Researching her family roots was not the only full-time job Paula Madison took on after retiring four years ago from NBC Universal, where she was executive vice-president of diversity and vice-president of the General Electric Company.
In 2007, she and her family-owned company – Williams Group Holdings (WGH) – became majority owners of the Los Angeles Sparks of the Women National Basketball Association (WNBA) after radio host Don Imus referred to members of the predominantly Black Rutgers University women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hoes”.
After retirement, Madison assumed the role of chief executive officer.
“I physically ran the team for about three years,” she said while in Toronto recently for the ReelWorld Film Festival. “I loved what I was doing even though it was time consuming.”
WGH invested nearly $12 million in the team which entered the league 18 years ago, won back to-back titles in 2001 and 2002, three conference titles and was in the playoffs six of the last seven seasons.
“At the time, it made sense for us to buy a sports franchise,” said Madison, who is a vice-president of the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners. “There are certainly people who enjoy women’s basketball, but they turn out as fans and sponsors in the same numbers as they do for the men’s game.”
After failing to show a profit for the seven years the family owned the team and losing $12 million in the process, including $1.4 million in 2013, WGH sold the franchise to an investment entity led by Los Angeles Lakers legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Los Angeles Dodgers controlling owner Mark Walter, chief executive of Guggenheim Partners, which is a Chicago-based financial services company.
The Sparks are one of six privately-owned WNBA franchises. The remaining teams are owned by the NBA.
With the Sparks being one of four of the original franchises still in operation and six teams turning a profit two years ago, four of them with NBA owners, Madison – whose mother was born in Jamaica — is confident the league will endure despite the fact that independent owners are at a disadvantage.
“I think the WNBA will be around for some years because the NBA has made a commitment to subsidize it,” she said. “I think that in order for the WNBA to be truly viable financially, the policy that the NBA had of trying to get all the teams to be independently owned, I think as time went on they realized that that’s not a financially viable option because those of us who own the independent teams are having more financial difficulty with sponsors than the teams that are owned by franchise owners of the NBA.
“That means that if you own an NBA and WNBA team, you could amortize some of the costs, you can bundle the sponsorships and you can say to a sponsor if you want to come on board and support the male team, you also have to spend some dollars with the female team. You have to have a business practice that everybody will adhere to because the independent owners really struggle.”