Los Angeles Lakers legend Magic Johnson is perhaps the best-loved figure in the city's sports history. In addition to serving as a Lakers booster (and critic, at least until recently) in public, Johnson serves as a figurehead for the ownership group of the National League West champion Los Angeles Dodgers and gestures towards supporting the Los Angeles Kings. The man will do what it takes to keep L.A. sports in the spotlight.
It now appears that Johnson has used his pull to keep a franchise from leaving Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Sparks, one of the WNBA's marquee franchises, has been in danger of leaving the city due to money troubles and an uncertain ownership future. However, as reported by Ramona Shelburne for ESPN.com, Johnson and businessman Mark Walter are set to purchase the Sparks and keep them in town:
"Magic Johnson and Los Angeles Dodgers chairmain Mark Walter have partnered to buy the Los Angeles Sparks of the WNBA, saving the struggling franchise from relocation or contraction, according to sources with knowledge of the situation.
"The Sparks, one of the original eight WNBA franchises, have been in limbo since Christmas when their previous owner, Paula Madison, abruptly told the league and Sparks coaches and employees that her company could no longer operate the team. Madison subsequently told the Associated Press that her family lost $12 million operating the franchise since buying it from the Buss family in 2007 and $1.4 million last season.
"After Madison's announcement, the league took control of the Sparks and actively sought to find new buyers. The Golden State Warriors confirmed to ESPNW's Michelle Smith that they were interested in buying the Sparks and moving them to the Bay Area, which has a strong women's basketball fan base because of the success of Stanford and California's women's programs.
"The Sparks and the WNBA have been in limbo ever since. It's been impossible to schedule next season without knowing the fate of the Sparks. Free agency has been stalled. Talks on a new collective bargaining agreement have been slowed. [...]
"It is the second time the duo has partnered to help resurrect an L.A. franchise. Johnson and Walter teamed with a group of investors to buy the Dodgers from embattled owner Frank McCourt in 2012 for a record $2.15 billion dollars. Walter is the chairman of the Dodgers and Guggenheim Baseball Management, and CEO of Guggenheim Partners, a privately held global financial services firm that manages more than $200 billion in assets."
Shelburne also reports that the WNBA has scheduled a press conference outside Staples Center for Wednesday morning. Both Johnson and league president Laurel Richie will be in attendance, so this sale appears to be moving forward quickly.
As in the case of the Dodgers, it figures that Walter and Guggenheim will put up the vast majority of the money with Johnson serving as the public face of the team. The differences are obvious, as well: Johnson means much more to L.A. basketball than L.A. baseball, but the Sparks are not nearly as popular or important a franchise to sports fans and residents.
Yet Johnson's presence means that the Sparks will continue to exist, which is good news for the WNBA as it continues to try to become a sustainable sports league. Seventeen years after its inaugural season, the WNBA remains a business in flux. While its quality of play and importance to young women (and their families) far outstrips the WNBA's reputation among male sports fans, its image needs all the help it can get. Losing one of its most recognizable teams — one that has employed stars such as Lisa Leslie and (currently) Candace Parker — could have struck a major blow.
Johnson and Walter's purchase of the franchise doesn't solve its profit issues, but this group's handling of the Dodgers suggests that they're willing to put up with short-term financial losses in the hope of building a long-term brand. There are still many questions surrounding the Sparks and the WNBA's ability to grow over time, but this sale brushes one big problem aside.
- - - - - - -