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Sparks Watch Day 5: Can the WNBA survive if the Sparks fold?

We look at the possible consequences of what could happen if the Sparks fold. These include what it would mean for the WNBA for the short term logistically, symbolically, and also if it could have long term impacts on the league's survival.

We'd probably see Candace Parker play for the Connecticut Sun if the Sparks fold, but there are bigger repercussions to the league than that.
We'd probably see Candace Parker play for the Connecticut Sun if the Sparks fold, but there are bigger repercussions to the league than that.
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

Right now, there is no clear sign that the WNBA intends on folding the Sparks outright and dropping the total number of teams in the league to 11.  But at the same time, with all team employees being laid off, the reality is that the Sparks are already halfway there in terms of closing shop, even if there are other parties interested in acquiring the team.

The short term logistical consequences of the Sparks folding

1. There would be a dispersal draft - Kind of obvious.  The order of such a draft would start with the team with the worst regular season record in 2013 down down to the team with the best record.  With the assumption that all 11 players on the Sparks are eligible to be drafted (we may learn later on that some players are unrestricted free agents), the Connecticut Sun would pick first, and pick Candace Parker who would help shore up the frontcourt alongside Tina Charles who will almost definitely stay with the Sun now that Parker is coming to the Casino.

The Tulsa Shock would pick second and would select Nneka Ogwumike, even with Glory Johnson on the roster.  That could allow them some more flexibility with trade options to improve their roster, whether they want to trade Ogwumike or Johnson, unless Liz Cambage does not return and follows through on that.

At number three, I would predict that the New York Liberty would pick up Lindsey Harding to form up a potentially dangerous backcourt alongside Cappie Pondexter.  Then at number four, the San Antonio Silver Stars would select Kristi Toliver who would be the best remaining player available.

2. Possible changes to the league's playoff format - Currently, 8 out of 12 teams make the Playoffs, or four teams out of six in each conference.  With the Sparks out of the picture, the Western Conference would have five teams, and it would seem tacky to have four out of five teams making the postseason.

I would imagine that the WNBA would have six teams make the postseason, where the #1 seed in the Eastern and Western Conference get byes to the Conference Finals, while the #2 and #3 seeds battle it out in the first round.

The symbolical consequences of the Sparks folding

when a founding and long-time franchise folds despite being a perennial winner and has had multiple mainstream figures play for the team while in their prime, that is a very bad mark on the league

1. The WNBA would lose the second largest television market in the United States - The Los Angeles metropolitan area is the second largest area in the USA, with New York City as the largest.  Losing this market basically ensures that many people in the West Coast who may have a little interest in watching the WNBA now may not have such interest anymore, because there is no team in the area to follow.

2. The WNBA would not have much of a West Coast presence - The league once had as many as four teams in the West Coast which include the Sparks, the Seattle Storm, and the now defunct Portland Fire and Sacramento Monarchs franchises.  Should the Sparks fold, the Storm would be the only true West Coast team left in the WNBA, and that franchise, like the Sparks is owned by one the WNBA's smaller ownership groups and is facing possible sponsorship losses as well.

3. This would be the second time that a non-NBA team owner's franchise has folded - So far, every WNBA franchise that has folded was owned and operated by an NBA team owner except for the Houston Comets in 2008.  Even with Atlanta and even LA having faced ownership changes while under a non-NBA team owner, the thing is that they have been able to find new ownership at the end of the day.  In other words, since the Houston Comets folding, there was no turnover of a franchise to the league until now.

4. The Sparks folding may be a sign that a small team owner based on wealth cannot afford to own a team in a large market and play in an NBA and NHL facility.

The Sparks lost $12 million over the course of Madison's ownership.  And considering that Los Angeles is the second biggest city in the United States, the costs to run the business there are more expensive than most other markets, and that also includes any lease payments made to Staples Center, which is also home to the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers NBA teams, and the Los Angeles Kings NHL team.  If the Sparks played at a smaller venue instead, it could be cheaper.

There are two other teams, the New York Liberty, and the Washington Mystics which are big market teams and play in NBA/NHL facilities.  However, the Liberty and Mystics' ownership groups (Madison Square Garden and Monumental Sports respectively) also own the arenas they play in, so there is no lease payment to be made, not to mention that they own NBA and NHL teams.  The revenue they get from the other sports teams and other events also help pay down any loans they have to maintain their arenas.

5. The WNBA would lose a long-time and marquee franchise led by two of the league's most notable players of all time - The Sparks have been a perennial winner having made the playoffs in 13 out of 17 seasons, an overall regular season record of 342-218, three Western Conference championships, and two WNBA championships.

Yes we've seen that franchises have folded in the WNBA despite winning a championship or more, such as the Houston Comets which won the league's first four titles, and the Sacramento Monarchs.  While both of those teams certainly had talented players who led them to those titles, neither of them had players who were known as mainstream faces of the league like Lisa Leslie who was with the team from 1997 to 2009, and Candace Parker who has been with the team since 2008 and is still one of the first people think about when they think of the WNBA.  Leslie in particular is probably the best known WNBA player ever.

It's not necessarily a black mark to see a franchise fold in a growing league when the basketball on the court isn't that good.  If the Tulsa Shock were to fold today, we can at least say that the team's losing is why.  The franchise has yet to make the playoffs since relocating to Tulsa in 2010, and it's hard for many to imagine that the team will get there in 2014 as well.

Also if a long-time franchise folds, but is considered a perennial loser, then you can also say that it's not necessarily a black mark on the league.  If the Washington Mystics folded in the 2012-2013 offseason after what was then 15 years of mostly losing and at best mediocre basketball, that certainly would qualify, and there were rumblings about that in the fall of 2012.  To be fair to the Mystics, it appears that any rumors of them folding primarily came from fans' emotions, rather than from the front office due to their perennial losing and an unlucky draft lottery.

But when a founding and long-time franchise folds despite being a perennial winner and has had multiple mainstream figures play for the team while in their prime, that is a very bad mark on the league.  The Los Angeles Sparks are that type of franchise and if there is a franchise worth "saving," I think the Sparks have to be right up there.

Impact on the WNBA's sustainability with the Sparks folding

when you combine the recent events regarding multiple teams..., seeing the league cancel the 2014 season due to a labor impasse or fold altogether doesn't sound too far fetched anymore

1. Less national sponsorship money - With less teams and the loss of a team in a major market, there will be less incentive for national sponsors to give more money to the WNBA.

2. Less TV viewers and possibly the devaluing of television contracts - The league's current national television deal with ESPN is valued at $12 million a year through 2022.  With one less team which is one of the most well known teams in league history, that deal will likely be worth less.

3. With less national sponsorships and less national television dollars, that makes the league's sustainability a lot harder.  In fact, it could be enough to spell the WNBA's demise - If the league does fold as a whole, while it probably wouldn't happen right after the 2014 season, the loss of the Sparks, as well as the negative consequences from that could snowball into a situation where other small team owners have to shut their doors like Tulsa, Atlanta, and Seattle, in particular if other super-rich prospective owners don't want to buy them.  And this, plus less national sponsorship money could ultimately create a situation where the WNBA folds as a whole sooner rather than later.

There was a Yahoo Finance article in May 2013 which did label the league as a brand that will disappear in 2014 and one of the major reasons is because of NBA Commissioner David Stern's retirement next month and it's not known whether NBA Commissioner-In-Waiting Adam Silver will support the league like Stern did.  But when you combine the recent events regarding multiple teams like the Sparks possibly folding, the Seattle Storm potentially having its Bing sponsorship expire without a renewal, the Tulsa Shock still doesn't have a head coach, AND that there's no collective bargaining agreement right now, seeing the league cancel the 2014 season due to a labor impasse or fold altogether doesn't sound too far fetched anymore, assuming you are hedging your bets that the WNBA will not last that is.

Concluding thoughts

I'm not trying to say that the WNBA is guaranteed to fold if the Sparks fold.  But at the same time, it's going to be really tough to have a league of 11 teams, and not have any presence in the second largest metropolitan area of the United States.

Ultimately, even with Joe Lacob and the Golden State Warriors ownership group interested in buying and relocating the team, it is more ideal for the league to keep this team in Los Angeles if at all possible.  The question now is whether there is an interested prospective ownership group that can afford to run the Sparks in Los Angeles, and whether such a group can be found in time before the spring.