Why were the WNBA’s LA Sparks left out of Crypto.com partnership?

Los Angeles Sparks Logo at Staples Center
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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:

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?

It’s complicated.

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

Justine Wong-Orantes’ atypical path to becoming one of the best liberos in the world

Justine Wong-Orantes hits the ball in the women's semi-final volleyball match between USA and Serbia during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
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It’s been 20 years since the same nation held both the Olympic and world volleyball titles at the same time, but libero Justine Wong-Orantes is looking to help lead Team USA accomplish that very feat at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championships in the Netherlands and Poland. Competition began on Friday and the U.S. is currently 2-0 after group play wins against Kazakhstan and Canada.

“We’re trying to win, for sure,” Wong-Orantes told On Her Turf. “I think, especially with the new turn of the program and the new year of the quad, we just have a really nice blend of veterans and also newcomers on the team.”

The 14-woman roster for Team USA, which is ranked No. 1 in the world and won its first Olympic title last summer, features six players from that gold-medal-winning team. And while Wong-Orantes is among the 2021 U.S. Olympic team veterans, she’s still a relative newcomer to international play.

The Southern California native enjoyed a notable junior career – she was 12 when she became the youngest female to ever earn an AAA rating in beach volleyball – and was a standout collegian at Nebraska, where she was a member of the 2015 NCAA championship team. But Wong-Orantes followed a different path upon graduation, initially choosing not to go overseas to play professionally.

While she was first selected for the U.S. national team in 2016 and played a handful of international tournaments in the following years, it wasn’t until she started playing professionally in Germany in 2019 that she saw the potential to elevate her position on the roster. In particular, the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics gave her an additional year of overseas experience, which she calls “a blessing in disguise.”

“I just felt like I was still in that developmental stage,” she said. “And a whole year postponement allowed me to go overseas and really get all the touches, all the repetitions, and just kind of expose myself to international volleyball another year. So I was, in hindsight, pretty thankful for that COVID season because I got an extra year under my belt, and I think that just gave me a ton of confidence.”

Ahead of the Olympics, Wong-Orantes earned “best libero” honors at the 2021 FIVB Volleyball National League in Rimini, Italy, which helped secure her spot on the Olympic roster. In Tokyo, she followed up with another standout performance and was named best libero of the Olympic tournament.

As to how the Wong-Orantes transformed into one of the world’s top liberos, she points to her background as a beach volleyball player. She began competing at age 8, and her first partner was Sara Hughes, a star on the AVP Pro Tour who also won two NCAA titles with USC.

“I think having that background and just the court awareness that beach volleyball forces you to have allowed me to really have a good read on the game,” said Wong-Orantes. “I think that’s what makes a great libero is just reading and always being reactive towards the ball.”

Wong-Orantes also credits the assistance of mental coach Sue Enquist, a former UCLA softball coach and U.S. national team coach, who now helps teams work on their culture and relationships. Enquist began working with the U.S. volleyball team during the pandemic and has continued in her role ever since.

“We just worked on a lot of stuff within ourselves, within our program, how to communicate with each other off the court, and I think that honestly propelled us into such a high, high level with how we worked with each other, and then that transferred onto the court,” explained Wong-Orantes, who noted the team has Enquist on speed dial while at the World Championship. “I really commend Sue. I just really give a lot of praise to her because I think our culture was never bad, but I think [she] just transformed into a different level.”

2022-09-26 - FIVB Volleyball Womens World Championship 2022 - Day 4
ARNHEM, NETHERLANDS – Justine Wong-Orantes (far right) poses for a photo with her U.S. teammates after defeating Canada at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championship on September 26, 2022. (Photo by Rene Nijhuis/Orange Pictures/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Wong-Orantes said she and her U.S. teammates are on their toes for the world championships, which features twice as many teams (24) as the Olympics and a “more grueling” format.

“It’s going to be a long tournament, and I think we’re really going to need all 14 of us that are here. I’m pretty certain that, at any given moment, someone’s going to be called on and someone’s going to need to step up in big moments.”

2022 Ascendant LPGA: How to watch, who’s playing in Texas’s annual signature event

Atthaya Thitikul of Thailand hits her second shot on the 16th hole during the final round of the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.
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The LPGA make its annual stop in The Colony, Texas, this week for the 10th edition of the Ascendant LPGA benefiting Volunteers of America, where Thailand’s 19-year-old rookie Atthaya Thitikul comes in hot off her second career win and second playoff victory this season at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.

Leading the 132-player field at Old American Golf Club, located at Golf Clubs at The Tribute, are Texas residents and past champions Cheyenne Knight and Angela Stanford. They’ll compete for the $1.7 million prize purse alongside major champions Nelly KordaLydia Ko and Brooke Henderson. Last year’s Ascendant LPGA champion, world No. 1 Jin Young Ko, will not be defending her title after announcing earlier this month she would be missing several weeks due to a nagging wrist injury.

This past weekend in Arkansas, Thitikul took the lead with a 10-under 61 in the second round and shot 68 in the final round to finish regulation tied with Danielle Kang at 17-under 196. Thitikul, who won the JTBC Classic in March in a two-hole playoff vs. Nanna Koerstz Madsen, drained an 8-foot birdie putt on the second playoff hole to secure the win over Kang.

How to watch the 2022 Ascendant LPGA 

Coverage of the 2022 Ascendant LPGA from Old American Golf Club in The Colony, Texas, can be found on Golf Channel, with streaming options available any time on any mobile device and online through NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.

  • Thursday, Sept. 29: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Friday, Sept. 30: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Saturday, Oct. 1: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Sunday, Oct. 2: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel

Who’s playing in the 2022 Ascendant LPGA

Six of the top 10 players in the Rolex World Rankings are among the field in Texas, including:

  • No. 2 Nelly Korda
  • No. 4 Lydia Ko
  • No. 5 Atthaya Thitikul
  • No. 6 Brooke Henderson
  • No. 7 Lexi Thompson
  • No. 10 Nasa Hataoka

A number of local Texans also are in the tournament, headlined by past champions, Angela Stanford (2020) and Cheyenne Knight (2019), and two junior champions of the Volunteers of America Classic Girls Championship, who are playing on a sponsor exemption: Yunxuan (Michelle) Zhang (2022), a freshman at SMU, and Avery Zweig (2021), a high school sophomore from McKinney, Texas.

Past five champions of The Ascendant LPGA

2021 Jin Young Ko (South Korea) 16-under 268 1 stroke Matilda Castren
2020 Angela Stanford (USA) 7-under 277 2 strokes So Yeon Ryu, Inbee Park, Yealimi Noh
2019 Cheyenne Knight (USA) 18-under 266 2 strokes Brittany Altomare, Jaye Marie Green
2018 Sung Hyun Park (South Korea) 11-under 131 1 stroke Lindy Duncan
2017 Haru Nomura (Japan) 3-under 281 Playoff Christie Kerr

Last time at The Ascendant LPGA

South Korea’s Jin Young Ko carded a final-round 69 to maintain her 54-hole lead at Old American Golf Club and held on for a one stroke win at the 2021 Volunteers of America Classic, her eighth career LPGA tour title. Ko finished regulation at 16-under 268, edging Finland’s Matilda Castren by one stroke.

It kicked off a five-win season for Ko, who had just lost her No. 1 ranking to Nelly Korda the week prior after holding the top spot for 100 straight weeks. She regained the No. 1 ranking back in October 2021, after earning her fourth win in seven starts at the BMW Ladies Championship.

More about Old American Golf Club

Opened in 2010, the Old American Golf Club is one of two clubs at The Tribute, a lakefront resort community on Lewisville Lake in The Colony, Texas. Designed by Tripp Davis and 12-time PGA Tour winner Justin Leonard, Old American plays as a Par 71 and stretches to 6,475 yards on the tournament scorecard.