Former Sparks owner reflects

Carla Christofferson moved from her small-town high school gymnasium in Tolna, N.D. to courtside seats at a WNBA Los Angeles Sparks game with her good friend Kathy Goodman. She gazed at thousands of empty seats that awaited fans of the top women’s basketball players in the country, thinking of how differently she would run the organization if she was the owner.

So, she bought the team.

“It was so counter to the image it was supposed to be, which is women who are the best in the world at basketball,” Christofferson said. “These are the best in the world — and so one day I turned to Kathy and I was like, ‘Why can’t we buy the team; how hard can it be? Let’s just try.’”

With what Christofferson viewed as an “add-on” to the Lakers organization, she turned into a reflection of motivation for role-model seekers and the community.

But before she became the owner of a sports team, Christofferson spent her early years learning the values of a North Dakota upbringing that led her to a successful career. After spending two years at community college in Williston, N.D., she made the move to UND and collected the title of Miss North Dakota the same year she graduated in 1989.

She was only at UND for two years, and with an uncertain future, she used the $500 in her bank account to apply to 10 law schools. Each had a $50 application fee.

When she was on stage at the Miss North Dakota pageant and asked about her future plans, she said she was going to Yale Law School — one of the schools she was accepted to — but she still hadn’t made her final decision of which school.

She had just informed the whole state where she would be attending law school, and there was no turning back.

Playing on the court

As with the culture of small North Dakota towns, sports became an escape. Christofferson played basketball and with various other teams in high school. She was passionate about basketball, but it was sports in general that pushed her forward.

It was also what held her back.

She played basketball for one year at Williston State College, but not at UND or Yale.

“It’s one of my biggest regrets,” she said. “I should have. I was just too insecure. I still had three years of eligibility left … I was just insecure. It took me a long time to really realize I was as smart or as good as the people I was working with.

“I think that’s a little bit of North Dakota. We’re sort of taught not to think too much of ourselves. Your greatest strength is your greatest weakness. Modesty is good, but sometimes self-confidence suffers.”

After graduating from Yale Law School in 1992, Christofferson saw Los Angeles and Minneapolis as the most progressive places to practice law at the time. She chose the coast.

Between litigating the rights to Winnie the Pooh for 10 years and a chance to represent Christina Aguilera, Christofferson’s experiences with law in the entertainment industry quickly became one of her passions.

Buying the team

Her growing connections led her and her best friend to discover their way toward the Lakers’ attorney when they decided they wanted to buy the Sparks.

They put together a pitch and delivered a proposal to the organization that instigated new ownership of the Sparks in 2006.

The new co-owners spent the next nine months raising funds and embarked on what would be the most challenging step of their careers.

“Maybe it’s my North Dakota background, but that was, by far, the hardest, worst thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Christofferson said. “It was just painful every day.”

There were days Christofferson wanted to quit. She wanted nothing more to abandon what had been a dream of hers just a short time ago.

Because there were two of them, they incorporated their values into their work and persevered until they were standing in the Staples Center as owners as the Sparks began another season.

Then they had to figure out what to do with the team.

Extensive market research led the duo to believe their fan base was much different than the NBA Lakers team, and with 65 percent of the seats occupied by women and families, marketing toward the right crowd was crucial. Finding the right employees also was a deadlock.

“One of the things we had the hardest time with was hiring people,” Christofferson said. “People came to us because they wanted to be in sports. We needed people who wanted to be in a startup — they’re different.”

Funds were mainly driven by ticket sales and sponsorships, and  newly born mascot, “Sparky the Dog,” brought fans a greater sense of community.

“They bring him gifts at the end of the season, and I’m like, ‘You know it’s a guy in a dog suit, right? He doesn’t actually want biscuits,’” Christofferson said with a laugh.

He took them anyway, and by the end of the third year, with the duo’s ownership, Sparks fans in the stadium rose from 4,000 to 10,000 eager enthusiasts.

Moving forward

In February 2014, Christofferson and Goodman left the Sparks with new owners after years of facing new challenges, and discoveries that led them to push themselves further than they thought they’d go.

Christofferson continues to practice law with a firm in Los Angeles that’s older than her hometown of Tolna. With over 30 years of experience under her belt, she now does corporate work for various well-known businesses with a background she’s proud of.

“Being someone from North Dakota, it’s amazing how much is equated with honesty and hard-work,” she said. “When I left, I didn’t realize that and didn’t bring it up. What I realize now is it’s my greatest strength.”

But the piece of advice that’s driven her speaks contrary to the North Dakota attitude of keeping her head down in humility.

“Keep your eyes open.”

Elizabeth Erickson is the sports editor of The Dakota Student. She can be reached at [email protected].