Business & Economy

Los Angeles Sparks ownership group gives up WNBA franchise (updated)

Candace Parker #3 of the Los Angeles Sparks drives the ball  during Game Two of the WNBA semifinal playoffs against the Phoenix Mercury at US Airways Center on Sept. 21, 2013 in Phoenix, Arizona.
Candace Parker #3 of the Los Angeles Sparks drives the ball during Game Two of the WNBA semifinal playoffs against the Phoenix Mercury at US Airways Center on Sept. 21, 2013 in Phoenix, Arizona.
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

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The Los Angeles Sparks' ownership group will no longer support the franchise financially.

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.

Madison told KPCC that they are are not giving up management control and continue to “own and manage the team” but if a new owner buys the team, the owner would manage it.

If an investor steps in, Madison could still manage it. 

Madison said in a phone conversation with AP that the team had lost $12 million since she took over ownership in 2007.

"In the absence of more investors or a buyer frankly, we can’t continue operating the team at such an annual loss," Madison told KPCC. 

For the past seven years, Madison told KPCC, her family has been writing a check for almost a million and a half a year. 

"This is a sad time for my family because we want L.A. to have a thriving championship women's basketball team," she told AP, "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 have already 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 that 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 in yet 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 Farmer's because they had to redirect local spending to Farmer's Field."

Fan Margie Gonzales, who has had season tickets for 13 years, told KPCC that WNBA games have a different feel.

“Oh my gosh it’s such a family oriented atmosphere, said Gonzales. "I’ve gone to NFL games. I’ve gone to NBA games.  And it’s just a love fest at the WNBA games. It’s inexpensive. It’s entertainment. The level of play is extraordinary.”

Madison 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 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. They were knocked out in the opening round by Phoenix.

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.

With contributions from KPCC's Shirley Jahad.