Chicago Sky Franchise History
Chicago Sky History
In February 2005, NBA Commissioner David Stern announced Chicago as the city awarded with a new WNBA franchise. The franchise was temporarily named WNBA Chicago. On May 27, 2005, former NBA player and coach Dave Cowens was announced as the team's first head coach and general manager.
The team name and logo were formally debuted on September 20, 2005 at the Adler Planetarium. Team officials said the location was chosen to best represent the team name. Team President and CEO Margaret Stender claimed the team colors of yellow and blue represent "A beautiful day in Chicago between the blue sky and bright sunlight to highlight the spectacular skyline."
The team's introduction in Chicago was highlighted by the appearance of several WNBA players, including 2004 WNBA Rookie of the Year Diana Taurasi, 2005 WNBA Rookie of the Year Temeka Johnson, 2002 WNBA Rookie of the Year Sue Bird and 2003 WNBA Champion Ruth Riley.
In November 2005, the team held an expansion draft to help build its initial roster of players. Among the notable selections were Brooke Wyckoff from the Connecticut Sun, Elaine Powell from the Detroit Shock and Stacey Dales (who had retired prior to the 2005 season) from the Washington Mystics.
Unlike other WNBA franchises in cities with NBA teams, the Sky are not considered a sister team to the Chicago Bulls. This is apparent with different ownership, team colors, and different home arenas.
On February 28, 2006, the team announced that two of the minority shareholders of the team are Michelle Williams, from the vocal group Destiny's Child and Matthew Knowles, father of Destiny's Child lead singer Beyoncé Knowles.
Dave Cowens resigned from the Sky to join the coaching staff of the Detroit Pistons on September 12, 2006. University of Missouri-Kansas City women's head basketball coach Bo Overton was named the Chicago Sky's new head coach and general manager on December 12, 2006.
Their WNBA-worst record of 5-29 gave them the best chance of drawing the top pick in the 2007 WNBA Draft; however, they did not draw either of the top two picks, and will pick third overall in the first round. They would get the first pick in the dispersal draft held on January 8, 2007 after the demise of the Charlotte Sting, which they used to select Monique Currie.
How the Sky Came to Be
Chapter 1: Aiming sky-high
Time is flying for the architects of the Chicago Sky, who have built a pro franchise from scratch
Michael Alter had never even seen a professional woman basketball player, much less talked to one, and WNBA could have been any other four letters.
"Like most people from Chicago, it was far removed from my world," he says. "It just didn't register with me."
But Alter, a 44-year-old president of the Alter Group, a commercial real estate development firm, was inspired after chatting with such stars as Rebecca Lobo, Sue Bird and Lisa Leslie, and amazed by their skills as they gave current and retired NBA players all they could handle in a shooting contest at the 2004 NBA All-Star game.
Alter was surprised by something else as well.
"I wondered why Chicago didn't have a WNBA team, how we were missing out on that," he says. "It was embarrassing to me that this was going on and Chicago wasn't part of it. It seemed to me that wasn't right. That was my first kernel of thought about it."
Twelve months of research, advice-seeking and palm-pressing later, Alter was awarded an expansion franchise in the Women's National Basketball Association, on Feb, 8, 2005. His All-Star game inspiration has been transformed into the Chicago Sky, which will play its inaugural game Saturday in Charlotte and its home opener May 23 against WNBA defending champion Sacramento at the UIC Pavilion.
The building of a professional sports franchise from scratch "involved much more than I thought," Alter concedes, "even knowing what questions to ask."
For the last 15 months, the Tribune tried to ask the pertinent ones as the Sky granted access to animated marketing debates, arduous planning sessions, its "war room" on draft day, assorted road trips and unexpected side adventures.
We came along while team officials scoured Indianapolis' Conseco Fieldhouse and other WNBA arenas for inspiration, gritted their teeth over sponsorship issues and arena headaches, debated the virtues of earthbound superheroes versus soaring eagles on draft day and made their mascot candidates literally jump through hoops.
The access was rare but appropriate, signifying what the WNBA professes to be about: management and players who are open and approachable, real people as opposed to spoiled athletes and uptight executives.
An interesting cast
The Sky's cast of characters could be your next-door neighbors, beginning with the suburban kid of an owner who was a talented forward at New Trier High School in the 1970s, and the college athlete and former teacher who's the president/CEO.
There are genuine women's basketball fans like office manager Sara Parker, who happens to be the mother of Tennessee standout Candace Parker, the Naperville product who was the most exciting pro prospect in the college game as a redshirt freshman.
And then there are players like three-time WNBA All-Star Nikki McCray, 34, who after an illustrious career that includes two Olympic gold medals is pursuing one more go-around with the Sky. There's Stacey Dales, an ESPN analyst returning to the game she loves after becoming disillusioned with her former team two years ago, and Stacey Lovelace, one of two mothers on the team who has played in five foreign countries in addition to the WNBA.
Alter found stories like these irresistible when his trip to the 2004 NBA All-Star game with a friend in the league office got him thinking about a WNBA team in Chicago.
"Initially what attracted me was that the women's passion and commitment were so inspiring," he says. "I'm not a sports geek. I've never been into stats. But I'm a huge believer in the power of sports and its ability to bring people together, impact a community and teach life lessons. As I thought about [buying a franchise], I thought about what it might mean to Chicago."
On the flip side, however, was a savvy businessman who got his undergraduate degree from Harvard, his law degree from the University of Chicago and has more than $700 million in commercial real estate under development across the U.S.
"I was very conscious of not approaching this as some sort of philanthropic enterprise," Alter says. "I really wanted to make sure this was a viable business, that we could create something long-lasting and powerful, not just on the court. If I was not convinced of that, I wouldn't have moved ahead."
In April of 2004, Alter began to research the possibility of buying a WNBA team and enlisted the help of ex-high school teammate David Brenner, former director of promotions for the Bulls and now president of Paragon Marketing Group. That summer they spoke to NBA Commissioner David Stern to, among other things, get a sense of how much the endeavor would cost. They were told the franchise purchase price was $10 million.
"I thought we were going to have David Stern for about 15 minutes and we ended up talking for three or four hours and missing our flight back to Chicago," Brenner recalls. "He really wanted to have a successful franchise in Chicago."
By the end of October, "I knew I was going to do this," Alter says.
Weeks later, Alter traveled to China on an NBA goodwill trip as a guest of law-school classmate Adam Silver, then president of NBA Entertainment and now Stern's deputy commissioner and chief operating officer. Tom Fox, vice president of sports marketing for Gatorade, also was on the flight when Alter began discussing the need to find someone to run his new operation.
"I have exactly the person you're looking for," Fox said, and upon landing, he put through a call to the woman he had in mind.
Mutual acquaintances would later call it the stars aligning that Michael Alter would meet Margaret Stender, 49, whose love of basketball, coupled with a desire to build something new and inspirational for young girls, made the Sky her dream job.
Stender had been a top marketing executive for Quaker Oats, Rand McNally and other companies. Months earlier she had written herself out of Pepsico's plans when she engineered a major reorganization. Now she put together a power-point presentation in an effort to capture Alter's vision and simply "blew me away," he says.
Beginning with out-sourced marketing help from Brenner's company and a handful of telephone operators taking ticket orders, the team with no name would begin to take shape. And over the next 12 months, Alter, Stender and NBA Hall of Famer Dave Cowens, whom they hired to be their head coach and general manager, would slowly assemble a staff, a team and plan for the future.
More than that, they would build what Stender and all good marketing minds refer to as "a brand." The team that would come to be known as the Chicago Sky would not merely represent the WNBA and the city of Chicago but an entire philosophy. It had to.
No ties with Bulls
Though the WNBA has made strides since its inception in 1997, it is bound by certain immutable realities. It can be a tough ticket to sell, particularly with a spring/summer season in a town whose numerous attractions include the defending World Series champions and another inexplicably popular baseball team that routinely draws 3 million fans.
The WNBA approached the Bulls about fielding a team when the league was being formed, but the Bulls made it clear they were not interested, claiming it would be too draining on a staff that routinely worked into late June during the team's championship years.
In 2001, in an apparent show of good faith, the Bulls initiated a "season-ticket drive" to gauge potential interest in a WNBA team. With a stated goal of 7,500 ticket pledges, the campaign ended after they received $100 deposits for fewer than 1,000.
"In our case," says Steve Schanwald, the Bulls' vice president of marketing, "the business model didn't make sense because we could only devote at best 50 percent of our time to this. Michael and Margaret are going to be able to devote 100 percent of their energy to this, and that's what's going to give this a fighting chance to do well."
The WNBA is counting on it, having created a new ownership model in 2002 to allow for non-NBA team owners to purchase franchises.
"A private ownership group like Chicago shows that we're not forcing anything down people's throats—these are people who believe in the product," says Connecticut Sun general manager Chris Sienko, whose team belongs to the Mohegan Indian tribe, one of the world's largest casino owners.
In the end, the Bulls' rejection may be a blessing, Stern says.
"What we're finding is that if a group of folks have an NBA team to deal with … we don't get the intensity of focus and dedication we get from a singly focused group. It's not anybody's fault, it's just reality.
"There are a lot of choices to make between two teams, and if one is worth $400 million and one is worth $10 million, you tend to get a disparate effort," Stern says. "I think we landed in a good place in Chicago, with people who have a real focus on the women's game."
The Houston Comets have a staff directory that numbers 188, which is fairly typical for the WNBA. The Sky's 20-member band of underpaid loyalists toils tirelessly, small-budget realities rarely getting in the way of thinking big.
Ready. Set. Soar. Those are the words found on Sky brochures, stationery and advertising.
Stender sat in her dining room one February afternoon in 2005 with a select group of her marketing friends who came for lunch and a two-hour brainstorming session and wound up staying until dark. Stender wanted ideas not just on what this team would be called, but how it would "look and feel."
These were not necessarily sports people but business people experienced at creating products and attracting consumers.
"The day was spent trying to figure out what the brand was going to stand for and what kind of symbols would be reachable and touchable," says Sue Wellington, former president of Gatorade, minority owner of the Sky and a friend of Stender's for 27 years.
They came up with some joke slogans along the way, such as "We're Dreaming Big And Have No Money." But something else became clear. If a brand is a promise to the consumer, as Wellington explained, Stender was the perfect person to sell that promise.
"She's not just trying to get people to watch a game," Wellington says. "She's selling aspiration."
Stender, the divorced mother of 12-year-old Nick and 6-year-old Kathryn, played basketball, field hockey and lacrosse at the University of Richmond, becoming the first female athlete to receive a scholarship for 1977-78, her junior year.
"It was a paltry amount, but it was symbolic, and it meant a lot to me," Stender says.
After graduating with a degree in education and later adding a master's in business administration from Virginia, Stender paid it forward, so to speak, going to work as a PE teacher at a prep school in Norfolk, Va. She later became the athletic director and altered the school's curriculum to increase sports opportunities for girls.
After jumping into the corporate world and spending 21 years in management and marketing for various Fortune 500 companies, Stender experienced what she calls "a little pre-midlife crisis." She had learned a lot from corporate life, but it was not where she saw herself long-term. Fortunately, she had the financial security to figure out where that would be.
A Chicago resident since 1983, Stender spent the summer of 2004 with her kids and investigated the possibility of starting a charter school. "I wanted to do something very Chicago-focused and socially responsible," she says.
She wanted to be part of the WNBA franchise "more than anything," she says, but only if there was "incredible alignment with ownership."
There was. Alter, Brenner says, "is the antithesis of what you think a really successful person would be—not about flash and all about substance. He doesn't speak unless he has something to say."
Among Alter's philathropic ventures is a literacy program for Chicago Public Schools. "He is very, very caring toward people, toward the environment, civic causes, causes he believes in," Brenner says. "And he puts his money where his mouth is and his time into it."
Perpetually soft-spoken, Stender is a picture of calm amid a constant crunch of self-imposed but very real deadlines, a marvel of multitasking efficiency.
"I couldn't have invented anyone better, more dedicated to this than Margaret," Alter says.
Stender sat in Boston's Logan airport one afternoon fighting off flu symptoms and working her BlackBerry during what would turn out to be a four-hour flight delay. She completed a major sponsorship deal, chatted with a reporter and told her kids what they should eat for dinner.
All in the normal course of the day for most working mothers, perhaps. But Stender is not merely balancing a job and home. She is taking almost sole responsibility and a bulk of the workload for a major enterprise, a task for which there is no blueprint.
"This is not a 9-to-5er by any stretch of the imagination," Wellington says. "She has to be a jack of all trades. I've been on the phone with her six times in one day, and one time she's going to the mascot tryouts, and an hour later she's going in front of a major sponsor, and the next time she's meeting a potential season ticket-holder."
But if anyone is up to the task, Wellington says, it is Stender.
"The woman ran a 3:16 in the Chicago Marathon. She's capable of superhuman things. She's got staying power most of us don't. May 20 is the day, the day the weight of the world will be lifted off her shoulders."
She can only hope.
Time, it turns out, flies
There was laughter in the lobby of the Indianapolis hotel where the Sky delegation stayed after checking out Conseco Fieldhouse. Laughter and darkness, apparently caused by one little blow dryer owned by one unsuspecting sportswriter.
No one wanted to be a snob. But it was a safe guess that Stender, during her time in corporate America, grew accustomed to staying at finer establishments than this one with the bad fuse and the grungy carpeting.
It was May 22, 2005. And the journey had scarcely begun.
Chicago's WNBA franchise did not yet have a name, a coach or a single player. It still was looking for investors, had yet to secure sponsors, had no television or radio deal in place and was to play in an arena, the 6,500-seat UIC Pavilion, that was not close to professional standards. And frankly, there were hot-dog stands with bigger workforces.
What Alter, Stender and a handful of others did have was passion and energy and a grand vision of inspiring children, invigorating adults and captivating a new audience that could not yet know it was to be captivated. They also had a sound business model and a full year to implement it.
It seemed like plenty of time.
Someday, perhaps, they will be able to laugh at this misjudgment.
By Melissa Isaacson
Tribune staff reporter
Chicago Sky Timeline
FEBRUARY: Michael Alter, a real-estate developer from Winnetka, attends the NBA All-Star Game in Los Angeles and sees WNBA players in action for the first time.
FEBRUARY: NBA Commissioner David Stern announces Alter has been awarded the Chicago WNBA franchise starting with the 2006 season. Margaret Stender, a former executive at PepsiCo and Quaker Oats Co., is hired as president and chief executive officer. The UIC Pavilion is the team's new home.
MAY: Dave Cowens, a Hall of Fame NBA player and former NBA coach, is named coach of the team.
SEPTEMBER: The Sky's name is revealed, along with a logo, team colors and uniforms.
NOVEMBER: The Sky begins to put together its roster by taking 13 players in the expansion draft.
APRIL: The Sky's first pick in its inaugural WNBA draft is Temple's Candice Dupree.
MAY: Sky Guy, the team's mascot, is introduced. The regular season begins with a win in Charlotte against the Sting.
JUNE: Sky guard Nikki McCray retires from the WNBA.
JULY: The Sky win there first home game on the 7th vs. New York. Candice Dupree becomes the first Sky player to be named to the WNBA All-Star team.
AUGUST: Candice Dupree is named to the WNBA All-Rookie team
SEPTEMBER: Sky Head Coach Dave Cowens resigns from the team to join the Detroit Pistons coaching staff.
OCTOBER: The Sky are awarded the 3rd overall pick in the 2007 WNBA Draft.
DECEMBER: Bo Overton is named the Sky’s second ever Head Coach.
JANUARY: Monique Currie is selected by the Sky with the first over all pick in the Dispersal Draft of Charlotte Sting players. Team CEO Margaret Stender is inducted into University of Richmond’s Hall of Fame.