Eye of the Storm: Can women's professional basketball succeed on and off the court in Seattle?
Four years after buying the team, the Storm's owners are driven more by the challenge of supporting a WNBA team than turning a profit right away.
Seattle Times staff columnist
About this series
Four years ago, four Seattle women bought the Storm, saving the team from relocation. Jerry Brewer's series profiles the three remaining owners and the struggles of owning a WNBA team.
Today: Storm owners are driven by passion, not profits. Also, Lisa Brummel, the agile thinker.
Tuesday: The self-education of Dawn Trudeau.
Wednesday: Ginny Gilder's breathtaking resolve.
Thursday: The Storm owners have a plan that will keep the team in Seattle and, eventually they hope, turn a profit. But why is it so hard?
Ginny Gilder points to a dry-erase board in her South Lake Union Office. A handwritten note best explains her challenging life as a WNBA owner.
Defiant, not defeated
The best doesn't come easy,
that's why there's nothing like it
Professional sports owners are commonly perceived to be rich white men who desire a toy, and that stereotype is often reflected in the erratic way they run franchises. But owning the Seattle Storm, in a 16-year-old women's sports league still establishing itself, is neither a luxury nor a hobby. It's an assignment, and sometimes a burden.
To cynics, buying into the WNBA is like purchasing a Thoroughbred that only likes to jog. Lasting financial success has never been achieved by any American women's team sports league. Though the WNBA has broken new ground by surviving this long, the challenges of creating a profitable league remain.
So, the question is: Who the heck is brave enough to put their hearts — and their money — into such a difficult cause?
In Seattle, the Storm has a compelling ownership tale. Four years ago, four women bought the team for $10 million and saved it from relocation. They were simply four longtime Storm fans who had the money, clout and business acumen to pursue a miracle. In 2010, they became the first all-female ownership group to capture a major professional sports championship.
This season, the franchise qualified for a record ninth straight playoff appearance. Yet, despite the fairy in their tale, the owners expect to lose money for a fifth straight season.
Who has the patience to put money into such a dubious experiment? What's their motivation? And what makes them think they'll be any different from the ownership groups that have failed before them?
Spend eight months getting to know the Storm owners, and their combination of chemistry, passion and vision nearly obstructs their almost-impossible task. Gilder, Lisa Brummel and Dawn Trudeau are built to embrace difficulty, and they own the Storm with the old-fashioned belief that they are merely civic-minded stewards of a community jewel.
"I'm partly in this business because it's hard," Gilder said. "It's hard because the league hasn't gained full acceptance yet. So that's a good job for people like our ownership group and our CEO (Karen Bryant). We're the people who don't give up easily, who see the value, who see the fairness — the intrinsic fairness — of women getting to play professionally.
"And I want to see what it's going to take to make that happen. Not if it's going to happen. It is going to happen. It's just a question of how long it's going to take and how much money are you going to lose in the meantime. But it's going to happen."
Still, for all the good the owners have done and for all the goodwill they've created within the rabid women's basketball fan base in this region, they're still fighting to build a consistent business. Only three of the WNBA's 12 teams reported making a profit last season.
The 2012 season has presented a new challenge. Though postseason-bound, the Storm is in its first year of a hard chore: attempting to rebuild the roster while staying competitive. The transition has been rough at times, and the result has been the first losing record during the owners' tenure, as well as a dip in attendance and revenue. The Storm is "a little behind our projections" for 2012, Trudeau said recently. The owners won't release their private financial figures, but they budget conservatively and plan on having to cover losses every year.
For now, the Storm owners shrug about having to make such a deep investment. They don't have a definitive date to achieve profitability, but they look often to 2015.
"We've assumed a level of unprofitability," Brummel said. "We have very conservative expectations each year. It means that we have beaten our business plan projections every year. The notion of profitability is on our own personal time frame. We're going to grow the business to give it the opportunity to be profitable long term, not make shortsighted decisions."
They're all middle-aged businesswomen with impressive track records. Gilder, 54, runs an investment company, Gilder for Growth, a holding company founded by her father, Richard Gilder. Trudeau, 54, is a retired Microsoft executive who serves as chairwoman and managing partner of the group, known as Force 10 Hoops LLC. Brummel, 52, is a senior executive at Microsoft, overseeing the company's human resources department.
A fourth member, longtime civic leader Anne Levinson, left Force 10 two years ago. But she was a key figure in bringing the women together and negotiating with Oklahoma businessman Clay Bennett, the team's previous owner, to buy the team in 2008 and rescue the Storm from being forced to follow the Sonics out of town.
Life for these sports owners is different, for sure. Local billionaire Paul Allen, who owns the NFL's Seahawks, the NBA Portland Trail Blazers and part of MLS' Sounders FC, once interviewed a general manager candidate on his yacht in Helsinki, Finland. But for the Storm owners, the hard work is done on dry land, and survival is always at stake.
"I have so much admiration," Bryant said. "If not for them, I don't know where the Storm would be. I don't know where I'd be."
Bryant doesn't spend too much time reminiscing, however. Throughout the Storm's 13-year history, Bryant has championed investment in the team as a member of the Storm front office. Now that she's working for owners committed solely to the WNBA, she's trying to act on a vision, too.
It's a hard pursuit, but that's the point. That's why Force 10 — defiant, not defeated — is pursuing this longshot.
"If it's not hard, why do it?" Gilder asks. "Hard is part of the fun. Women's professional sports is still not a given in the United States of America in 2012. That's why we're here — because we want to make it a given. So that's the challenge. Every day, there are things to think about and talk about, and problems to solve.
"OK, let's do it. Why, at this stage in our lives, would we attempt to do something that we already know how to do? I would die of boredom if that was what it was going to be like."
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @JerryBrewer.
|Only three WNBA teams were profitable last season.|
|Reported profit for 2011|
|Did not report profit for 2011|
|Source: Sports Business Daily|