Though the viewing public focuses all its attention upon the gladiators that perform on the hardwood, grid iron and baseball diamond, the truly herculean tasks are often times being performed behind the scenes in the front office. Oftentimes we hear about the shortcomings of those who make all the big time decisions as they pertain to what manifests on the court, but rarely are we given any insight into the daily goings of the front office of a professional sports franchise. Recently The Shadow League announced it will honor Los Angeles Sparks president and COO Christine Simmons with its Leadership Award, and I had the pleasure of speaking with Ms. Simmons about her daily duties, the future of the Los Angeles Sparks, the evolution of the WNBA brand, and much more.
“No day is the same as the day before. It’s definitely an adventure each day,” said Simmons of her daily calendar. “Just yesterday we hosted a group of special needs individuals as part of our partnership with one of our sponsors. They got some high fives from the team and also met with the coaching staff. Also, our general manager introduced herself. So, between that and trying to balance the budget and also having to meet vendors as STAPLES Center it really varies. As Operations Officers I deal with a lot of our operations off the court and I interact with our fans in a very tangible way. That gets me out of the office and into the community. There can be any number of things that can happen on a day-to-day basis but it’s always fun.”
The Los Angeles Sparks are easily a standard bearer for women’s professional basketball since its inaugural season nearly 20 years ago. Christine tells TSL that she is well aware of that legacy and wishes to expand upon it exponentially in the future.
“We are so proud to be one of the remaining inaugural franchises in the WNBA,” she explained. “There’s so much history and so much legacy that this team has. I mentioned Penny Toler, she scored the very first basket in the WNBA and now she’s one of the longest tenured GMs in the game. Our franchise remained in Los Angeles because of the passion of the ownership group, which was led by Magic Johnson and Mark Walter. Their passion for Los Angeles sports is evident, of course, but their passion for women’s basketball is even more evident. They ensured that the Sparks stayed in Los Angeles. That was key to them. They’re an essential part of what I feel is so unique about the Sparks and they really make sure this franchise stays in touch with the community. I know I mentioned that about my day-to-day but they really embrace all of our community here in Los Angeles.”
“Anybody that knows Magic Johnson’s story know that community is something he was really passionate about when he was playing and as he went on to build his empire, and that’s something we have continued on from the Sparks perspective. It’s a fantastic show, a fantastic level of basketball, but it’s also accessible for everyone. We always make sure our games have that Showtime entertainment value but also to make sure anyone can have access to that level of play and the Staples Center experience.”
“Excellence on and off the court is what we strive for and making sure that everybody understands how much our fans mean to us as a franchise. We’re the only professional women’s team in the state of California.”
Although there are many troglodytes clinging to antiquated notions of what a woman athlete is, and is not capable of doing, even the most casual observer of WNBA basketball can see that these women are among the best athletes in the world. Christine explained the importance of the Los Angeles Sparks as they relate to the global game of basketball.
“We definitely believe that we have some of the most excellent athletes in the world in the WNBA,” she explained. “If it wasn’t for the WNBA the European leagues wouldn’t be as strong and popular as they are with the training that these amazing athletes have gotten here in the states. We want to continue to do our part to make sure the league is viable and growing, and to leverage our visibility. Los Angeles is one of those key metropolitan areas that the world looks at. The question is often how do we use our LA shine to put a light on these stars on the court? That’s what we continue to work on, making sure that platform is visible as possible.”
“Not only are they incredible athletes but are great role models as well. It’s always fun when you talk about the guys who have this preconceived notion of what WNBA ball is and I always like seeing those die hard guys come to a WNBA game for the first time and then they’re like ‘Whoa, these girls can really ball.’ That’s the best compliment, I think, and they then begin to appreciate that the WNBA is a different type of ball. It’s fundamentally sound, it’s not Lob City, but it’s team ball. It’s a great way to teach our youth how to play basketball, what defense really should look like, then bring them to a WNBA. It’s always great when you pull that veil out from people’s eyes about what their seeing in the WNBA.”
Although the layperson’s vision of professional basketball has much to do with putting a lot of mustard on the proverbial hotdog, the WNBA brand of basketball is best seen in person rather than via Sportscenter highlights.
“We’re a WNBA team that has a TV contract, and not all the teams are able to get TV coverage, but even when you do I think it’s hard to appreciate the level of play from home. But, I think, when people actually come and sit in the stands, they come back. And we love that.”
As Ms. Simmons and I discussed her career in the front office of a professional sports franchise the relative rarity of a woman of African ancestry running a professional sports franchise the relative rarity of her standing struck me. I asked what advice would she give to a young woman in high school or college who would like to become a WNBA executive one day.
“Never give up, be bold, work your tail off. When Mr. Johnson invited me over to work for him then gave me the honor of this opportunity, we always said that no one is going to outwork me. But, as a young lady, you have to be very confident and very strong, and you have to understand your work and know your vision. Always be humble because that will allow you to learn more and keep growing. But at the same time, don’t be afraid to speak up. Don’t speak out of context but don’t be afraid to speak up. Don’t just settle for mediocracy. Don’t just settle for good. Always be extraordinary in everything that you do. Then, that’s what your personal brand and reputation will become.”
“That’s what it takes. It’s a fast moving industry and you have to be able to adjust really, really quickly,” she continued. “You have to have thick skin and you have to be a competitor. We’re competitive in the front office and on the court. If you want to work in this industry that is the mindset you have to have. At the end of the day, don’t lose sight of your goal and do what it takes to get there.”
Former WNBA All-Star Becky Hammon recently became the first woman to coach an NBA Summer League basketball game and last year she became the first woman assistant coach in the NBA. I asked Ms. Simmons the significance of Hammon’s accomplishments and at what point can we expect his to be the norm rather than the exception.
“I think it’s going to take some time. The WNBA will go into it’s 20th year in 2017. There’s lots of things we’re still trying to get to as a league and what Becky has accomplished is phenomenal. We’re so excited to see what she has done as an assistant coach and as head coach of the Spurs Summer League team. She’s truly breaking barriers, but is it going to take time for this to become the rule and not the exception, of course, I think we’re headed that way. Hopefully, we’ll see more of it. We’re seeing female refs in the NFL, first ticker tape parade for women athletes in New York since 1960, the U.S. women’s world cup team specifically. All of these things take time. It’s important for women to be patient, but not too patient. We need to continue to bust down those walls and even if more get built, bust those down as well.”