- Melissa Isaacson, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- Michael Alter had a pretty simple reason for plunging into professional sports ownership eight years ago.
"I wondered why Chicago didn't have a WNBA team, how we were missing out on that," he said at the time. "It was embarrassing to me that this was going on and Chicago wasn't a part of it. It seemed to me that wasn't right."
The WNBA had already been around for seven years when Alter first became aware of it at the 2004 NBA All-Star weekend in Los Angeles, after he had the chance to chat with stars Rebecca Lobo, Sue Bird and Lisa Leslie, who were there for a shooting contest against current and retired NBA players.
Impressed with the women's skills and their passion for the game, Alter returned to his suburban Chicago home and spent the next year doing research on the WNBA. A licensed attorney and president of the Alter Group, one of the nation's largest commercial real estate developers, Alter asked those he considered experts -- including NBA commissioner David Stern -- for advice about the viability of starting a franchise.
While Alter was a high school basketball player and a fan of the game, he is also an astute businessman with an undergraduate degree from Harvard and a law degree from the University of Chicago. And, as he said at the time, he was "very conscious of not approaching this as some sort of philanthropic enterprise.
"I really wanted to make sure this was a viable business, that we could create something long-lasting and powerful, not just on the court. If I was not convinced of that, I wouldn't have moved ahead."
Corporate support is missing
Eight years later, Alter has had the education of a lifetime, and not always a positive one. His Chicago Sky, which made the playoffs this year for the first time (losing to Indiana in the first round), are still in the red. And he's still hanging in.
Why? And how?
One of six independently owned teams existing without financial support from the NBA, the Sky are receiving considerably more attention from fans and media than they did back in 2005, when they marched their new coach (NBA Hall of Famer Dave Cowens) and new mascot "Sky Guy" through the streets of downtown Chicago trying to drum up interest.
These were hardly, however, a bunch of kids in the barn putting a show together. The choosing of the team name, the mascot, and the conceptualizing of the new brand and business plan were the work of top-flight pros like Margaret Stender, a former college basketball player and executive for Quaker Oats and PepsiCo, who was the Sky's first team president.
And this was Chicago, after all, one of the most rabid sports cities in the country, a media and marketing hub with all the opportunities that implies.
Not making the playoffs for the first seven years of their existence clearly did not help. But that's not the part that has confounded Alter.
"Sports are sports," he said. "There are so many moving pieces, and a lot of it is luck and injuries and timing. I was less concerned about how that would all come to pass than on the business side. That's definitely harder than I thought."
Specifically, corporate Chicago has let the Sky down.
"Most of the men's sports dollars are corporate dollars. Sky boxes, season tickets -- they spend tons of money," Alter said. "And I thought to get them to spend a small fraction of that on us was a no-brainer, boom, it's done -- and that hasn't happened, and it has been an enormous learning process for me."
What Alter did not see coming but has figured out, he said, is that "this league is still about a cultural transformation, getting people [to relate to and follow] women and women athletes. And we still have a long way to go, that's just a fact."
He also included the phenomenon of women reporters eschewing what some, like himself, may view as a responsibility to champion women's sports in favor of pursuing the bigger (men's) beats.
"It's the same thing with the corporate battle," he said. "Men are not as comfortable saying, 'We should do this.' They don't want to be the one to make the argument convincing everyone to do it. They'll support if, but they want someone else to be the flag bearer."
Simply put, Alter said, that attitude took him by surprise.
"I guess I was naive," he said. "If a company spends millions of dollars of their marketing budget on the Chicago Bears and Bulls, and they're promoting things like diversity, why not spend a fraction, a hundred or $150,000, on the Sky?"
Stender agrees with Alter but also calls it "a complicated decision for companies. It is a cultural and a social shift, and I think it also came at a time when dollars were tight and economic decisions were difficult, so I feel like the Sky and WNBA were all caught in a little bit of a chicken/egg cycle.
"I think corporate citizens here want the Sky to succeed, I'm just not sure anybody wants to be first."
Reasons to be encouraged
If Alter is frustrated, he is also realistic. The Sky are hardly the only WNBA team yet to make a profit (last year, only two did). The Sky aren't even the only team in Chicago in the red. Rocky Wirtz, owner of the Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks, has often talked about the liquor side of his family's business propping up the hockey side.
Also, while Chicago may be a big market, it is an expensive one in which to advertise, and the Sky simply don't have the budget to compete. In addition, as Alter points out, the city doesn't have the women's sports culture or history of places like Connecticut and Seattle, though the announcement this week that the Big East women's basketball tournament is moving to Allstate Arena, the Sky's home court, has to be a positive one.
Encouraging as well is that the local media have been coming along; attendance is up 20 percent, Alter reports. And though there was no radio deal in place this season, about 90 percent of the Sky's games were broadcast on local cable affiliate WCIU, with ratings higher than those of the MLS' Chicago Fire and comparable (in early June) to those of the Cubs and White Sox.
Though it would have been a huge help early on to have the Bulls as partners, Alter says the relationship between the two teams is a strong one, including Bulls Night at a Sky game, which was a first this season.
And while he says the Sky's quick playoff elimination was "pretty devastating," he is also hopeful that the decision by top draft pick Elena Delle Donne to stay in Chicago this offseason along with Sky coach and general manager Pokey Chatman will help raise the team's profile.
What Alter also has in his favor is what most women's sports owners have to possess, and that's a stubborn streak.
"You could call it pride, probably some other things," he said. "I'm pretty determined to demonstrate we can make this work."
With a new ownership structure that now includes John W. Rogers Jr., of Ariel Capital Management, as a majority partner, Alter admits there is also a certain desire to prove people wrong.
"I wouldn't say it's directed toward anyone in general, but there is a determination to prove the naysayers wrong that this league is not worthy of everyone's attention," he said. "It's not so much out of spite or principle, but I really do believe it's worthy, and I'm determined to demonstrate that.
"I also feel a large responsibility to players and the league, a lot of people who worked really hard to get this thing going, and the fans who have bought tickets since day one, because they deserve to have this succeed as well."
Stender, who co-owns and operates Flow Basketball Academy for girls (with former WNBA player Korie Hlede) and who still serves in a consultant's capacity for the team, adds someone else to that list. "No one deserves it more than Michael," she said.
"He really is a good guy and doing it for really good reasons, and of course he wants to make money. It's the way we live in America. But he is also incredibly loyal, he wants to do it right, and he isn't willing to compromise his values for that. That's really a tribute to him and his whole family. They really, really have stuck in there."
Life as Alter knew it before 2005 is a vague memory. His wife, once a disinterested sports fan, hardly has a choice but to be fully immersed, and summer vacations with the family (his three kids are college age and older now) are also a thing of the past.
"It takes over your personal life," Alter said. "It's a big commitment if you're going to be involved and engaged, which I am. Maybe someday I won't need to be quite as engaged, but I don't regret it at all.
"All it takes is one fan, which happens almost every game, coming up to me to say how important it is to them and thanking me for doing this. That's enough."
It's never fun to be in the red, but that hasn't discouraged Sky owner Michael Alter, who is passionate about his team and determined to make it profitable with a little help from Chicago's corporate citizens.