Chicago Sky owner discusses challenges of running WNBA team

By Mahmoud Bahrani

Chicago Sky owner Michael Alter spoke to students in Stuart Hall last night on the challenges of owning and operating a WNBA franchise. The talk, sponsored by the UChicago Sports Business Team, drew approximately 30 students. A graduate of the Law School, Alter is the president of the Alter Group, one of the nation’s largest private commercial real estate developers.

Alter admitted that before owning the Sky, he wasn’t aware that the WNBA existed. Adam Silver, the current deputy commissioner of the NBA and fellow Law School graduate, was the first person to approach Alter about owning a WNBA franchise. Until that time, with the exception of the Connecticut Sun, the league had only expanded to cities that already had NBA franchises, which then worked directly with the WNBA squad. Chicago Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf had turned down the offer from NBA commissioner David Stern to start a WNBA franchise in Chicago, leaving Chicago as the only major market without a WNBA team.

“Frankly, if you were in Chicago and you weren’t a fan of women’s basketball, you wouldn’t know ,” Alter said. “There was never a story, it was never talked about. It was just not on anyone’s—and certainly not my—radar screen.”

The main motivation for owning a team, according to Alter, was supporting the efforts of the women in the WNBA.

“I wasn’t that interested in being a sports owner, but I was interested in these women. I grew up in Chicago, my business is here, I’ve been very successful here, and I really felt it was embarrassing that Chicago wasn’t part of this,” Alter said. “This was something important and something we needed to have in Chicago, and what these women do, what they stand for as role models was really something that we had to have here.”

Alter openly admitted he had made some mistakes along the way, most publicly with the hiring of former Celtics star Dave Cowens as the team’s first head coach. Cowens stayed on for a year before approaching Alter with his desire to step down. Alter also expressed his disappointment in the reluctance of Chicago businesses to engage with the team.

“I really thought the business community in Chicago would be more proactive in engaging this team for the same reasons that I did,” Alter said. “I thought they would see this as a community asset. That didn’t really happen.”

Alter also discussed his plans to reverse this trend with a program called Chicago Sky Legacy Partners. For $5,000 annually over five years, partners get four tickets to each Sky game as well as other marketing opportunities. If executives can’t make a game, they can save tickets for later use or donate them to charity. It’s a program that Alter wished he would have implemented when he first bought the team six years ago.

The Chicago Sky have their first home game on May 25 against the Indiana Fever.