The Los Angeles Sparks is a professional basketball team based in Los Angeles, California, playing in the Western Conference in the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA). The team was founded before the league's inaugural 1997 season began. The team is owned by Williams Group Holdings (Paula Madison, majority owner) and Carla Christofferson, Kathy Goodman, and Lisa Leslie (minority owners). Like some other WNBA teams, the Sparks have the distinction of not being affiliated with an NBA counterpart, even though the market is shared with the Los Angeles Lakers and the Los Angeles Clippers.
The Sparks have qualified for the WNBA Playoffs in eleven of their fourteen years in Los Angeles. The franchise has been home to many high-quality players such as 6 foot 5 inch center Lisa Leslie, Tennessee standout Candace Parker, flashy point guard Nikki Teasley and nearby USC product Tina Thompson. In 2001, 2002 and 2003, the Sparks went to the WNBA Finals. They won the title in 2001 and 2002, beating Charlotte and New York, respectively, but fell short to Detroit in 2003.
Being in a major national market, the Sparks have always been a focal point of the league; they faced New York in the league's inaugural game on June 21, 1997. Like the Tulsa Shock, the Sparks are one of the two WNBA franchises whose city also has an NBA D-League team, the D-Fenders.
In the shadow of the Comets (1997–2000)
The 1997 WNBA season, the league's first, opened with a game between the Sparks and the New York Liberty at the Sparks home (The Forum) in Inglewood. The Sparks lost the game 57-67. Sparks player Penny Toler scored the league's first two points with a lay-up 59 seconds into the game. The Sparks had what many considered to be a disappointing season in 1997, finishing with a record of 14–14. The team did compete for a playoff spot, but because of a loss to the Phoenix Mercury in the final game of the season, the Sparks missed the playoffs. In the 1998 WNBA season, the Sparks finished 12–18, missing the playoffs once more.
The 1999 season featured the development of Lisa Leslie and the Sparks' first playoff berth, as the Sparks posted a 20–12 record. The Sparks won their first playoff game and series with a win over the Sacramento Monarchs. They played a competitive Western Conference Finals but fell to the defending champion Houston Comets, 2 games to 1, in the three-game series.
The 2000 season was a record one, as the Sparks tore up the WNBA with a 28–4 record, the best in league history, and second only to the 1998 Houston Comets for best all-time. In the playoffs, the Sparks swept the Phoenix Mercury in the first round but lost in the Western Conference Finals again, when they were swept by the Comets. Ultimately, the Sparks were playing in the shadow of the Comets, as they won the first four WNBA championships.
Sparks begin to fly (2001–2002)
The 2000-01 offseason saw a move to the Staples Center and an important coaching change, when the Sparks hired former Los Angeles Lakers player Michael Cooper as head coach. During the ensuing regular season, the Sparks again posted a 28–4 record. In the 2001 playoffs, the Sparks finally eliminated the Comets, sweeping them in the first round. The Sparks took all three games to eliminate the Monarchs to earn their first berth in the WNBA Finals, in which they swept the Charlotte Sting, 2–0, for their first league championship.
In 2002, Leslie became the first woman in the league to dunk the ball during a game, and once again the Sparks dominated the regular season, posting a 25–7 record. The Sparks then flew through the playoffs, sweeping both the Seattle Storm and the Utah Starzz. In the finals, the Sparks were matched against the Liberty, who were still looking for their first championship. A late three in game 2 by Nikki Teasley gave the Sparks their second consecutive championship.
Battle for the three-peat (2003)
In 2003, the Sparks posted a 24–10 record and went into the playoffs looking for a "three-peat." Both the first and the second rounds were forced to decided third games, as they beat the Minnesota Lynx and Sacramento Monarchs. The Sparks then faced the upstart Detroit Shock in the Finals. The Shock were on a roll after having been the worst team in the WNBA in 2002. The Finals were a battle fueled by the relationship between head coaches Michael Cooper (Sparks) and Bill Laimbeer (Shock) which stemmed back to their days in the NBA. The rough road to the finals and the tough play of the Shock wore down the Sparks, which lost the series, two games to one, and failed to three-peat.
End of the glory days (2004–2006)
During the 2003-04 off season, the Sparks signed two standout players, Tamika Whitmore and Teresa Weatherspoon, both of whom had played for the rival New York Liberty. When the season began, the Sparks got off to a great start, but coach Cooper left at midseason to seek a coaching job in the NBA. The loss of their coach was a factor in the team's so-so finish to the season, which ended with a record of 25–9. During the playoffs, the team stumbled, losing in three games to the Sacramento Monarchs.
The Sparks stumbled and never recovered through the 2005 season and finished with a 17–17 record. They barely made the playoffs; they received the number-four seed. In the first round, the Sparks were outplayed and swept by the eventual champion Sacramento Monarchs.
In 2006, the Sparks played much better, posting a 25–9 record. In the playoffs, they defeated the Seattle Storm in three games. However, in the Western Conference finals, the Sparks' season was ended by the Monarchs for the third year in a row.
Leslie's pregnancy (2007)
After the 2006 season ended, team owner Jerry Buss, who also owned the Lakers, announced he was selling the Sparks. On December 7, 2006, the Los Angeles Times reported the sale to an investor group led by Kathy Goodman and Carla Christofferson. Goodman is currently a high school teacher at HighTech-LA in Lake Balboa and was a former executive for Intermedia Films. Christofferson is a litigation attorney for the O’Melveny & Myers law firm and was Miss North Dakota USA in 1989. The day after the sale was announced, team star Lisa Leslie announced that she was pregnant and would not play in the WNBA in the 2007 season despite Michael Cooper's return to the team as head coach.
The loss of Leslie for the year proved devastating, as the Sparks posted a league-worst 10–24 record. The record was also the worst in Sparks history, as the Sparks missed the playoffs for the first time since 1998.
Candace Parker joins the WNBA (2008–present)
Before the start of the 2008 season, the team's prospects improved dramatically. Lisa Leslie returned to the team, and on April 9, 2008, the team used its number-one draft pick to select Candace Parker, the college player of the year, the morning after Parker had led the University of Tennessee Lady Vols to their second-straight NCAA championship.
In 2008, the Sparks posted a 20-14 record and finished third in the Western Conference. In the playoffs, the Sparks beat the Seattle Storm 2-1 to reach the Western Conference Finals and compete against the San Antonio Silver Stars. The Sparks were on track to win game 2 of the series, but Silver Star Sophia Young made a turn around bank-shot with a second left on the clock to force the series to a deciding game three. The Sparks lost game three, and the Silver Stars moved on to the WNBA Finals.
Following the 2008 season, Parker announced that she was pregnant. To compensate for Parker's absence, the Sparks signed free agent Tina Thompson who was from former rival Houston Comets. Thompson, the four-time WNBA champ and eight-time WNBA All-Star, also went to college with Leslie at USC.
The 2009 season started poorly for the Sparks. Candace Parker began the season on maternity leave, and Lisa Leslie suffered a knee injury early in the season. Both Leslie and Parker returned to the court in July, however, sparking a 10-2 run which turned an 8-14 start into an 18-16 regular season record and clinching the Sparks' tenth playoff appearance in their 13-year history. In the first round of the playoffs, the Sparks defeated the Seattle Storm for the third time in 4 years. In the Western Conference Finals, the Sparks' lost to the eventual champion Phoenix Mercury in 3 games. The end of the 2009 playoff run marked the end of Leslie's career as a player and Cooper's second tenure as Sparks' head coach. In the offseason, former Sparks player Jennifer Gillom became the team's new head coach.
The 2010 season began with high hopes for the Sparks. Led by former All-Star point guard Ticha Penicheiro, the Sparks believed they had the pieces to contend for a championship. However, superstar Candace Parker had season-ending shoulder surgery after the team started just 3-7. Without her, the Sparks struggled, finishing 13-21. Fortunately for the Sparks, this was good enough to qualify them for fourth place in the Western Conference, but they were swept by the eventual champion Seattle Storm in the first round.
The 2011 season was eerily reminiscent of the previous year for the Sparks. The team started 4-3 but again Candace Parker sustained an injury. Following three more losses, the Sparks fired head coach Jennifer Gillom, promoting previous Sparks coach Joe Bryant. With Parker out until the end of the season, the Sparks continued to struggle, heading into the All-Star break 6-8 and in fifth place.
The Los Angeles Sparks currently play in the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. The capacity for a Sparks game is 13,141 because the upper level is closed off (capacity for a Lakers game is 18,997). The Sparks have played in the Staples Center since 2001. Their previous home was the Great Western Forum, but the Sparks organization moved after claiming "the Forum" was the reason for the low attendance at Sparks games.
- 2011-present: As part of the move to Adidas's Revolution 30 technology, the Sparks unveiled new jerseys. Home uniforms remain gold, but numbers are now rounded and in white with purple trim. Away uniforms are purple with numbers in white with gold trim. The Farmers Insurance name will remain on the jerseys.
- 2009-2010: On June 5, the Los Angeles Sparks and Farmers Insurance Group of Companies announced a multi-year marketing partnership that includes a branded jersey sponsorship. The Farmers Insurance branded jersey was worn by the players for the first time on June 6, 2009. As part of this alliance, the Farmers Insurance name and logo will appear on the front of the Sparks jerseys. In the 2009 season, the Sparks yellow jersey is used regardless of home or away. In the 2010 season they introduced the purple jersey for away games.
- 2007–2008: For home games, gold with purple lines and sparks on the side, with the name "Sparks" written across in purple. For away games, purple with golden yellow lines and sparks on the side, with the name "Los Angeles" in yellow. The uniform looks similar to the Los Angeles Lakers' uniform.
- 1997–2006: For home games, gold with large purple stripe on the side, with the name "Sparks" written across in purple. For away games, purple with large gold stripe on the side, with the name "Los Angeles" in yellow.