This undersized high school point guard was never destined for WNBA stardom on the court. But Vanessa Shay is getting a chance to make a mark in the league now.
As the Los Angeles Sparks’ newly hired president, Shay will be tasked with boosting the team to new business success, capitalizing on the rising growth of women’s sports while contending in a crowded sports market. Filling a position that’s been vacant for more than two years since former president Danita Johnson joined DC United‘s front office, Shay will be responsible for attracting more corporate sponsors and boosting fan attendance for one of the WNBA’s last three remaining original teams.
With the league in its 26th year already, Shay told The Los Angeles Times she believes, “the next 25 years of the Sparks is a totally different platform.”
After a short stint as the chief revenue officer of newly formed San Diego Wave FC and 13 years with AEG, it will take time for Shay to study the inner workings of the Sparks and decipher the best way forward. Within her first hours on the job, she already knew the Sparks needed a brand awareness campaign to remind L.A. about the three-time WNBA champions.
“I do believe in recent years, due to the pandemic and due to a lot of other circumstances out of the control of the WNBA or the Sparks, we have kind of lost who we are,” Shay said. “I don’t believe the Sparks are top of mind for every traditional sports fan in Los Angeles and we need to change that. We need to make sure that fans of the Rams, fans of the Dodgers, fans of the L.A. Kings are also supportive and are fans of the women’s professional sports team that has been here for 25 years.”
The Sparks, who won their last championship in 2016, led the league in attendance in three consecutive years, including an average of more than 11,000 in 2019, before the pandemic shut down arenas in 2020. When the Sparks returned to their home market in 2021, they played in the Los Angeles Convention Center. The limited seating for 11 of their 16 home games tanked their average attendance to a league-low 1,144, according to Across the Timeline, a women’s basketball database.
Attendance league-wide cratered, averaging 2,606 across the WNBA because of pandemic guidelines for indoor venues. Yet fans made their interest known in other ways. The WNBA celebrated its 25th season with the most-watched regular season since 2008, viewership jumping 51% from the 2020 season.
The league will count on a big payday when its TV contract is up for negotiation in 2025, and Shay said her role in helping set the WNBA for the best broadcast deal is to build the Sparks’ fan base and show broadcast partners that the interest in women’s basketball is still high.
The Sparks should get a boost this year by returning to Crypto.com Arena, where they face the Minnesota Lynx in Tuesday’s home opener. Last year, when the Sparks moved from the Convention Center to their main downtown venue, then known as Staples Center, they drew an average crowd of 2,398 during their final five games, nearly three times as many as they averaged in the Convention Center.
As one of four professional teams currently vying for time at Crypto.com Arena, the Sparks have consistently faced scheduling log jams for the popular venue that also hosts concerts and other sporting events. Before getting pushed to the Convention Center last year, the Sparks have been forced to host playoff games at Pauley Pavilion and Long Beach State’s Walter Pyramid.
Scheduling conflicts plague many teams across the league, including attendance leaders Phoenix Mercury. The team that went to the WNBA Finals last year had multiple playoff games bumped to nearby college arenas when the city’s Footprint Center was hosting a concert and “Disney on Ice.”
Shay, who was the vice president of global partnerships at AEG for 13 years, is familiar with Crypto.com Arena. She could walk through its halls with her eyes closed, she said, and her existing relationship with the arena’s ownership group should serve the Sparks well as they aim to attract more fans and prove the value of their home games.
“If we sell out Crypto.com Arena, they will not bump us,” Shay said. “We need fans, we need fan base, we need to show the ownership of these venues that women’s sports is profitable for these arenas and it is something real that fans demand. So if we can do this together as a community, I think all tides will rise with women’s sports.”
After missing the playoffs for the first time since 2011, the Sparks hope a rebuilt roster will give their fans something to cheer about. Head coach and general manager Derek Fisher added Southern California natives Jordin Canada and Katie Lou Samuelson, young point guard Chennedy Carter and an established WNBA star in center Liz Cambage. Canada, a five-year WNBA veteran who is in her first full-time starting position after backing up Sue Bird in Seattle, leads the Sparks with 15.5 points per game.
Emphasizing Canada’s history as a UCLA and Windward star, Sparks owner Magic Johnson took to Twitter to encourage fans to attend Sparks games. Shay will take the marketing campaigns from here.
“On the court, we’re moving forward quickly,” Shay said, “now business operations has to catch up.”