LOS ANGELES -- When Paula Madison and the Williams Holdings Group, the majority owners of the Los Angeles Sparks, one of the WNBA’s cornerstone franchises, announced early this month that they were giving up their interest in the team, the initial reaction seemed to be surprise, if not outright shock. In addition to owning one of the most successful on-the-court records of any franchise in the WNBA, the Sparks, after all, boasted the best attendance figures in the league for the last two years, and though those numbers are often inflated and the Sparks had lost their jersey sponsorship with Farmers’ Insurance last year, the team also had a regional television contract that brought them an influx of income.
Certainly the Sparks' front-office and coaching staffs were caught by surprise on New Years Eve when they received pink slips from the ownership group via emails informing them that “We regret to inform you that effective December 31, 2013, you will no longer be employed by the Los Angeles Sparks.” Though she hasn’t spoken publicly on the topic, that news must have come as a special blow to head coach Carol Ross who had just been signed, amid much fanfare, to a well-deserved multi-year contract extension earlier that month.
League president Laurel Richie also expressed her surprise at the development, though she at least had already had a week to digest the bad news. “This was a big surprise to us,” Richie told the L.A. Times on Jan. 2. “Right before the holidays, I got a call from Paula [Madison] letting me know that she and her family were no longer in a position to continue with the Sparks.”
Richie repeated the same refrain to USA Today later the same day -- "My initial response was one of surprise. … Both in terms of how well the league was doing and is doing, I didn't have any prior communication from the team that this was going to happen."
The team’s minority owners, including Lisa Leslie, for many years the face of the franchise, also appear to have been caught unawares by the Williams’ Group’s abrupt departure. On Jan. 6, Leslie took to Twitter to respond to what she described as “a ton of questions” she had received regarding the fate of the L.A. Sparks. “My role as a minority owner has never involved the day-to-day operations of the team,” Leslie tweeted. “The recent events came as a surprise to me. … As a member of the L.A. [S]parks family for over 15 years, it saddens me that the organization is [in] this situation.”
However, in the month since the withdrawal of Madison and her investment group, initial outpourings of surprise and regret have given way to a wall of silence. The league has declined requests for interviews on the topic, as well as on the expressions of interest in the team by the owners of the Golden State Warriors, who would presumably move the team to Northern California were they to take over, and on recent reports of an L.A.-based group that is said to have contacted the league through the Lakers. Leslie, through her agent, declined to comment beyond the remarks she had already made on Twitter. Attorneys for Kathy Goodman and Carla Christofferson, who bought the team from the Lakers in 2006 and subsequently sold the majority of their interest in the team to Madison and the Williams Holding Group while remaining as minority owners, did not return calls requesting comment.
Meanwhile, players, including 2013 WNBA MVP Candace Parker, have no idea whether they will be returning to Los Angeles this summer, moving elsewhere as a group, or taking off for the four corners of the continent through a dispersal draft. Until the fate of the Sparks has been decided, the league can and has announced the date and venue of this summer’s All-Star Game, but has no way of coming up with a 2014 schedule.
But perhaps the group most profoundly affected by the wall of silence that has been erected around the fate of the team are the Sparks’ season ticketholders. Four weeks to the day from the announcement that Madison and her group were withdrawing, season ticketholders have still received no word from the organization as to the fate of money they have paid toward their 2014 seats, despite attempts to contact the Sparks office. And the longer this group of loyal fans is left out in the cold, the more initial reactions of shock and dismay are giving way to frustration, anger and loss of confidence.
"I've made calls to the Sparks office, and no one answers the phone,” said Aida Diaz, an inaugural season ticketholder since 1997. Diaz has good reason to feel burned: She paid most of the balance on four seats in December at roughly the same time Madison was communicating her imminent departure to the league.
“I've called and left a message for Paula Madison, and she hasn't returned my call. I've left messages at Williams Holdings Group headquarters in Chicago, and haven't heard back from them,” said Diaz. “The next step for me may be filing a class action lawsuit."
Diaz said she did receive a call almost two weeks ago from Sparks president Vincent Malcolm, and she called him back. But she has not heard from him since.
It is typical for seat-buyers to make payments on their accounts beginning in the fall, with discounts and other incentives offered for early payments, and many Sparks ticketholders had paid a substantial amount toward their 2014 seats, if not the entire amount, during a period in which we now know that Madison and her group were contemplating their withdrawal from ownership of the team but had not yet publicly announced the move.
Such was the case for another inaugural season ticketholder, Monique Bryant-Cathey. She had paid off almost the entire balance on four seats – the last of which the Sparks charged to her credit card on Dec. 20, days before Richie says Madison called her to announce her abandonment of the team. But though the fate of the team has been placed on hold, collection of payments was not. Like Diaz, Bryant-Cathey has made attempts to contact both the Sparks and the WNBA office, but to no avail.
"Usually we're kept abreast of trades and happenings in the off-season, and the Sparks organization sends us invoices on our deposits,” Bryant-Cathey said. “Since December, we've heard nothing from the Sparks. We don't know whether we're getting our money back or not. We only found out about the ownership change via social media."
Kathy Ruddy, a season ticketholder since 2009, paid the full amount - $800 -- on her seat. She said she has slim hopes of seeing her money again.
“This is a perfect example of the Golden Rule for Paula Madison and her 'group,’” Ruddy said. “He who has the gold makes the rules - and almost $1,000 of my money.”
After early reports on the ownership tumult inaccurately indicated that the WNBA was taking over ownership of the team, as they did for a period of time with the now-defunct Houston Comets, the league quickly made clear that it was participating in a search for new owners but not assuming the mantle of ownership itself. But that leaves unanswered the question of who, if anyone, will stand behind the obligations the Sparks took on toward their season ticketholders. Madison, who cited financial losses as the reason for her withdrawal from ownership, cannot be reached; no one has been left to answer the phones at the Sparks’ offices. If the Williams Holding Group – or Gemini Basketball, LLC, the entity through which Madison and her investment group exercised their ownership interest in the team – files for bankruptcy, ticket holders could at least file claims with the court for reimbursement. But, as yet, there has been no public notice of bankruptcy filing and should there be one, as unsecured creditors, ticket holders would likely receive no more than pennies on the dollar.
That has ticketholders – who in many ways are investors in the team and in the league every bit as much as the much better heeled (and protected) ownership groups – looking to the league for answers that have not been forthcoming.
Ruddy said the treatment of Sparks’ season ticketholders does not bode well for the WNBA.
“The league itself? How can we attract fans when the most loyal are not valued?” Ruddy said. “The structure needs a foundation. We, the season ticketholders, are that. And with out a strong base there is no league.”