Storm begin a life of independence
In their debut a year ago, the new Storm owners made a dramatic rescue of the franchise, oversaw the creation of an iconic starting lineup...
Seattle Times staff columnist
In their debut a year ago, the new Storm owners made a dramatic rescue of the franchise, oversaw the creation of an iconic starting lineup and survived a cumbersome partnership with a moving van-obsessed NBA team.
So much for easing into the boss role. The owners, known as Force 10 Hoops, rumbled into action. Anne Levinson, the chairman, compared it to "building a plane while already in flight." Dawn Trudeau preferred the expression "drinking from a fire hose."
They can joke all they want about being green, but Levinson, Trudeau, Ginny Gilder and Lisa Brummel managed to make a fascinating initial impression.
"We were the first ones to say, 'Yes, we can,' " Levinson said, laughing. "We just didn't know it."
They'll need that same spirit now because their encore includes a new and potentially treacherous challenge. They're leading the Storm into complete independence.
The Storm is among six WNBA franchises with owners who don't have NBA ties, but you can also place them in even rarer company. The team has joined the Connecticut Sun as the only independently-owned franchise playing in non-NBA cities.
Conventional thinking says life has gotten more difficult for the Storm because the big-brother NBA won't be around for piggyback rides. Without question, the WNBA has benefited from a business model that allows the NBA to provide help with its fat wallet and marketing muscle.
However, after years of suffering along with the Sonics and their financial woes, the transition solves one problem for the Storm: It will be the priority. Though Force 10 Hoops doesn't have the deep pockets of billionaire NBA owners, it has provided the Storm with a mission and financial backing that isn't dependent on another team's successes or failures.
"Having been a part of dependence, sometimes there's a false sense of security," Storm CEO chief executive officer Karen Bryant said. "The reality is that the business of the Sonics often took a toll on the Storm. Sometimes, there were other priorities. Now, there's no lack of clarity. There's no confusion about what our resources are, nor are there any surprises."
The organization operates differently, however. The Storm has about one-third of the employees that the Sonics/Storm had, according to Levinson. The team had to negotiate its own KeyArena lease, and after about a year of discussions with the city, it finalized a 10-year deal that dropped its rent from $15,000 to $5,000 per game. And earlier this year, the team moved its headquarters to a 12,000-square foot, old ice cream-equipment factory in Interbay.
Perhaps the most pressing concern remaining is to find a new practice facility. After this season, the Storm won't be working out in the Furtado Center, which is trapped behind the construction of the new campus for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Storm has continued to explore options on where to train.
The best news about all the change is that it doesn't figure to affect the on-the-court product. The Storm still looks like a playoff team, and with some luck, a championship contender. The Storm didn't re-sign Sheryl Swoopes and Yolanda Griffith, but those decisions weren't motivated by the need to cut costs, although the league's decision to trim rosters from 13 players to 11 contributed.
As with every business, the United States' economic crisis has been a burden. However, the Storm owners, fans of a game they want to see grow, are thinking about long-term success. They will take some hits now in hopes of building a sustainable business in the future.
Asked if the team is resigned to losing money this year, Bryant said: "We're making an investment. Because it's a down year with the economy it lends itself to being an investment year."
Force 10 Hoops will stick to a four-pronged mission. Everything they do will be consistent with these goals: providing world-class caliber basketball, making sure the team is accessible to fans and the game remains affordable, maintaining a sense of community and creating a business model that ensures the team is never at risk.
"I think being independent is a challenge and an opportunity," Trudeau said. "The challenge is we're on our own. The opportunity is that we can do things the way we envision them.
"We actually believe that, in some ways, we will benefit from this economy. We are at a price point where people can come to us for low-cost enjoyment. We're as affordable as a movie is. And we plan to stay that way."
Independent WNBA ownership is a fairly new thing. The Sun became the first in 2003, when the Mohegan Tribe bought the Orlando Miracle and moved the struggling franchise to Connecticut. In a state crazy about women's basketball, the team has thrived. Since then, independent ownership has become a trend, but one franchise — the Houston Comets, the most storied WNBA team — folded because its owner failed.
Force 10 Hoops believes that, although Washington doesn't have the luxury of a college program as dominant as the University of Connecticut, there's still a passion for the game here. There is support to that theory: the Storm will celebrate its 10th anniversary this season.
It will celebrate with a new beginning. If diligence and good strategy make for good business, Force 10 Hoops will succeed as a stand-alone organization.
Buy some champagne, ladies. No more drinking from a fire hose.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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