When Crypto.com and AEG announced on Wednesday that they had signed a 20-year, $700 million naming rights deal for the venue now formerly known as the Staples Center, the joint press release shouted out the four major pro teams that currently call the venue home: the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers and LA Clippers, the NHL’s LA Kings, and the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks.
But the release went on to say that Crypto.com would be an official cryptocurrency platform of only two of those teams: the Los Angeles Lakers and LA Kings.
It is understandable that the Clippers wouldn’t be included in such a partnership as the franchise is moving out of the Staples Center and into the 1.2 billion Intuit Dome in 2024. But the absence of the Sparks – who have called the Staples Center home since 2001 – was quickly noticed, including by Sparks head coach Derek Fisher:
— Derek Fisher (@derekfisher) November 17, 2021
A source familiar with the Sparks said the team was not included in any conversations related to the renaming or partnership agreement, but said that the Sparks and Crypto.com are now in contact.
So who decided to leave the Sparks out initially?
AEG’s Vice President of Communications Michael Roth provided NBC Sports with the following statement: “The Los Angeles Sparks were included in the Arena naming rights press release. However, AEG is currently in negotiations with the Sparks on a new lease extension for the upcoming season, and until it is finalized, the company is not in the position to facilitate discussions regarding potential sponsor opportunities with the franchise. Once the contract is signed, we plan to meet with Sparks management to discuss potential sponsorship opportunities tied to Crypto.com Arena.”
While the Sparks have three WNBA championship banners hanging in the Staples Center, the venue wasn’t the team’s full-time home in 2021. The Sparks played 11 of their first 16 home games at the Los Angeles Convention Center, a result of the Clippers’ NBA playoff run.
As for Crypto.com, a spokesperson for the company issued the following statement to NBC Sports: “This agreement was with AEG. AEG does not have ownership rights to the Sparks. We have ongoing conversations with women’s teams as a part of our global partnership strategy.”
While it is true that AEG does not own the Sparks, the company also no longer owns the Lakers. Earlier this year, AEG founder Phillip Anschutz sold his 27% minority interest in the team to Los Angeles Dodgers co-owners Mark Walter and Todd Boehly. However, the sale did not impact the Lakers’ status in the AEG-owned Staples Center/Crypto.com arena. The team will remain in the building through the 2041 season thanks to a lease extension signed earlier this year.
As for Crypto.com’s claim that it has ongoing conversations with women’s teams, those conversations haven’t yet turned into anything more substantial based on the company’s list of current partners. When Crypto.com announced a deal with Paris Saint-Germain in September, the women’s PSG team appears not to have been included. Earlier this year, Crypto.com also signed a two-year partnership with the international hockey federation, but only to sponsor the men’s world championship tournament.
So what does this mean for the Sparks?
Update: On Thursday night, the Sparks issued its own statement: “The LA Sparks have a long-standing, 20-year partnership with AEG & Staples Center, a building where we’ve won three WNBA championships and showcased the talents of the greatest women’s basketball players in the world. While the Sparks are in the process of standard lease negotiations, we’re excited to play basketball at the new Crypto.com Arena moving forward. Since the naming rights announcement, Crypto.com initiated positive dialogue with the Sparks surrounding partnership opportunities. We remain optimistic about our ongoing lease negotiations as well as our early conversations with Crypto.com.”
When AEG decided to partner with Crypto.com, it took a risk, especially given the volatile nature of cryptocurrency.
Stadium naming rights deals have failed before, including several in the aftermath of the dot-com bubble burst. In 2000, CGMI entered a 15-year, $114 million deal for the naming rights of the New England Patriots stadium, but the contract fell through after the company’s stock price dropped from $40 to just pennies.
Should the Sparks and AEG renew their lease, the Sparks seem like a clear choice for a partnership with a cryptocurrency platform. Because if there’s one thing cryptocurrency and WNBA teams have in common, it is their high growth potential.
Most men’s sports leagues have seen TV ratings decline in recent years – especially during the pandemic – but the WNBA saw its 2021 regular season viewership increase 49 percent compared to 2020, and 24 percent compared to 2019. And while WNBA as a whole does not currently turn a profit, that is the result of missed marketing and partnership opportunities – not the quality of play on the court.
Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC