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The Philadelphia Inquirer
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Mike Jensen

Mike Jensen: Philly has all the ingredients to find a quality WNBA owner. So who’s going to do it?

PHILADELPHIA — You can look at the fan base, arenas, practice facilities … If you’re the WNBA, deciding if Philadelphia is the right market for a WNBA team, it comes down to ownership. It’s always come down to ownership.

Of course, the WNBA should want to be in the fourth-largest television market in the country. No-brainer.

You just hear the same words about potential Philly ownership from all over the landscape. The need for deep pockets and patience.

Let’s add expertise and enthusiasm. You could argue that maybe Philadelphia dodged a bullet by not signing up originally for the WNBA in 1996, when the model was NBA owners only.

The chief owners at the time, Comcast and Flyers owner Ed Snider, would never have seen the WNBA as a true passion project. (Remember, Disney and ESPN has been the big WNBA television partner from the start.) As losses piled up and the ownership model changed to allow non-NBA money in, the Philly group may have bailed, just as the Orlando ownership did, selling out to ownership that moved the team to Connecticut, a women’s hoops hotbed.

That brings us to current Sixers ownership. Might they get involved? They might, considering they’re looking to build a new arena on Market Street. If such a venture were being completed in, say, 2024, the Sixers owners would really be hot to have the building selling food and drinks for additional summer dates. Maybe that means they’d want a WNBA team as a tenant, maybe they’d look at the WNBA as a win-win, a league established enough that it is ready to bring in big TV revenue.

Of course, if there are two big league arenas in the city at some future date, that means two entities looking to fill dates. Even as the WNBA gets into smaller venues, signaling that TV is where the real money will be down the road … Philly has all that. Name a venue size, the region pretty much has it.

Back to ownership. You certainly look locally for possible owners with pockets deep enough to get past initial losses. Dawn Staley, who keeps the pulse on her home city even while coaching South Carolina, said she believes Lewis Katz, whom she knew from her time coaching at Temple, may have been interested in being part of a group if he hadn’t died in a plane crash. (Katz, former owner of the New Jersey Nets, was part-owner of The Philadelphia Inquirer at the time of his death.) We’ll never know, but I tend to believe it, too.

Might Sixers superfan Alan Horwitz be interested in this? Horwitz couldn’t be reached for comment, but Kenny Holdsman, president of Philadelphia Youth Basketball, which took a $5 million gift from Horwitz for its new facility being built, said, “I know Alan Horwitz has an interest in investing in a WNBA team should our city be awarded a franchise.”

Note that Horwitz has long been a mentor to David Adelman, the developer teaming with Sixers ownership trying to get a new arena on Market Street. Adelman declined an interview request through an intermediary. Let’s assume he has enough on his basketball plate trying to get that project off the ground. But don’t rule Adelman out as a possible owner. His pockets are deep enough.

Another PYB connection to the WNBA? Board vice chair Brooke Queenan played in the league and overseas. (Let’s assume PYB would love to offer its new facility currently being built on Wissahickon Avenue as a practice site.)

You see the name Wanda Sykes mentioned as a possible investor, and it makes sense, since the actor and comedian who was a co-host of this year’s Oscars lives locally and has been a WNBA fan all along, attending games over the years in multiple cities. Remember that Will Smith is a fractional owner of the Sixers, bringing his star power to the enterprise.

That all sounds smart, but, in fact, Sykes brings more. Her wife, Alex Niedbalski, is a sales executive who has shown interest in this project locally. This is key. It’s great to have a star involved and visible. It’s far more important to have committed local investors. (Niedbalski didn’t respond to an email this week.)

This city obviously doesn’t lack for basketball expertise. (Call Billy King. The former Sixers president and Nets GM always saw the possibilities in the WNBA.)

Let’s assume former and even current WNBA players from Philadelphia would take a close interest in this project. Natasha Cloud, a Cardinal O’Hara and St. Joseph’s graduate, has been outspoken about trying to help get a franchise in Philly. It’s easy to imagine Cloud as a player-coach, or helping run it from the front office, if she wants to stay actively involved in the league.

The bottom line: Philly seems to check plenty of boxes when it comes to resources and expertise. Let’s assume there are more interested parties around here. Maybe they can look at the defending WNBA champions for guidance. Michael Alter, a commercial real estate developer in Chicago, became principal owner of the Chicago Sky in 2005. He’s kept the franchise all along, through ups and downs, culminating in the 2021 title. Alter has partners, including former Destiny’s Child singer Michelle Williams. Most of all, Alter has invested resources over the long term, staying in the game.

Who is that person in Philly?

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