JOHN BRINSLEY

Staff Reporter

The Women's National Basketball Association kicked off its third season June 10 seemingly stronger than ever, with the Los Angeles Sparks becoming the first WNBA team to reach 100 points. But the Sparks' box-office performance shows that women's basketball in L.A. is hardly a slam dunk.

While the popular Washington Mystics drew 20,674 fans in an opening-night loss to the Charlotte Sting, only 8,262 showed up to see the Sparks rout the Sacramento Monarchs, 100-78, at the Great Western Forum.

While no one is ready to pull the plug yet, Sparks President Johnny Buss son of Lakers owner Jerry Buss acknowledged that a threshold of fan support will be needed.

"Does 8,000 (fans) cut the nut? Barely. We're still losing money," he said. "At 6,000 people we'd be losing enough money to consider not being involved in the Sparks."

Indeed, the WNBA mandates that teams keep attendance above 6,000 or risk being dissolved.

In a way, the Busses are victims of the success of women's professional basketball. When the league was formed, the goal was to draw somewhere around 4,000 fans per game, and expand gradually with the fan base. But the response went far beyond expectations, increasing costs in the process.

And the WNBA's unusual structure has made it difficult for each team's management to respond to its particular needs. Unlike the National Basketball Association or National Football League, individuals don't own WNBA teams. The NBA owns all of the franchises, with the existing NBA team in each city handling operations of the WNBA team.

The WNBA pays players' salaries and owns all national merchandising rights, along with national broadcasting rights. Unlike the NBA, in which teams can maneuver under flexible salary caps, WNBA teams are required to submit a budget to the league. Budget items include coaches' salaries, local advertising and the arenas the games are played in.

"All we are is promoters," Buss said. "We carry out requirements from the league that cost us money that we offset through ticket sales, which are of the utmost importance in this."

But while the average attendance for a WNBA game last year was 10,869, with the top-drawing Mystics averaging 15,910, the Sparks had the second-lowest average in the league: 7,653. And it was one of only two teams to see attendance fall from the previous year.

Merely another example of fickle L.A. fans refusing to support a struggling team? The Sparks, after all, went 12-18 last year, failing to qualify for the playoffs.

But while Buss thinks a team needs to establish a winning tradition to succeed in L.A., he adds that there are other reasons for the relatively soft support.

"The L.A. public is a very highly educated entertainment public," he said. "We have a great product, but there is no market like it anywhere (else). We're competing with Hollywood, the beach, theme parks. To make yourself part of that summer business is always difficult."

Buss figures that the team will average 8,500 fans per game this year, and that a winning season could see attendance reach 10,000 a number at which his father would start recouping his losses on an investment that has cost him around $1 million a year in the first two seasons.

"We're going to get to 10,000, I have no doubt," Buss said. "(But) certainly, if you're losing a million dollars a year, why would you want to stay in business?"

The Busses are trying to bolster the Sparks' bottom line this season by reducing expenditures while raising ticket prices. (Buss declined to specify how expenditures are being reduced.) One expense the team does not incur is arena rent. Because the majority owner of the Forum is Jerry Buss, the Sparks pay no rent to play there. The Sparks will not join the Lakers across town in the Staples Center next year.

Even if the team were to continue struggling financially, the Busses could find divesting the Sparks a sticky situation. A WNBA spokesman declined to comment on the possibility of an NBA owner forsaking its responsibility for a WNBA team, saying only that the league would take up the issue if it were presented.

For his part, Johnny Buss said he is annoyed with reports that he and his father are maneuvering to get out of running the Sparks. He noted that it might be worth losing money on the team for at least another two or three years because of the inherent worth of having a franchise in a league that is booming.

Indeed, last year's collapse of the American Basketball League assured the WNBA of all the best women basketball players, and a new collective bargaining agreement between the players and management means labor relations should be smooth for the next four years.

A host of bright, telegenic stars like the Sparks' Lisa Leslie, Cynthia Cooper of the two-time champion Houston Comets and the Mystics' rookie Chamique Holdsclaw are being recognized as the female equivalents of NBA stars Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Grant Hill.

"I've never seen a league expand like this; it's wonderful. I feel bad for the (NBA) owners who want to have a (WNBA) team and don't," Buss said. "It comes down to how much money you're willing to lose in women's basketball and not be unhappy. It's too early to tell."

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