By Aaron Lommers Herald Writer
Behind the scenes of nearly every professional sports franchise is an owner. It is their money that runs the team and their decisions, in one way or another, that decide the fate of the organization.
For the Washington Stealth, that person is Denise Watkins, who along with her husband, Bill, has owned the National Lacrosse League franchise since 2007. After struggling to attract a profitable fan base in San Jose, Calif., the couple relocated the team to Everett prior to the 2010 season.
Watkins is the only female owner in the NLL and just the second in league history, the other being Angela Batinovich, who owned the Portland LumberJax from 2006-09. Batinovich holds the record for being the youngest franchise owner in professional sports (24) and was named NLL executive of the year in 2006.
While female owners are becoming more common in pro sports, they remain in the minority, a fact Watkins is well aware of.
“Oh yeah (I think about it),” she said. “There have been a lot of things in my life where I have been like the only woman to do X,Y and Z. My original career, I was an engineer and I got hired by a company in the satellite communications business and I was the sole female engineer in this company of 125 electrical engineers that did military contracts. I’ve been used to that in a lot of aspects of my career.”
Pro sports are historically a male-driven field, so it would be understandable if Watkins found it challenging to stand alone as a female owner, but she takes a different perspective.
“Actually, it’s kind of fun,” she said. “When somebody asks you what you do and you say, ‘I own a professional lacrosse team,’ they go, ‘Really? Wow, that’s cool.’ There is a certain fun factor there because you get to have the coolest job in the room when you introduce yourself and what you do. Plus, it surprises people. One, because I’m a female and two, because lacrosse is sort of an unheard of sport — and I like surprising people.
“And then you pull out your championship ring and they think it’s really cool,” Watkins said of the NLL title the Stealth won in 2010, the franchise’s first season in Everett.
Among other female owners in the pro sports world are Denise DeBartolo York, who owns the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers; Carol Davis, who along with her son Mark owns the NFL’s Oakland Raiders, and several women who own WNBA franchises.
Does the gender of the team owner matter?
“It shouldn’t matter,” Watkins said. “But I will say it probably does still matter. The fact that we are talking about means it still matters. But I do think it’s important from the standpoint that we need to convince our daughters — and we’ve always tried to convince our daughters — that they can do anything. So, how can I skirt away from being a sports owner because I’m the only woman out there if I want to convince my daughters that you can do anything you set your mind to?”
Watkins knew when she and her husband purchased the team that she would wind up handling most of the day-to-day operations.
“The way things work in our family is he says, ‘Let’s get into something,’ and then basically it becomes, ‘Here honey, you go run it,’” Watkins said.
While the Stealth were in San Jose, they played at HP Pavilion, home to the San Jose Sharks of the NHL. It seats more than 17,000 fans. The Stealth drew about 1,500 per game.
“It became pretty clear that the path in (the Bay Area) was pretty steep,” Watkins said. “It’s a rich sports market. You have hockey, you have two football teams, you have two baseball teams, you have basketball and somewhere way down that list is professional lacrosse. And honestly we weren’t really getting a lot of help from the Sharks organization.”
So the Watkins’ started looking at ways to improve their situation. One possible solution was relocation. They looked at several cities in California, but steered clear of Everett because they thought the Portland franchise was going to move there. The LumberJax eventually folded and, on the advice of the former Portland general manager, the Watkins took a look at Everett. Not long after, they decided to bring the Stealth to the Northwest.
The Stealth’s first year in Everett was a dream season. The team had a new home at Comcast Arena, attendance numbers were way up and with a significant portion of the Stealth players living in British Columbia, travel costs were greatly reduced.
“We’re still not making the (financial) equation, but at least we moved in the right direction pretty fast just by moving the team,” Watkins said.
And things couldn’t have gone better on the floor. The Stealth had the league’s best record wire-to-wire and delivered the first NLL championship in franchise history.
“That was the year we moved up and kind of went from nothing to we won the championship,” Watkins said. “It was almost the Cinderella story of how we moved up here.”
But winning a championship didn’t cure all the team’s ills.
In the 2011 season, the Stealth saw growth in attendance, but not as much as Watkins and her husband had hoped for. On the floor, the Stealth struggled with injuries through the regular season and finished with a mediocre 8-8 record.
In the playoffs, the Stealth gave Watkins some hope. A healthy Washington squad reeled off two straight wins to set up a rematch of the 2010 championship with the Toronto Rock. The Stealth fell two goals short of back-to-back championships, losing 8-7.
After the Stealth’s run in 2011, there was reason to be optimistic going forward — but no one could have predicted the cliff the franchise was about to drive over.
Just before the start of the season, head coach Chris Hall was diagnosed with throat cancer. He missed nearly half the season. On the floor the team struggled as injuries piled up. The season spiraled out of control and not even the return of Hall was able to right the ship. The Stealth finished with the league’s worst record (4-12).
More important for Watkins, the Stealth’s lease was up with Comcast Arena and attendance numbers had not grown in 2012.
Faced with four options — continuing the course, relocating, selling the team or folding the franchise — Watkins and her husband decided to give it another go, signing a five-year lease agreement with Comcast Arena.
Watkins concedes that when she and her husband bought the team in 2007, they didn’t know how difficult owning an NLL franchise would be.
“There were obvious problems I saw in how the team was run and our relationship with the building (HP Pavilion) and I didn’t think we had enough focus,” she said. “And I was sort of naive enough to think that if we just put focus to it, that we could fix it. What I probably didn’t understand was how hard it is to get the information (out). We know it’s a great game. We know that once you experience it, it’s phenomenal. But how do you get that word out and then actually get people to try it?”
So after three years in Everett without turning a profit, why continue?
“Because we don’t like to fail,” Watkins said. “Our family motto is, ‘Never give up.’ It’s kind of who we are. It’s not easy for us to just give something up because it’s not working. Our makeup is to figure out how to fix it.”
Aaron Lommers covers the Washington Stealth for The Herald. Follow him on twitter @aaronlommers and contact him at email@example.com.