The Los Angeles Sparks are a professional Basketball team based in Los Angeles, California, playing in the Western Conference in the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA). They are the current WNBA champions after defeating the Minnesota Lynx, 3-2, in the 2016 WNBA Finals. The team was founded before the league's inaugural 1997 season began. Like some other WNBA teams, the Sparks have the distinction of not being affiliated with an NBA counterpart, even though the market is shared with the Los Angeles Lakers and the Los Angeles Clippers. As of 2015, the Sparks are the last franchise to win back-to-back titles.
Lakers owner Jerry Buss owned the Sparks from 1997 to 2006 when Williams Group Holdings purchased the team. It was previously the sister team of the Los Angeles Lakers. As of 2014, the Sparks are owned by Sparks LA Sports, LLC.
The Sparks have qualified for the WNBA Playoffs in sixteen of their twenty years in Los Angeles, more than any other team in the league. The franchise has been home to many high-quality players such as 6 foot 5 inch center Tennessee standout Candace Parker, flashy point guard Nikki Teasley, and nearby USC products Lisa Leslie and Tina Thompson. In 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2016, the Sparks went to the WNBA Finals. They won the title in 2001, 2002, and 2016, beating Charlotte, New York, and Minnesota respectively, but fell short to Detroit in 2003.
Being in a major national market, the Sparks have always been a focal point of the league; they faced New York in the league's inaugural game on June 21, 1997.
The 1997 WNBA season, the league's first, opened with a game between the Sparks and the New York Liberty at the Sparks home (The Forum) in Inglewood. The Sparks lost the game 57–67. Sparks player Penny Toler scored the league's first two points with a lay-up 59 seconds into the game. The Sparks finished with a record of 14–14. The team did compete for a playoff spot, but because of a loss to the Phoenix Mercury in the final game of the season, the Sparks missed the playoffs. In the 1998 WNBA season, the Sparks finished 12–18, missing the playoffs once more.
The 1999 season featured the development of Lisa Leslie and the Sparks' first playoff berth, as the Sparks posted a 20–12 record. The Sparks won their first playoff game and series with a win over the Sacramento Monarchs. They played in the Western Conference Finals but fell to the defending champion Houston Comets, 2 games to 1, in the three-game series.
The 2000 season was a record one, as the Sparks had a 28–4 record, the best in league history, and second only to the 1998 Houston Comets for best all-time. In the playoffs, the Sparks swept the Phoenix Mercury in the first round but lost in the Western Conference Finals again, when they were swept by the Comets. Ultimately, the Sparks were playing in the shadow of the Comets, who won the first four WNBA championships.
The 2000–01 off-season saw a move to the Staples Center and a coaching change, when the Sparks hired former Los Angeles Lakers player Michael Cooper as head coach. During the ensuing regular season, the Sparks again posted a 28–4 record. In the 2001 playoffs, the Sparks finally eliminated the Comets, sweeping them in the first round. The Sparks took all three games to eliminate the Monarchs to earn their first berth in the WNBA Finals, in which they swept the Charlotte Sting, 2–0, for their first league championship.
In 2002, Leslie became the first woman in the league to dunk the ball during a game, and once again the Sparks dominated the regular season, posting a 25–7 record. The Sparks then flew through the playoffs, sweeping both the Seattle Storm and the Utah Starzz. In the finals, the Sparks were matched against the Liberty, who were still looking for their first championship. A late three-pointer in game 2 by Nikki Teasley gave the Sparks their second consecutive championship.
In 2003, the Sparks posted a 24–10 record and went into the playoffs looking for a "three-peat". Both the first and the second rounds were forced to deciding third games, as they beat the Minnesota Lynx and Sacramento Monarchs. The Sparks then faced the upstart Detroit Shock in the Finals. The Shock were on a roll after having been the worst team in the WNBA in 2002. The Finals were a battle fueled by the relationship between head coaches Michael Cooper (Sparks) and Bill Laimbeer (Shock) which stemmed from their days in the NBA. The rough road to the finals and the tough play of the Shock wore down the Sparks, which lost the series, two games to one, and failed to three-peat.
During the 2003-04 off-season, the Sparks signed two players, Tamika Whitmore and Teresa Weatherspoon, who had played for the New York Liberty. When the season began, the Sparks got off to a great start, but coach Cooper left at mid-season to seek a coaching job in the NBA. The loss of their coach was a factor in the team's so-so finish to the season, which ended with a record of 25–9. During the playoffs, the team lost in three games to the Sacramento Monarchs.
The Sparks never recovered through the 2005 season and finished with a 17–17 record. They barely made the playoffs as the number-four seed. In the first round, the Sparks were outplayed and swept by the eventual champion Monarchs.
In 2006, the Sparks played much better, posting a 25–9 record. In the playoffs, they defeated the Seattle Storm in three games. However, in the Western Conference finals, the Sparks' season was ended by the Monarchs for the third year in a row.
After the 2006 season ended, team owner Jerry Buss, who also owned the Lakers, announced he was selling the Sparks. On December 7, 2006, the Los Angeles Times reported the sale to an investor group led by Kathy Goodman and Carla Christofferson. Goodman is currently a high school teacher at HighTech-LA in Lake Balboa and was a former executive for Intermedia Films. Christofferson is a litigation attorney for the O’Melveny & Myers law firm and was Miss North Dakota USA in 1989. The day after the sale was announced, team star Lisa Leslie announced that she was pregnant and would not play in the WNBA in the 2007 season despite Michael Cooper's return to the team as head coach.
The loss of Leslie for the year proved devastating, as the Sparks posted a league-worst 10–24 record. The record was also the worst in Sparks history, as the Sparks missed the playoffs for the first time since 1998.
Before the start of the 2008 season, the team's prospects improved dramatically. Lisa Leslie returned to the team, and on April 9, 2008, the team used its number-one draft pick to select Candace Parker, the college player of the year, the morning after Parker had led the University of Tennessee Lady Vols to their second-straight NCAA championship.
In 2008, the Sparks posted a 20–14 record and finished third in the Western Conference. Parker had won Rookie of the Year and WNBA MVP, becoming the first player in WNBA history to win both awards in the same season. In the playoffs, the Sparks beat the Seattle Storm 2–1 to reach the Western Conference Finals and compete against the San Antonio Silver Stars. The Sparks were on track to win game 2 of the series, but Silver Star Sophia Young made a turn-around bank-shot with a second left on the clock to force the series to a deciding game three. The Sparks lost game three, and the Silver Stars moved on to the WNBA Finals.
Following the 2008 season, Parker announced that she was pregnant. To compensate for Parker's absence, the Sparks signed native veteran superstar Tina Thompson (who had previously played for the former rival Houston Comets) and former Finals MVP Betty Lennox in free agency. With the addition of Thompson and Lennox, the Sparks added more championship experience and veteran leadership to their roster to them help them compete for another title.
The 2009 season had started poorly for the Sparks. Parker began the season on maternity leave, and Leslie suffered a knee injury early in the season. Both Leslie and Parker returned to the court in July, however, sparking a 10–2 run which turned an 8–14 start into an 18–16 regular-season record and clinching the Sparks' tenth playoff appearance in their 13-year history. In the first round of the playoffs, the Sparks defeated the Seattle Storm for the third time in four years. In the Western Conference Finals, the Sparks' lost to the eventual champion Phoenix Mercury in three games. The end of the 2009 playoff run marked the end of Leslie's career as a player and Cooper's second tenure as Sparks' head coach. In the off-season, former Sparks player Jennifer Gillom became the team's new head coach.
With the acquisition of former All-Star point guard Ticha Penicheiro and Parker establishing herself as the team's next franchise player, the 2010 Sparks believed they had the pieces to contend for a championship. However, Parker had season-ending shoulder surgery after the team started 3–7. Without her, the Sparks struggled, finishing 13–21, which was good enough to qualify them for fourth place in the Western Conference, but they were swept by the eventual champion Seattle Storm in the first round.
The 2011 season was eerily reminiscent of the previous year for the Sparks. The team started 4–3 but again Parker sustained an injury. Following three more losses, the Sparks fired head coach Gillom, promoting previous Sparks coach Joe Bryant. With Parker out until the end of the season, the Sparks headed into the All-Star break 6–8 and in fifth place. The Sparks finished the season three games out of the playoffs with a 15–19 record. Thompson would become a free agent and sign with the Seattle Storm.
In the 2012 season, the Sparks significantly improved, making it back to the playoffs since 2010, finishing second in the Western Conference with a 24–10 record. That same year they drafted Rookie of the Year and future MVP Nneka Ogwumike with the number-one pick. However, the Sparks were eliminated 2–0 in the first round by the Minnesota Lynx.
The team was owned by Williams Group Holdings (Paula Madison, majority owner) and Carla Christofferson, Nicholas J H, and Lisa Leslie (minority owners) until January 2014 when it was abruptly announced that WGH would relinquish all control. Paula Madison said that since becoming an owner in 2007, she and her family had lost $12 million, including $1.4 million in 2013. The team was temporarily absorbed by the league, and was then purchased by Sparks LA Sports, a group that included former NBA player Magic Johnson.
The 2014 and 2015 seasons would be disappointing for the Sparks as they had continued to be an underachieving playoff team, getting eliminated in the first round both years by the Phoenix Mercury and Minnesota Lynx respectively.
After making the playoffs in 2015, losing in the first round, the Sparks made subtle roster changes and improved the following year. Suddenly showing signs of championship contention, they finished with a 26–8 record and made it to the 2016 WNBA Playoffs. By this time, the Sparks had a "Big Three", consisting of Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike and Kristi Toliver. They earned the number 2 seed in the league and received a double bye to the semi-finals with the WNBA's new playoff format. The Sparks faced off against the Chicago Sky in the semi-finals and defeated the Sky 3 games to 1 to advance to the Finals for the first time since 2003. They faced the number 1 seeded Minnesota Lynx in the finals. They stole game 1 on the road when veteran forward Alana Beard made a game-winning jumper at the buzzer, lifting the team to a 78–76 victory. They lost game 2 79–60, but back in Los Angeles, put themselves one win away from their first title in over a decade with a dominant 92–75 game 3 victory. Even though they expected to clinch a championship on their home floor, they lost game 4 in a disappointing finish of 85–79. Game 5 was truly historic, against all odds, and swarmed with Minnesota fans, the 2016 WNBA MVP, Nneka Ogwumike grabbed an offensive rebound and made the game-winning shot to put the Sparks ahead 77–76 with 3.1 seconds remaining. The Sparks won their first championship since 2002 and their third championship in franchise history. Candace Parker was named the Finals MVP.
The Los Angeles Sparks currently play in the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. The capacity for a Sparks game is 13,141 because the upper level is closed off (capacity for a Lakers game is 18,997). The Sparks have played in the Staples Center since 2001. They previously played at The Forum but stayed there for two years after the Lakers departed for Staples Center before the venue was purchased by a local church.2015–present: EquiTrust Life Insurance becomes new jersey sponsor; jersey remains unchanged other than the addition of the name of the sponsor.
2013–2014: Farmers Insurance naming rights expire, and the team name returns on both jerseys. In addition a modified font for the jersey numbers was introduced.
2011–2012: As part of the move to Adidas's Revolution 30 technology, the Sparks unveiled new jerseys. Home uniforms remain gold, but numbers are now rounded and in white with purple trim. Away uniforms are purple with numbers in white with gold trim. The Farmers Insurance name will remain on the jerseys.
2009-2010: On June 5, the Los Angeles Sparks and Farmers Insurance Group of Companies announced a multi-year marketing partnership that includes a branded jersey sponsorship. The Farmers Insurance branded jersey was worn by the players for the first time on June 6, 2009. As part of this alliance, the Farmers Insurance name and logo will appear on the front of the Sparks jerseys. In the 2009 season, the Sparks yellow jersey is used regardless of home or away. In the 2010 season they introduced the purple jersey for away games.
2007–2008: For home games, gold with purple lines and sparks on the side, with the name "Sparks" written across in purple. For away games, purple with golden yellow lines and sparks on the side, with the name "Los Angeles" in yellow. The uniform looks similar to the Los Angeles Lakers' uniform.
1997–2006: For home games, gold with large purple stripe on the side, with the name "Sparks" written across in purple. For away games, purple with large gold stripe on the side, with the name "Los Angeles" in yellow.
Jerry Buss, owner of the Los Angeles Lakers (1997–2006)
Gemini Basketball LLC, composed of Carla Christofferson, Kathy Goodman, and Lynai Jones (2007–2011)
Williams Group Holdings (Paula Madison) (2011–2014) and Carla Christofferson, Kathy Goodman, and Lisa Leslie (2011–2013)
Sparks LA Sports, LLC (Mark Walter, Magic Johnson, Stan Kasten, Todd Boehly and Bobby Patton) (2014–present)
Rhonda Windham (1997–1999)
Penny Toler (2000–present)
Julie Rousseau (1997)
Orlando Woolridge (1998)
Michael Cooper (1999)
Marianne Stanley (2000, 2008–2009)
Glenn McDonald (2000–2002)
Karleen Thompson (2002–2004)
Ryan Weisenberg (2003–2004)
Bob Webb (2005)
Shelley Patterson (2005)
Michael Abraham (2006–2007)
Margaret Mohr (2006–2007)
Laura Beeman (2008–2009)
Larry Smith (2008)
Steve Smith (1998, 2009-2010, 2014)
Sandy Brondello (2011–2013)
Joe Bryant (2011)
Jim Lewis (2012)
Bridget Pettis (2013)
Gail Goestenkors (2014)
Gary Kloppenburg (2014)
Curt Miller (2015)
Amber Stocks (2015–2016)
Tonya Edwards (2016–present)
Currently, some Sparks games are broadcast on Time Warner Cable SportsNet, a local television channel in the Southern California area, after agreeing to a multi-year broadcast deal with TWC in March 2012. More often than not, NBA TV will pick up the feed from the local broadcast, which is shown nationally. Broadcasters for the Sparks games are Larry Burnett and Lisa Leslie. Previously, Sparks games were found on Fox Sports West and Prime Ticket and former analysts have included Derek Fisher and Ann Meyers.
All games (excluding blackout games, which are available on ESPN3.com) are broadcast to the WNBA LiveAccess game feeds on the league website. Furthermore, some Sparks games are broadcast nationally on ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC. The WNBA has reached an eight-year agreement with ESPN, which will pay right fees to the Sparks, as well as other teams in the league.
Currently, the team's games are not on radio; however, the team did bounce around several stations from 1999 to 2008. The first two years had no broadcasts. Then in 1999, the team signed with KWKU, a sister station to Spanish-language KWKW, licensed to Pomona, California. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times published in this period, KWKU had no switchboard and no website. In addition, its 500-watt signal reached only a handful of people in the greater L.A. area and was certainly nowhere near the team's home arenas. In 2003, the team left KWKU for KLAC, which had summer time slots available after the Anaheim Angels' radio broadcasts had just left. That lasted until 2006, when KLAC switched the broadcasts to XETRA, which carried the same format KLAC had before. In 2007, the game broadcasts moved again, this time to KTLK, when XETRA switched its language of broadcasts from English to Spanish. The Sparks and Clear Channel Communications (licensee of the last three stations mentioned) chose not to renew their contract after 2008. Sparks radio broadcasts never covered a complete season; most nationally-televised games and many games from the Eastern time zone were not covered. Burnett was the announcer.