Swanson: Sparks lose Nneka Ogwumike, at a crossroads as women’s game grows

See you later, Nneka. It’s been real.

Nneka Ogwumike, the last remaining holdout of past Sparks glory, announced on social media on Wednesday that after playing all of her WNBA career so far in L.A., she’ll be leaving in free agency: “I have SO much,” she wrote in her goodbye note. “I have so much love for this city that unconditionally embraced this Stanford kid 12 years ago …”

It’s going to be so strange to see Ogwumike in colors other than purple and gold. But it so won’t be a shock.

Because it’s no surprise that she, the president of the players’ association, would want to take advantage of this era of increased WNBA player empowerment – and movement – that she helped usher in.

Nor is it a surprise that she would want to play for a team that might have at least an outside shot against the two-time defending champion Las Vegas Aces, whether that’s the New York Liberty or Seattle Storm or another potential competitor.

And good for Ogwumike, a WNBA champion and WNBA MVP. A dynamic leader whose perspective you’re about as likely to hear on a national news show as in a traditional sports forum. Efficient, consistent, intentional, a powerful figure in any gym, any room. One of one.

And a Spark no more.

LA, I hope it’s not goodbye, but ‘see you later’. pic.twitter.com/kalKHp4k3o

— Nneka Ogwumike (@nnekaogwumike) January 25, 2024

But good for them, too.

Though, yes, in a real way, Ogwumike’s departure is a referendum on the Sparks’ organization, which has floundered dreadfully in recent seasons.

For the past three summers – since Candace Parker and Chelsea Gray both bolted in free agency, leaving then-coach and general manager Derek Fisher with Ogwumike as the last pillar standing – the Sparks have failed even to make the playoffs in a league in which eight of 12 teams get in.

And maybe you noticed, but probably you didn’t – which is what makes this also an opportunity for the Sparks to rally. To reboot. Reset. Restart. Put down some new pillars and rebuild.

Wednesday’s revelatory news, brought to you by the letter R: Rev those engines, Sparks, and more than anything, reinvest.

Because, as everyone knows, to influence people in L.A., you have to win games – and, if you want people to tune in and turn up, you have to win them with stars.

Do that, and they will come.

As recently as 2019, the Sparks – headlined by Candace Parker – were averaging more than 11,000 fans per game.

And now the UCLA and USC women’s basketball teams – capitalizing on the magnetism of Trojans freshman standout JuJu Watkins and angling also to become perennially part of the national championship conversation – have set attendance records this season at both Pauley Pavilion and Galen Center and even on the road.

Shoot, if we’re comparing basketballs to soccer balls, Angel City FC, a second-year National Women’s Soccer League team in 2023, averaged 19,756 fans per game at BMO Stadium.

Meanwhile, a couple of blocks away, the Sparks averaged 6,553 fans last season, a franchise-low outside of the COVID-19 years, according to acrossthetimeline.com. And, girl, let me tell you, there’s no sweet advantage to being home when it’s the cavernous confines of Crypto.com Arena.

So, OK. You’re a WNBA team on the market for a dial-moving winner, eh? Desperate to improve the trajectory of the WNBA’s original glamor team?

Well, unless you get really lucky in the lottery – the Sparks did come one spot shy of selecting No. 1 in the upcoming Caitlin Clark draft – to have any hope of luring the type of free agents who could actually pull a turnaround, you ought to think about offering them a dedicated training space.

You ought to be able to present them with a site where they can show up to shoot or lift or work on their craft whenever they want –  which is something that, by the way, is available now to more WNBA teams than not, though not to members of the Sparks.

In L.A., they’ve alternated practice sites over the years, booking time at community colleges and training facilities, and on occasion at a high school. Some of those locations have been more serviceable than others, but they’ve all had limitations.

Or another idea: Lockers! According to what she told NBA star Draymond Green on his podcast last year, that was an amenity too exorbitant for Parker and her fellow professional basketball teammates during her 13 seasons in L.A.: “I have not had a locker where it has my name on it and I can leave my (stuff) and come back and know my (stuff) is gonna be there!”

Investing in lockers and a permanent space might seem a lot to ask for a team that’s lost so many games lately, that’s lost its grip on the public’s attention. That’s lost Nneka Ogwumike just 380 points shy of the Sparks’ all-time scoring record.

But what would be sadder for Sparks fans than losing Ogwumike would be for their team, one of just three original WNBA teams still playing, to miss out on this wave of momentum carrying women’s sports to record attendance and ratings.

For their team not to factor in the quantifiable figures supporting all the anecdotal accounts about the growing number of Aces fans, of JuJu fans, of women’s basketball fans – fans who could be Sparks fans.

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