A lot has been said about the owners of the WNBA, but not about how they came around to owning their teams, much less what the actual ownership of a WNBA team actually entails. The WNBA (and the individual teams) keeps those secrets more tightly wrapped than The Da Vinci Code. You would have to be a globe-trotting Tom Hanks to figure out what it means to own a WNBA team before getting your feet wet.
But let's say that despite that, you want to own one. How hard would it be?
The very first question is does the WNBA want another team? The answer is undoubtedly "yes". At the turn of the century, the WNBA was as large as 16 teams. When a league expands, it sends the message that owning a WNBA team must be worth something...else why would people be wanting to join the league? So there won't be a lack of desire from the WNBA home office.
The first question is probably going to be who is the owner? Having 1,000 of your closest friends ponying up $10K each won't get you there. I don't know the NBA By-Laws, but community ownership of teams has been informally banned. The NBA - and by extension, the W - wants moguls who own teams, not represent them. Why? Because the dream of the W (and its owners) is that fifty years down the line, WNBA teams will be so valuable that they can be used to hold cities hostage. "Give us a new stadium or we'll move the Storm!" Laughable now, maybe not so funny in fifty years.
That's every owner's dream. Clout. Community owned teams, even those from an extended community, can't be easily moved. Not going to happen.
(Note: don't worry about having a sad-looking financial background. Credit score only 500? Working at a Renaissance Faire? No problem! The W gave the Houston Comets to Koch, and he was one bill collector short of wearing suspenders and a barrel.)
All right. Let's say that you make all of the shares of stock non-voting, or put the team in a blind trust or something acceptable to the W.
Next question: what can we get from you? The WNBA will tell you a lot of crap about how the cost of a franchise is $10 million dollars. I wouldn't believe any of that. Ron Terwilliger got his for a $2 million down payment. You want to get one of those deals where the cash is (theoretically) ladled out every year to the W instead of arriving in the secret W bank vaults in one lump sum. That way, when you have a bad year - and you'll probably have one - you go to President O with your pockets turned out and you moan, "Donna, it's either pay you or fold the franchise." Orender nods, and you get another try. (But if there's another expansion, expect Ms. O to ask for the money that you owe her, or your team will be moved.) The real question is are you willing to keep the franchise alive?
Okay. Ownership is lined up. A sweet purchase deal is lined up where the W can announce some imaginary sum. The next question is where do you stick this WNBA team?
My suggestion: forget the South. The South is a death zone for basketball, and that includes men's basketball. The South was colonized by college football decades ago and nothing has been able to loosen that death grip, not baseball, and to some degree not even the NFL.
You don't want to put a team in a place where a previous team up and died. Miami, Orlando, Cleveland, Charlotte, Salt Lake City, Portland, Detroit. You might be able to resuscitate Sacramento, they're dying for some pro ball. Houston might be a harder sell, their fans have been spoiled by four WNBA championships. If Houston, don't call this team "the Comets" unless you're as serious as death about turning it into a winner, and fast.
You obviously don't want to go close to an existing team. San Francisco is spoken for, even though women's basketball to paraphrase Frisco del Rosario has never been more than a curiosity in San Francisco. Forget New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. Where? Where?
This part of the equation is much debated. You need a fairly forward looking place that isn't hostile to the very idea of women being out of the kitchen, or women possibly kissing other women when no one is looking.
San Diego might be a good idea - it's on the west coast, and the west has definitely been more receptive to the WNBA than the east. Phoenix, Seattle, San Antonio, Los Angeles, most of the WNBA's teams with big fan followings are western teams. Boston is conservative, but there are a lot of forward-looking college kids there who love basketball.
Once you get a city, the next problem is an arena. Furthermore, it has to be a "pro arena" or something like one. This isn't the ABL where you could get away with playing at a local college. If you end up in a city that has a NBA team, you'll probably be nudged into using that arena as your WNBA arena.
Bill Byrne, the president of the Women's Professional Basketball League - the first league that tried to exist as a women's pro league, from 1978 to 1981 - said that three things would kill a league. Those things are player's pay, travel, and arena costs. Players pay will never get too much out of control. The WNBA has a salary cap and another team can't spend you into oblivion. Frankly, the players are (somewhat) grateful to even have an American pro league, but with European clubs paying six figure salaries to the first players off WNBA benches prices might be driven up - you never can tell. Travel can't get too much out of control, because the collective bargaining agreement between the league and the players defines everything down to the daily meal money.
The arena costs are another problem. The big questions are how much is it going to cost you a night and what slice of the pie will you get? There are bigger slices of the pie than just the gate - how much you can get in ticket money? There's parking and concessions. If you get a deal like Atlanta has, you're screwed - it costs about $10 to park at a WNBA game and the Dream gets none of that. Likewise, they don't get a slice of the concession business, either. Your bargaining position is constricted: the WNBA wants you playing in a big modern arena, and the arena owners know it and they're going to jack you up if they can.
With all of that in mind, you're probably going to make somewhere between $1.5-$2.5 million a year - but you're going to lose between $2.5 million-$3.5 million. Expect to lose about $2 million a year, average. This is a very expensive toy, as any sports team is. All sports teams are vanity purchases, and the WNBA even more so. Yes, teams like the Cubs and the Yankees make money, but as one businessman said, there are easier ways to make money than owning a sports franchise.
That money is coming out of your pocket. Yeah, the WNBA might get some assistance from the NBA but not $2 million a year for your team - contrary to popular belief, the NBA does not subsidize the W. No NBA team is required as part of its ownership rules to contribute anything to the WNBA - any funds paid to the WNBA come out of the NBA's general fund and not out of ticket sales or anything an individual NBA franchise would raise on its own. So forget asking your brother NBA team for a handout when things go south.
If you're really lucky - you could get a jersey sponsorship. Those could be seven figures, but I wouldn't trust any number coming from the WNBA these days. Even so, word on the street is that these jersey sponsorships have enough power to pretty much float a franchise out of the red if not into the black. Note that only teams that have been around for a long, long time have them. Phoenix, Los Angeles, New York - those teams are the only teams from 1997 that are still in their 1997 locations, and all of them now have jersey sponsorships. The only exception is Seattle, which has been around since 2000 - but they have a rabid fan base. Even Washington, which has been around since 1998 and has (theoretically) great attendance still doesn't have one.
In the end, however, don't expect that owning a WNBA team will make you a big man (or woman) around your city. Even in enlightened cities you can expect the sportswriters at the local daily paper to have an opinion that ranges between ignorant and outright hostile. If your team is covered at all, it will be covered by the lower persons on the journalistic totem pole. It won't make the local television news, which only has about five minutes or so devoted to sports. You'll be lucky if they read the score on the late night news broadcast.
Most of the hardcore fans that follow your team will be very annoying. They've followed women's basketball for years (some for decades before the college game was even organized) and most have lived on a meager existence of failed promises and outright lies - they will live or die with your team, but expect your front office to take daily bashings on fan blogs and on RebKell. Few of them expect WNBA management itself to deliver any truth, so if that's how they treat the main office, you can expect the same at your local franchise. The rumor is that WNBA fans are like science fiction fans - they don't have much money to spend (many have families or are up in years, or both) and they want their stuff cheap. Any request for more moolah at the turnstiles will be met with a roar of rage.
The NBA won't cooperate with you when it comes to scheduling as the NBA season bleeds further and further into June with its playoffs. FIBA Europe and the European clubs won't care much about the WNBA season, either, and they will expect your players - which they consider <I>their players</I>, by the way - to hop on a plane after last ball is bounced.
If your team goes into the post-season, there's the very real possibility losing a home game because of some arena scheduling conflict. Last year, Sesame Street Live was scheduled at Philips Arena and the Dream had to find space in Gwinnett for Game 2 of their conference semi-final game against the Detroit Shock. Not only was the Dream getting bumped for Elmo national news ("See? Told you the WNBA was bush league!") but it gave the Atlanta sports shills a field day and the Dream's first playoff season came to an end on a "home court" that the players hadn't so much as visited.
So why would you ever enter this sort of thing? You could just like the idea of owning a professional franchise, and the WNBA fit your pocketbook. You could be a philanthropist, who wanted to give something back to the kids of the community and damn the losses. You could like women's sports, or just women's basketball.
But if you own a WNBA franchise...I certainly love you. And God shall bless you, because it looks like no one else will.