FanPost

Is there an ideal ownership model for the WNBA?

Since January 2003 when the Mohegan Tribe of Connecticut (the owner of the Mohegan Sun Casino) bought the then-Orlando Miracle, the WNBA has turned from a league that was basically run by the NBA (mostly to give it a leg up in the league's early stages), to a league today where currently half, or six of the 12 teams are owned by groups that do not hold a majority stake in an NBA team.

WNBA ownership groups which also own NBA teams range from a large publicly traded corporation on Wall Street like Madison Square Garden, Inc. which owns the New York Liberty; to a large privately owned group, like Ted Leonsis' Monumental Sports and Entertainment which owns the Washington Mystics. 

WNBA team owners without an NBA "brother team" range from the aforementioned Mohegan Sun, to smaller ownership groups, some of which are comprised of wealthy WNBA season ticket holders (though they presumably aren't of the likes of a Mark Cuban or a Steve Jobs), such as the Sparks ownership group, headed by attorneys Katherine Goodman (she's actually now a teacher for at least several years) and Carla Christofferson; the Seattle Storm's ownership group headed by a former Microsoft executive in Dawn Trudeau; and the Atlanta Dream ownership group which is headed by Kathy Betty, the widow of former Earthlink CEO Garry Betty.

After seeing the different types of ownership groups in the WNBA, one question comes into my mind.  Is a WNBA team in the best possible hands when its owners also own an NBA team, or if it were independently owned?

I can see some possible advantages and disadvantages of a WNBA team being in the hands of owners who also own an NBA team. 

Here are some advantages:

1. Lower operating costs to run business (possibly two or more depending on how many teams are owned). The two teams would get more favorable leases from the arena they share.  Some WNBA team owners, such as MSG, Inc and Ted Leonsis own the arenas where their teams play, so there is no lease to pay.  It is also not unheard of to have the two basketball teams share at least some of the same business staff, if not nearly all of it.  I'm only familiar with the Mystics' model here, and the Mystics and Wizards share the same staff for ticket sales and partnerships.  Don't know how it is for other teams.

2. It may be easier to run some partnerships and charities.  When a WNBA and NBA team play in the same city and are owned by the same people, camps can be integrated easier by inviting players from both teams to speak to the kids, etc.  Also given that the WNBA is part of the NBA family, it is a plus for the NBA when two teams in the same city are working together.

3. In theory, these teams may have more money to spend on coaches, trainers, doctors etc., as well as other expenses which are not bound by the salary cap, which is a flex/modified hard cap in the WNBA.  This advantage could be higher if players' salaries get higher as well.  This also holds true if the team owners' net worth are considerably higher than WNBA team owners who don't own any other pro team.

Disadvantages include:

1. The WNBA team could be easily neglected, and can be a casualty if the ownership is having financial difficulty involving larger enterprises.  We saw the latter with two teams in 2009, with the Simon brothers strongly considering folding the Fever franchise due to losses involving the Pacers, though a Finals appearance that same year changed their minds.  The Sacramento Monarchs weren't so lucky, and were folded mainly because the Maloofs were having financial difficulty all around their family businesses including the Palms Casino and the Sacramento Kings, so much to the point where the Kings almost moved to Anaheim this past May. 

Speaking about franchises almost moving, the Seattle Storm was basically bound for Oklahoma City along with the Supersonics during the 2007-2008 NBA season.  Clay Bennett, the owner for the Storm at the time, was initially adamant about their relocation, but backed off in January 2008 and sold the team to Trudeau's ownership group, Force 10 Hoops, after he determined that the Storm would probably not be as successful business-wise if they were in OKC.

2. If an NBA and WNBA team share the same staff, it is possible that the staff may not work as diligently for the WNBA team as they would for the NBA team.  I know that all of you and I are fans of the WNBA.  However I'd be a fool to say that given the same job description, working for a WNBA team is better looking on a resumé than working for an NBA team in and of itself.  Working for two different teams, even if they share the same ownership company is like double duty, and there is more money to be made with the NBA than the WNBA.  The staff may work real hard during NBA season, and get burned out after the season is over, only to realize that the WNBA season is about to begin and they have to do the same work for presumably less results, in particular for sales people and guest services agents who deal with complaints and requests from season ticket holders virtually all of the time.

Here are the advantages and disadvantages of WNBA teams which ARE NOT owned by NBA team owners

Advantages:

1. The owners conceivably would have more time to focus on the team, as would the team staff. No NBA team to distract the ticket sales staff, and I would hope that workers for these teams have a genuine interest in the league or they probably wouldn't do very well at their jobs, whether it's sales, service, sponsorships, or otherwise.

2. In particular for the ownership groups that are comprised of long time season ticket holders, most notably for the Sparks and the Storm, I can see that these owners may have a larger commitment for a winning team than some of the WNBA teams owned by NBA team owners.  It doesn't seem coincidental that the current Sparks and Storm ownership have kept their cores and continue to add contributing pieces around them.  On top of that, they are two of the most respected franchises in the WNBA.

3. There may be no NBA team in the city, so in theory, there are more dollars to grab from possible season ticket holders.  That is the case in Tulsa, Connecticut, and Seattle.  In Connecticut especially, it may be easier to get season ticket holders because of the success of the University of Connecticut women's basketball team, and many of the fans who live in the state are interested in following their pro careers, not to mention that the current core is from UConn (Charles, Jones, Montgomery).

4. Three of these ownership groups are made entirely of women (Storm, Sparks, Dream).  Given that one of the missions of the WNBA is to promote some of the best female athletes in the world and showcase their talents, it is a bonus when at least some of these teams are owned by an all-woman ownership group.  Not only do young children, in particular girls, get to see that women can play a team sport at a professional level, but they also get to see that women run some of these teams.

Disadvantages

1. Teams may have to spend a higher proportion of their revenues on business costs.   For example, these teams must raise their own funds for a lease to wherever they play and must be self sufficient in that regard.  I don't know if season ticket prices had to raise in LA or Seattle when they transferred from NBA to non-NBA ownership but it wouldn't surprise me if that was the case.  Exception here is the Sun since the casino has its own arena. Same goes for advertising, and such ownership groups could find it harder to get on local cable TV, etc, though it hasn't been the case with such teams so far.

2. If the team is in a city with an NBA team, in terms of charity events and advertising, it is very possible that the WNBA team will have to do these things on their own, this kind of ties with disadvantage. The two teams may hold camps separately and it is also possible that the NBA team in the same city as the WNBA team may not really support them that much.  Chicago for some reason comes into mind here.

3. If the ownership group isn't super rich, it's possible that they may not be able to compete with richer ownership groups for coaches, trainers, etc.   This so far hasn't been an issue yet, but it can be down the road.

4. For teams in places with no NBA team, there may not be many more true prospective season ticket holders than there already are.  In Seattle, we haven't seen Storm attendance spike dramatically in 2008-2010 since the Sonics became a page in a history book, though it has risen on average between the 2009 to 2010 seasons, and again from the 2010 to the 2011 seasons.  I'm not saying that the Sonics and Storm fanbases are totally mutually exclusive, but there can be more overlap between the fanbases than there is.

***

In conclusion, I don't really know what kind of an ownership model is best for a WNBA team, but I think it is worth discussing since we see a good range of owner types, as I mentioned above.  Regardless of whether owners are millionaires or billionaires, NBA team owners or not, men or women, team owners must be willing to give a true long term commitment for the team's survival, as well as providing an on-court product that season ticket holders will enjoy over the long term. 

If a team can't provide a great team on the court that year, they should be honest to the fans about that and be open about rebuilding toward getting back to a championship level.  They must also strive to expand the fanbase (which I have commented on before, but which team doesn't want to expand its fanbase).  Lastly, they must be loyal and reward their employees who perform well for them year after year, from a star basketball player to a head coach; and from the team's best ticket business operations executive to the team's best ticket salesman.

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