Magic Johnson breathes new life into WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks

As one of the WNBA’s charter franchises, the unexpected announcement that Paula Madison was no longer in a position to operate the Los Angeles Sparks raised question marks for the 2014 WNBA season. Similar to when he saved the Lakers and the NBA a generation ago, Magic Johnson has stepped up to purchase the fledgling franchise.

Of note, Madison purchased the Sparks from the Buss family (also the owner of the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers) in 2007. Since her acquisition, she has endured $12 million in losses, along with a $1.4 million hit in the aftermath of the 2013 campaign. The challenge for Magic to turn the franchise into a profitable one may prove to be his biggest franchise.

Johnson’s partners in the investment group include Mark R. Walter, the controlling owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers (of which Johnson is also part owner) along with fellow Dodger co-owners Todd L. Boehly, Robert L. Patton and Stan Kasten. Although the WNBA had an offer from the NBA’s Golden State Warriors ownership group to purchase the Sparks and relocate them to the Bay Area, the presence of local ownership was preferred.

With the stability of Johnson’s ownership group, the league was now prepared to finalize its season schedule along with television dates. For WNBA president Laurel Richie, Johnson’s proven track record in local business and civic duties was a key point. As one of the most recognizable athletes in the world, Magic’s ownership bid was unanimously approved by the WNBA and the NBA’s Board of Governors.

For the Sparks franchise, the opportunity to enter their 17th season with such strong ownership support may be the positive turning point towards a championship. On paper, the Sparks boast one of the league’s most remarkable lineups. Center Candace Parker, forward Nneka Ogwumike, and guard Kristi Toliver form a trio of astounding all-stars poised to bring the City of Angels its first WNBA title since 2002.

Parker earned the WNBA Most Vaulable Player nod in 2013 (she also earned the honor in 2008 as a rookie) while Ogwumike was the 2012 WNBA Rookie of the Year Award Winner. That same season, Toliver was recognized as the WNBA’s Most Improved Player. With early speculation that the league considered contracting the Sparks, the thought of these three superstars going into a dispersal draft would have been heartbreaking for its fans.

After the dismantling of the Houston Comets, the WNBA’s first dynasty, and the Sacramento Monarchs, another championship franchise, any contraction of the Sparks may have signaled the league’s demise. Although relocation to the Bay Area was a possibility, it still deserves strong consideration as an expansion city or a relocation destination for a lesser franchise.

Collegiate women’s basketball has carved a significant niche in the Bay Area. Former WNBA superstar and Olympic gold medalist Jennifer Azzi is a coach with the University of San Francisco. Stanford has been a remarkable school for grooming WNBA talent, while the University of California-Berkeley has enjoyed a strong following.

The presence of pro basketball in the Bay Region is one that warrants serious discussion. In addition, it would provide the Sparks with a California-based rival, something that may possibly help generate more interest in the franchise.

While the purchase of the Sparks is certainly a civic gesture on Magic’s part, the possibility of enduring a few financial losses along the way is high. Although there would likely be tax benefits, Magic’s acumen as a businessman also means that he will be committed to ensuring impressive balance sheets sooner rather than later. There is no question that Magic is definitely a fan of the female game. Not only did Magic attend the first-ever Sparks game in 1997, but his sister Evelyn played college basketball. After helping to save the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2012 after a disastrous tenure under Frank McCourt, fans are optimistic that Magic can bring the same success to the Sparks.

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