While Phoenix Mercury point Jasmine James admittedly was “shocked” after learning the Los Angeles Sparks’ ownership group on Thursday had ceased operations, the former Bartlett High and University of Georgia star believes the organization can survive arguably its worst transition in its 17 years of existence.
The Sparks, one of the WNBA’s original eight franchises that began playing in Inglewood, Calif. in 1997, on Thursday relinquished ownership of the team to the league and laid off their entire front-office staff, including general manager Penny Toler, coach Carol Ross, and her assistants. Such a development sent shocks waves across the league, most notably among players like the 22-year-old James, who grew up watching the Sparks evolve into one of the league’s elite franchises with WNBA championships in 2001 and 2002.
Now after news spread of the organization having ceased operations, the possibility exists that the league’s second-biggest market will be without a team when the WNBA begins its 18th season in June.
“At first, I was shocked,” James told MemphiSport in an interview Saturday morning from São José dos Campos, Brazil, where she is currently playing international basketball. “It is slightly disappointing to see their organization going through this because the Sparks have been around the WNBA since it very first began. When I was younger, the Sparks always had an amazing fan base and support system so to learn about the financial losses that they had this past year was disappointing.”
Founded prior to the league’s inaugural season in 1997, the Sparks were most recently owned by Williams Group Holdings (Paula Madison, majority owner) and Carla Christofferson, Mack Fixler, and Lisa Leslie (minority owners) until the team’s executives went their separate ways earlier this week. Madison reportedly said that since becoming owner in 2007, she and her family had lost approximately $12 million, including around $1.4 million this past season.
That one of the league’s most popular franchises had been home to a number of marquee name players, including Leslie, Candace Parker, Nikki
Teasley, and Tina Thompson, among others, many throughout the women’s basketball universe hope the Sparks can resolve their brutal financial hardship in the coming months and remain a member of what is currently a 12-team WNBA.
“The continual growth of the WNBA is always a priority for the WNBA as well as the players,” James said. “I think that it shows there are still areas of improvement, but those things are being worked out daily by the head people of the league.”
Even if the Sparks fail to acquire new owners before the start of the 2014 season, James said she doesn’t believe the team’s financial adversity is a trend other franchises around the league are facing, although several teams have either folded or relocated in recent years.
In 2009, for instance, the WNBA announced that the Detroit Shock would relocate to Tulsa, Oklahoma. Then, exactly one month later league officials announced that the Sacramento Monarchs had folded due to lack of support from its current owners, the (George) Maloof family, who were also the owners of the Sacramento Kings at the time. Consequently, the league announced it would seek new owners to relocate the team to the San Francisco Bay area. However, no ownership was found and, as a result, a dispersal draft was held weeks later.
“Honestly, I’m not overly concerned about the future of the WNBA,” said James, who played in 16 games (playoffs included) for Phoenix after joining the team last July. “We have great people working every day to make sure that the WNBA continues to grow and get better. The league will be fine.”
Though the future of the Sparks appear to be bleak, James believes fans in the Los Angeles market will continue to witness professional basketball during the summer months in Staple’s Center, where the team has played for the past 14 seasons.
“I believe the Sparks can survive this development,” said James, adding that she expects to return to the WNBA for the upcoming season. “They were one of the first WNBA teams originally, and they are one of the premiere (teams) right now. They should be fine.”