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WNBA's female owners open doors, but what is next step?
Updated 9/7/2010 6:49 PM ET
Four teams in the WNBA are owned by women, a full third of the league, and rock star Eddie Van Halen can take a bit of back-handed credit for that.

In 2005, he was dating Carla Christofferson, who along with close friend and courtside-seat neighbor Kathy Goodman was a longtime Los Angeles Sparks fan. Christofferson, 43, a high-profile attorney, and Goodman, 47, who launched and sold an independent film production company, were dismayed over anemic attendance at Sparks games.

Van Halen "started holding forth on how it should work," Goodman says. "We were like, 'Well, wait a minute, he seems to think he knows everything about this. We actually know something about it.'

"Carla looked at me and said, 'We have to buy the team.' "

A year later, they did.

In January 2008, a group of four female business and political leaders bought the Seattle Storm, rallying to keep the team from being lost in the NBA SuperSonics' move to Oklahoma City.

Those women, along with Sheila Johnson, who blazed the trail by buying the Washington Mystics in 2005, and Kathy Betty, who purchased the Atlanta Dream last year, are turning the WNBA into a crucible for a rare breed of sports team owners — women who buy teams on their own, rather than inheriting them or partnering with husbands.

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"They're part of history for what they're doing," says Nancy Lieberman, who will become the first full-time female head coach of a men's professional team with the NBA Development League's Texas Legends in November.

They are the only such majority owners currently in the U.S. major professional leagues.

"The ownership in the WNBA will be referred to whenever it comes up that there's a woman ready to buy a team in Major League Baseball or the NBA or whatever," says Richard Lapchick, director of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. "These women are going to become models for either success or not."

By at least one measure, the WNBA owners already are passing the test. All four teams made the playoffs this season.

Los Angeles and Washington were eliminated in the first round, by Seattle and Atlanta, respectively. Atlanta hosts New York in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals today. Seattle advanced to the WNBA Finals by ousting defending champion Phoenix in the Western Conference finals. If either Seattle or Atlanta were to win the title, it would be the first under female majority ownership in the WNBA, founded in 1996.

"We're making the statement," says Dawn Trudeau, 52, chairwoman of the Storm ownership group, "that we're just as capable of being successful."

Whether that statement resonates with more women who have the mettle and money to bid for teams in leagues such as the NFL — and with the men who would vote to accept those bids — remains to be seen.

"There's some pretty conservative people among the owners, so there would be people who would resist it," Lapchick says. "But resources of that magnitude are more scarce today. So a woman who could step up and do that, I think, is going to be accepted at some pretty near point."

While Betty's purchase price for the Dream was not disclosed, the Washington, Los Angeles and Seattle owners each paid about $10 million a team — a fraction of the cost to become an owner in the NBA, where teams are valued in the hundreds of millions.

"If you were to try to buy an NBA team, that's a whole other price tag," says Johnson, 61, who after buying the Mystics joined an ownership group headed by Ted Leonsis and now also owns a share of the NBA's Washington Wizards and NHL's Washington Capitals. "At this entry level, it's great for women who really want to put their toe in the water."

Not just a sideline

That is not to say the WNBA owners have not immersed themselves in their roles.

"It's pretty much a full-time job," says Trudeau, who led multiple business divisions in 14 years at Microsoft. "I spend a lot of time reading about other teams ... trying to get as well-educated as I can in how to make a successful sports franchise."

Betty, one of the first female partners at globally known business leader Ernst & Young, says she devotes 10 to 12 hours a day trying to secure sponsorships, a larger fan base and community support for the Dream.

"Understanding the players, the objective, the league, the business of sports, that's all a learning curve," says Betty, 54.

She has gotten advice and assistance from Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank and Atlanta Braves executives, she says. She is working with the city's NBA and NHL teams on possible joint sponsorships. She also talks to her fellow female owners.

The women all say it is paramount to them to mentor and prepare their players, who make an average $70,000 a season, for post-WNBA careers.

"I even take some of the players out on sponsorship sales calls," Johnson says. "I want them to see what the business part of owning a team is about."

Donna Orender, in her sixth season as WNBA president, sees the female owners focusing on off-the-court success.

"As a group, they bring an incredible heightened cultural awareness and commitment, wanting to make meaningful changes and impacts in their communities," she says. "I think that guides a lot of what they do. They're also excellent businesswomen who are very committed to creating the right business model for success."

The owners leave basketball-related decisions to their general managers and coaches.

"Why do I have a coach if I'm going to call the plays?" Goodman asks.

While the Sparks and Storm owners were dedicated WNBA fans before buying and Betty is a self-described "sports fanatic," Johnson, who co-founded the Black Entertainment Television network with now ex-husband Robert Johnson, says she had been to only "a couple" games.

Yet she didn't hesitate when then-Wizards owner Abe Pollin asked if she would be interested in buying the Mystics five years ago.

"I was like, 'This is a door that I can open, for not only myself but for other women," Johnson says.

With the rise of women in corporate ranks and the wealth they are beginning to amass on their own, Jim Riordan, director of the MBA in Sport Management program at Florida Atlantic University, says he expects more women to walk through that door:

"The type of product should be irrelevant. So if (women) are doing it in other industries, there should be no reason why it's not being done in sports."

Lieberman views the WNBA ownership trend as "women learning how to take a risk in business." Betty agrees.

"As women, we try to be perfect all the time," Betty says. "In general, there's the good side of that. But it does keep women from going out and taking on a big step like this."

Breaking into the 'boys' club'

The bigger step of buying a men's pro sports team awaits. The consensus among the WNBA owners is that all it will take is enough money.

"It's a boys' club," Goodman says, "but one of the things I think is great about the United States is you can kind of get in anywhere if you have the price of entry. It may not be the most pleasant party for you, but if you want to go, you can go."

The list of women who have done so without inheriting a team or partnering with a husband is short. Marge Schott, who used the fortune she inherited upon her husband's death to become the Cincinnati Reds' majority owner in 1984, was the most recent. She was preceded by Joan Payson, who in 1961 became the co-founder and majority owner of the New York Mets. Singer Kate Smith bought the Original Celtics, part of the defunct American Basketball League, in partnership with her longtime manager, Ted Collins, in the 1930s.

They are walking the same high wire as all other sports team owners, balancing concerns over the bottom line — Goodman and Christofferson still fret over how to boost attendance, up 1.4% in the league from last season — with exuberance over seeing their teams atop the standings.

"You take every moment of times I've just enjoyed sports," Betty says, "and you multiply that by 15 times as an owner, and that's what you feel."

Posted 9/6/2010 11:22 PM ET
Updated 9/7/2010 6:49 PM ET
Kathy Betty, who purchased the WNBA's Atlanta Dream last year, is among a handful of female owners in the league. The Seattle Storm, Los Angeles Sparks and Washington Mystics also are owned by women.
By Michael A. Schwarz, USA TODAY
Kathy Betty, who purchased the WNBA's Atlanta Dream last year, is among a handful of female owners in the league. The Seattle Storm, Los Angeles Sparks and Washington Mystics also are owned by women.
Storm owners Dawn Trudeau, left, and Lisa Brummel pose before Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Sparks in Los Angeles. "We're just as capable as anybody else is of being successful in this field," says Trudeau. Storm owners Dawn Trudeau, left, and Lisa Brummel pose before Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Sparks in Los Angeles. "We're just as capable as anybody else is of being successful in this field," says Trudeau.

By Bob Riha Jr., USA TODAY