largest media market -- there's a possibility that the franchise could move out of Staples Center, perhaps back to the remodeled Forum where they played their games in the league's early days.

Or perhaps a move to a not-so-far-away place? It has been widely assumed in recent years that there is a Bay Area group interested in a WNBA franchise, and that perhaps Golden State Warriors owner Joe Lacob would interested. Lacob is a women's basketball supporter. He owned the San Jose Lasers of the now-defunct American Basketball League in the mid-1990s and at one time was a season-ticket holder for the Stanford women's basketball team. Rick Welts, the Warriors chief of operations, worked closely with then-team president Val Ackerman to help launch the WNBA back in 1997.

The Bay Area market could be a suitable consolation prize for the league were it to be forced out of L.A. In any event, time is of the essence with the season tipping off in about five months.

Richie said the league is looking for a solution "as quickly as we possibly can."

"Obviously, this was an unanticipated set of circumstances," Richie said. "There are a lot of moving parts and we want to move as quickly as possible. We are looking at all options and opportunities."