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Wednesday, February 5, 2014
Updated: February 6, 12:28 PM ET
New owners are magic Spark

By Mechelle Voepel
espnW.com

Hearing that the Sparks are staying in Los Angeles and have big-time ownership had to have come as a huge relief to WNBA fans, especially those who've backed the purple and gold for any of the past 17 years.

Now the good news needs to be followed by good moves. And good vibes -- the kind that have to be re-established with the Sparks' faithful. For the past month, the franchise's fans have been worrying and waiting, not sure of anything that was happening with the team.

But with word that the Sparks have been purchased by a group headed by Mark Walter, who is Guggenheim Partners CEO, and Lakers legend Magic Johnson, the WNBA couldn't be making a more welcomed announcement. (The WNBA has scheduled a 1 p.m. ET news conference Wednesday outside of the Staples Center.) Those two men also led the group that purchased the Dodgers in 2012, and Walter is the baseball team's chairman.

"Their knowledge of L.A., their passion for sports in L.A., it's just a great thing," WNBA president Laurel Richie said of the Sparks' new owners. "I could say it a million times: We are truly, truly excited."

Magic Johnson
Magic Johnson was on hand for a 2009 WNBA playoff game between the Sparks and Mercury.

Honestly, so is anybody who follows the WNBA. The savvy business acumen of the Guggenheim group is a huge addition for the WNBA, but of course, so is the basketball gravitas of a Hall of Fame megastar like Johnson. His involvement immediately adds a cachet to the Sparks that is undeniable.

The league was stunned in late December when Williams Group Holdings chairwoman Paula Madison said her company was relinquishing ownership of the Sparks. Earlier that same month, the team had announced a new contract with coach Carol Ross. Then -- poof -- the owners were gone, and the league was faced with scrambling to keep one of its original franchises in place -- at the same time the WNBA's new collective bargaining agreement was being negotiated.

After the initial shocking announcement, for the next month there was virtually no news from the Sparks or the league in regard to the team's future. And no news was mostly considered bad news by fans of the Sparks and the WNBA in general, who have come to fear the worst. Over the years, the league has had its big disappointments, including losing championship franchises that folded in Houston and Sacramento.

When you're scared and uncertain, as WNBA fans were by the Sparks' situation, a month can seem an eternity. But when you consider how large a business transaction it is to transfer franchise ownership, the time frame actually seems rather expedient.

"Everything moved relatively quickly," Richie said, "if you think about this happening in December, and close to 30 days later, being in position to announce a new ownership of this caliber. I just think that speaks volumes to who they are, how they work and how interested they were.

"I think if you talk to both sides, who have worked pretty tirelessly for the last month, it indicates this ownership group's ability to identify an opportunity, go after it and execute. And I'm proud of the team on our side that was able to partner with them. I think that bodes well for what we will do together in the future."

During the wait, the Golden State Warriors publicly expressed interest in attaining a WNBA team, so league fans took solace that at least there was a potential alternate home for the Sparks. But even though expansion to the Bay Area has long been coveted by league followers, nobody really wanted the Sparks to leave L.A.

History is hard-earned in women's pro sports, and the Sparks have had nearly two decades of it in Los Angeles. The Sparks hosted the first WNBA game, versus the New York Liberty, in June 1997. One of the greatest players in women's hoops history -- Lisa Leslie -- spent her WNBA career with the Sparks. The team has had a bit of a "villain" persona -- especially in places such as Phoenix and Seattle -- that has given the WNBA some enjoyable rivalry drama.

This group delivers all were looking for. … We feel like the Sparks are in very good hands.

-- Laurel Richie on the Sparks' new ownership group

The Sparks' leaving L.A. would not have signaled doom for the WNBA, but it would have been a gloomy development. Even if they had a welcoming landing spot in the Bay Area.

(Incidentally, Richie said that although there is still no timetable for expansion, the league was very grateful for Golden State's interest in the Sparks. So we'll stay tuned in that regard.)

Richie had indicated early in the search process that remaining in L.A. was the preferred option. But she said there was something even more vital than the team's location.

"The most important thing was to make sure the Sparks were with a very strong ownership group, first and foremost," Richie said. "And in this case, we were able to find that group in L.A. So that just made it even more attractive all the way around.

"This group delivers all we're looking for. They have relationships in the communities they do business, and do a lot of giving back and strengthening their community ties. We feel like the Sparks are in very good hands."

A WNBA team might seem like tiny beans in comparison to the other mega-assets of these high rollers. But the thing about successful businessmen such as the new Sparks owners is that they didn't get where they are by overlooking details -- or by making foolish investments.

The previous owners said they lost too much money to continue with the Sparks. But with good infrastructure, a smart business plan, savvy marketing and the right people in place, there is no reason the Sparks can't be profitable.

Mark Walter and Magic Johnson
Mark Walter and Magic Johnson also partnered in 2012, along with a group of investors, to buy the Dodgers for a record $2.15 billion.

The team has marketable star players, led by two-time WNBA MVP Candace Parker. The Sparks are a skilled, talented team that's fun to watch, and they have personality. A lot of it, in fact.

It has been more than a decade since the Sparks' back-to-back WNBA championships in 2001-02, but L.A. is typically in the playoff mix. And while there are obvious challenges to being a small fish in the enormous ocean of entertainment options in Los Angeles, the sheer size of the market can -- and should -- also be seen as an asset.

Ross is set to appear at Wednesday's news conference with Richie and Johnson, which likely indicates she is back as coach. Exactly how the team's front office will be set up is still to be announced, but we know this: The Guggenheim baseball group has been very aggressive in returning the Dodgers to being a first-class sports operation.

The Sparks are a very different entity, obviously. But the main principles of doing things the right way -- hiring high-quality people who are passionate about their jobs and believing in customer satisfaction -- are just as vitally important in the WNBA.

Like most pro sports leagues, the WNBA has had its well-run and poorly run franchises. But the margin for error is smaller in the WNBA. In a 12-team league, stragglers can do more harm to the overall product than in a larger league. The WNBA needs good owners who share a common goal -- establishing profitability of the league as a whole -- and work both together and independently to get there.

With what we know of the Sparks' new owners based on their other business success, they will be big contributors to the WNBA's collective goals as well as those specific to the franchise.

So this is a very bright day in the WNBA, not long after a cloudy one when the Sparks seemed potentially in peril. Richie said the league's 2014 schedule is expected to be released this week.

Obviously, one huge thing remains -- the collective bargaining agreement has to get signed pretty soon, too.

Of that, Richie said, "I think the Sparks' finding such terrific ownership is a really good sign. And sort of leaves us very exciting headed into 2014. My hope is we continue to build on this very positive momentum."