Many basketball fans grow up dreaming of one day owning an NBA team. They see themselves sitting in a luxury box or courtside for every game. They dream of building their own championship team and hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Mark Cuban is their idol. These few sentences aptly describe me, and I’m sure millions of others, but one man they don’t describe is Michael Alter.
Alter is the owner of the WNBA’s Chicago Sky, and unlike many, he never grew up dreaming of owning a sports franchise. He grew up in Chicago and was an avid sports fan, but becoming an owner and venturing into the sports world never appealed to him. He is still kind of surprised that he actually owns his own team, but while many buy sports franchises to fulfill a dream, Alter founded the Sky in order to give back to his hometown.
His entry into the world of WNBA basketball came during a dinner he attended in the mid-2000s. At the time, he was not following the WNBA and knew pretty much nothing about the league, but at that dinner he met a few WNBA players whom he found to be incredibly impressive women with such a passion for their sport. Upon finding out Chicago didn’t have a WNBA team of its own, Alter decided to take it upon himself to bring one to The Windy City.
“It was a very sort of spontaneous decision,” he says about getting involved in the WNBA. “When talking to those players, I was very surprised to hear that at that time the WNBA had been around for seven or eight years and there was no franchise in Chicago, and as a native Chicagoan I was kind of embarrassed by that. I felt it was important that this league come to Chicago, which is a great sports town, and these women are phenomenal role models and world-class athletes so I felt it was important Chicago had a team of its own.”
That fateful dinner meeting resulted in Chicago being awarded a WNBA expansion franchise in February of 2005. Later in the year, the organization decided on the name Chicago Sky to represent Chicago’s skyline. The team held an expansion draft in November of 2005, and former NBA player and coach Dave Cowens was tabbed to lead the Sky in their inaugural season which would be 2006. Alter’s latest community venture had come to fruition, and I say his latest venture because Alter has a history of giving back to the Chicago community.
During his freshman year at Harvard University in 1979, Alter and some friends were up late one night discussing “how to save the world and how we could make a difference,” and the idea for a program to give back to urban communities was born. During his sophomore year, Alter and those same friends spent part of the year in Washington, D.C. and learned firsthand about national service legislation and funding.
In 1988, Alter’s good friends Michael Brown and Alan Khazei (now a potential Democratic candidate for Senate in Massachusets) officially launched City Year, a program founded on the belief that one person can make a big difference in the lives of others. Six years after Brown and Khazei founded City Year in Boston, Alter brought the program to Chicago in 1994.
“I was there with City Year from the beginning,” says Alter about his involvement with the service organization. “I saw my friends get the funding and make their vision into a reality and the Boston model was meant to be replicated, so when the program started to expand, I established City Year Chicago.”
As mentioned above, Alter brought the WNBA to Chicago not to serve his ego, but rather to bring an asset to the community that he believed they were lacking. This is consistent with his past involvement in City Year and other community organizations, and during his time as owner of the Sky, Alter has worked to establish strong ties to non-profits in the Chicago area. The Sky Cares Foundation, the team’s charitable organization, has established close relationships with Chicago Public Schools and the Parks Department, amongst other organizations. While getting out in the community is the primary goal of Sky Cares, it also benefits the Sky organization and helps give them a platform to assert themselves in a crowded Chicago sports landscape.
“The players are phenomenal in terms of making appearances and getting out in the community, letting people know who they are, and what the WNBA is all about,” he says. “We don’t have a huge marketing budget like a lot of professional sports teams to get our name out there so a lot of how we do it is through the grassroots. We have a phenomenal group of young women, and when they put a face to our team in the community people really respond to that.”
While Alter may have brought the Sky to Chicago for the community’s benefit, owning a team also entails putting a winning product on the court, something Alter believes the Sky are close to doing. The team did not make the playoffs in their first five years, struggling through the normal expansion adjustment and some bad luck including injuries to star player Sylvia Fowles, but their luck has begun to change.
This year though the Sky have seen some bright spots. Fowles has become the dominant player the franchise envisioned averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds and entering the MVP conversation. The team currently has a 14-16 record and sit three games out of the playoffs with four to play, making a playoff berth unlikely, but the signs of progress have Alter encouraged.
“It is extremely important, it is now our sixth year,” says Alter about the team making the playoffs. “Everybody likes a winning team but especially when you are new on the market and trying to establish yourself, winning and making the playoffs helps do that. There is a lot more attention in the media, in the market, and fan support is up if you are in the playoffs.
“It is very important to show that we are a competitive team, a playoff team, and it is time to take that next step forward. We believe we have a championship building block in Sylvia to go along with Epiphanny Prince, and that is the ultimate goal to bring a championship to Chicago.”
So while he never intended to get into sports ownership, Michael Alter is clearly getting the hang of his new hobby. And in a time when the NBA is locked out with the owners and players fighting over billions of dollars, it is reassuring to know that there are some in the sports world who got into it not for money or glory, but to help others.
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