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Laura Hine | Photo: Portraits by Cynthia Lynne | Shot on location at the Michigan Shores Club in Wilmette | July 7, 2014
Two local businessmen are determined to win at women’s professional sports.
When they walk into the Michigan Shores Club in Wilmette, Michael Alter, who owns the Chicago Sky basketball team, and Arnim E. Whisler, owner of the Chicago Red Stars soccer team, look like they might be cut from the same cloth. To be sure, both live in Winnetka, look like natural athletes and are the sort of successful, midcareer businessmen who are drawn to the rich quality of life on the North Shore. But these two are bound more by their unusual career path and its challenges than by proximity. Against fairly significant odds, both are trying to succeed at owning the two largest women’s professional sports teams in Chicago.
The main struggle? Getting people to come to games. As spring turned to summer, both teams were in the middle of their seasons, striving for wins every day. The Red Stars play in Lisle and the Sky at the Allstate Arena—but unless you have a daughter who plays soccer or basketball, you probably haven’t been to a game. First order of business for Whisler and Alter is to broaden their fan base. There’s probably a long road ahead.
Professional women’s soccer started in this country after the U.S. Women’s National Team won the World Cup in 1999 at a sold-out Rose Bowl. Riding on the enthusiasm of that World Cup victory, the first pro league started, only to fold three years later. The most recent formation is the National Women’s Soccer League, which began in 2013 and has nine teams, including the Red Stars.
“At the time, it seemed like a no-brainer,” says Whisler, talking about the first wave of players and fans. “We had a great deal of backing and enthusiasm. We had just finished a successful World Cup.”
The Women’s National Basketball Association has also faced obstacles. The WNBA started with eight teams in 1997, and expanded to 16 teams before settling at the more sustainable 12-team association of today. Alter got involved in 2005, when he paid a reported $10 million for the Chicago franchise rights and launched the team in 2006. “My original motivation was a strong feeling that Chicago, which is a great sports town, needed to be part of this league,” he says, talking about the WNBA. “We ought to be supporting it. That was the motivation at the beginning, and it’s still a large part of it.”
Alter is a lifelong Chicago-area resident. He started his career as a lawyer and eventually took over his family’s successful real estate development firm, The Alter Group. He runs the multimillion-dollar business in a Skokie office building that’s home to both companies.
Like Alter, Whisler’s decision to enter women’s professional sports came after many successful years in business. He was a Global Managing Partner with Accenture, but in 2005 was ready for a change. “After being on the road for 20 years, my wife and I decided it was time to do something completely different,” Whisler says. “We have three children and two of them were involved in soccer, which got me back into the game. At about the same time, two things happened: I realized that there weren’t many good role models for my young daughters, and I found out they were trying to relaunch the women’s pro soccer league.”
He laughs and adds, “I was looking for the next challenging thing.” When looking back at that early and optimistic time, Whisler, who originally had seven partners in the Chicago Red Stars, says, “I think some of the people who got involved at the beginning just weren’t prepared for how hard it is to try and do women’s sports in America.”
Ironically, part of the difficulty is the need to attract the male ticket buyer. “At the end of the day, men tend to buy the sports tickets,” Whisler says. “And if you’re not reaching and appealing to men, you’re probably not filling the stadium.”
The Sky’s season is getting a boost with the addition of the talented and gorgeous Elena Delle Donne, who at 6’5” is hard to ignore. “She’s a terrific ambassador for the team and the league,” Alter says.
For the Red Stars, breakout players like Christen Press certainly help, but the team relies more on the attraction of multiple Olympians and former players for the U.S. and Canadian national teams. “At the end of every game, you will meet every player,” Whisler says. “It’s like minor league baseball. We offer affordable family fun, but instead of minor league players, you have major league players. They’re the best players of their kind on the planet.”
But of course, this is Chicago, so the ultimate attraction is a winning team, and both teams are trying to bring home their first championship title this season. “We have high expectations for this year,” Alter says.
“Everyone who goes loves it,” Whisler adds. “It’s just getting them to go.”
TWO TO WATCH THIS SUMMER
A record goal scorer for Stanford University, Press was the PAC-10 Conference Player of the Year. Now a pro, she started with the Washington Freedom, and in 2013 she was the first American to win the Golden Boot award in Damallsvenskan for most goals scored. This Forward played over the winter in Sweden, and is returning to Chicago to play for the Chicago Red Stars.
Press says, “I’m very excited to be able to play in front of my family, friends and supporters back in the U.S. The Chicago Red Stars is a new adventure for me, and it’s great to be coming into a winning environment.”
Elena Delle Donne
The 2013 WNBA Rookie of the Year led the Chicago Sky to its first-ever playoff appearance last year, and more is expected this season. Delle Donne spent the winter on the North Shore training to get stronger, hosting clinics and leading the Sky’s charity and fan outreach. Last season, she finished with records for scoring and free throws. Watch for lots of net action from this strong returning player, because this girl is in it to win.
“It was great to be the first team in franchise history to make the playoffs, but we want more,” Delle Donne says. “We want a WNBA Championship, and we won’t stop until we get one.”