For My Next Trick

Magic Johnson and the rest of the Sparks' new owners have their work cut out for them: turn around the fortunes of a franchise that recently fired all of its employees
February 17, 2014

A couple of weeks back, the Internet's quasi-truthful viral-content mills spun a real winner of a story. The missing MV Lyubov Orlova—a 300-foot former Soviet cruise liner of Yugoslav extraction whose towline had snapped somewhere between Newfoundland and the Dominican Republic a year before—was apparently approaching landfall off the English coast. And in the place of the pampered passengers she once carried? Rats. Lots of rats. Rats who had been eating one another to survive. It had the whiff of a parable: The onetime crown jewel of an overextended empire had zombified, and now it was coming after us.

Yet the story, as with so much, had little basis in fact—the ship had not been spotted anywhere near English waters, and some experts believe she's rusting away under the sea. And all of this for what? Didn't anyone realize the same saga was playing itself out, veritably, in the sports pages?

The WNBA's 18th season begins on May 16. And as of late January, the Los Angeles Sparks' Twitter account had been firing nonsense into the void for more than a week. "Playing #Payback2 at the moment - really good fun, and free too! It's like a bite-sized #GTA," it repeatedly boasted to its 30,000 followers, with a spam link for the iPhone game.

Why wasn't anyone employed by the Sparks fixing it? Hmm. Well. Uh. The team didn't happen to have any employees, aside from its players and head coach. The owner, Paula Williams Madison, a former executive at NBCUniversal, had canned her entire staff in an email on New Year's Eve. She and her family had decided then and there that they were done with the Sparks. After losing $12 million since 2007—including $1.4 million in '13, despite leading the league in attendance—enough was enough.

Madison had been moved to purchase the team (despite initial hesitation) after Don Imus called the Rutgers women's team "nappy-headed hos" on his radio show. "I thought it was outrageous, in that day and time, that someone could say something like that," she says. Madison, who grew up watching hoops at Rucker Park, was not only searching for an investment, but she was also trying to stand up for women's basketball. But consider the scoreboard: Imus earned a reported $20 million from his settlement with CBS Radio and millions more from his ensuing employers, while her Sparks lost money every year.

What happens to a hibernating team? Generally, the league takes it over. The WNBA did just that with the Houston Comets in 2008. But Madison did not want the team taken from her: The well-connected owners of the Golden State Warriors surely would have pounced and uprooted the Sparks to Oakland.

She didn't need the league to take the team from her either. WNBA players and coaches are only paid in-season, and everyone else who worked for the Sparks did so on an at-will basis, without contracts. Employers can fire those employees at any time—so Madison did, en masse, knowing that, like most WNBA franchises, the Sparks would have minimal off-season revenue regardless of how many employees they were paying. (What, you were going to shell out big for Sparks tickets four months before the season tips off?) Madison gave the team president, general manager, and HR executive—but apparently not the keeper of the Twitter account—consulting contracts with her parent company, just to keep the skeleton of the organization intact.

And soon enough the zombie team grew a little flesh back. While Madison and her attorneys searched Los Angeles for a buyer, Chicago Sky owner Michael Alter pitched the team to Guggenheim Partners CEO Mark Walter, whose partnership—including Magic Johnson and Stan Kasten—bought the Dodgers in 2012. The Walter team expressed interest and had a deal done within two weeks. (Neither side would disclose the price.)

Madison says, "There is great value in being able to leverage a WNBA team with another franchise. As long as the WNBA team can be owned by an ownership group that also has a men's sports team, there's a way to attract the kind of sponsorships that can be spread across both businesses."

Mike Sitrick, a spokesman for the new owners, says they're confident too. "Mark and Earvin felt they could really do something to help the team, women's sports and L.A. They are not worried about the investment. It is long-term, and we believe financially things can and will improve."

Maybe! Who knows? In the meantime, might they want to take a shot on a refurbished 300-foot cruise ship?

P. 14

MLB

Spring Story Lines

P. 15

Extra Mustard

P. 16

Olympics

Eating to Win

P. 18

Faces in the Crowd

P. 19

Dan Patrick

AJ McCarron

P. 20

The Case for

Ralph Kiner

Go Figure

$3,000

Price paid on eBay for a Ralph Lauren U.S. Olympic Opening Ceremony sweater. The cardigans, which retail for $695, sold out in the Team USA online store, leading to a healthy secondary market.

100

Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. rookie cards owned by Ken Griffey Jr. Cards in mint condition can bring $200, meaning the Kid's collection is worth around $20,000.

$2.4 MILLION

Asking price for Ailsa Craig, a 219-acre private island in Scotland's Firth of Clyde, that produces most of the blue hone granite that is used for Olympic curling stones.

$3,000

Approximate black market value of a 14-year-old tawny owl named Sherman, after Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, that was stolen from a Washington bird sanctuary.

1

Free throws shot by the Grizzlies last Saturday at Atlanta, an NBA-record low. Memphis's only trip to the line came after a defensive three-second call. (Courtney Lee made it.) Nonetheless, the Grizz won.

25

Consecutive wins to start the season for Wichita State after last Saturday's 82--73 victory over Northern Iowa. The fourth-ranked Shockers are the first team to start 25--0 since Memphis in 2007--08.

ILLUSTRATIONILLUSTRATION BY JOHN CUNEO PHOTOAL TIELEMANS/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (SWEATER) PHOTOUPPER DECK (BASEBALL CARD) PHOTOROBERT CIANFLONE/GETTY IMAGES (STONE) PHOTOBRIAN M. CHRISTOPHER/AP (OWL) PHOTOSUNG-IL KIM/CORBIS (WHISTLE) PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (WICHITA STATE)
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)