Mark Davis put his money where his mouth was when it came to the WNBA.
After spending the last few years telling Las Vegas Aces executives what they really ought to be doing with their franchise – paying the players more, for starters – the Raiders owner has bought the team. His purchase of the Aces from MGM Resorts was approved by the WNBA’s Board of Governors on Friday.
“I’m just excited as hell to get into the future,” Davis told USA TODAY Sports. “I believe women today are going to be the driving force throughout not only sports, but the economy and everything else. I just think it’s time for women. And I’m proud to help, any way I can.”
Davis is hardly the first NFL owner with multiple teams. Stan Kroenke owns the Los Angeles Rams, Denver Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche, Colorado Rapids and, much to the ire of English soccer fans, Arsenal. Clark Hunt owns the Kansas City Chiefs and FC Dallas.
But Davis’ decision to purchase a WNBA team is the latest indication of the growth potential of women’s sports.
When Atlanta Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler became irredeemably toxic to the league, LeBron James was among the deep-pocketed celebrities who expressed interest in buying the WNBA team. Naomi Osaka (North Carolina Courage) and Serena Williams (Angel City) recently purchased stakes in NWSL franchises, as did Patrick Mahomes’ fiancée, Brittany Matthews.
In a year when almost every sport had steep declines in ratings, both the NWSL and WNBA saw theirs rise significantly. And the NWSL was able to add three new national sponsors in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Anything I can do to grow the game and grow the respect for women in the world of sports, I’m happy to do it,” Davis said.
“It comes down to economics, where the disrespect is,” he added, mentioning the challenge of maintaining the general public’s interest in years without an Olympics or World Cup to put women’s sports front and center.
“The business model of the WNBA – they’re still alive, so you can’t knock the business model all the way. But at the same time, there’s not a lot of profit being made and salaries aren’t rising. That might be what we can do in next 25 years. Hopefully sooner.”
This is not some lark for Davis. Or a way to make it seem as if his Las Vegas Raiders – and the NFL by extension – “care” about women. His interest in women’s basketball is deep-rooted, going back to his father, Al Davis.
The elder Davis knew women’s basketball “like he knew football,” his son said, which is to say a lot. He knew and followed the top teams and coaches – Geno Auriemma was a favorite – and that interest rubbed off on his son.
“It’s a more technical game that the women play,” Mark Davis said. “They have to utilize all the skills of basketball because they’re not dunking. The NBA has become a 3-point game. Half the teams don’t even use centers anymore.
“That’s the allure to me, it’s back to the old-school strategy.”
The Raiders returned to Oakland from Los Angeles before the WNBA began in 1996, and the league has never had a team in the Bay Area. (The rival American Basketball League had a team in San Jose, but the league folded midway through its third season.)
When MGM Resorts purchased the WNBA’s San Antonio franchise and moved it to Las Vegas before the 2018 season, Davis became an immediate supporter. Though the Raiders would not move to Las Vegas until after the 2019 NFL season, he purchased Aces season tickets – courtside, no less – and made as many games as he could.
Davis’ seats were next to Bill Hornbuckle, president of MGM Resorts, and Davis admits he wasn’t shy about offering his thoughts on how to improve the Aces. Finally, Hornbuckle suggested that if Davis was so interested, he should buy the team.
“I laughed,” Davis said, “but a week later he called me and said, ‘I was serious.’”
Details of the sale were still being worked out when the pandemic hit. While the WNBA’s decision to play the 2020 season at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, meant there was less immediate need to get the sale done, negotiations continued.
After the season ended – the Aces lost to Seattle in the WNBA Finals – Davis reached out to A’ja Wilson, the reigning MVP and Las Vegas’ cornerstone. She met him in Los Angeles when the Raiders played the Chargers, and Davis said he outlined his vision for the team to her.
“(I wanted) to find out if she’d accept me as the franchise leader,” Davis said. “She gave me the seal of approval, and that meant everything to me.”
Much like when he inherited the Raiders, Davis plans to take time to observe the current management and coaches before making any changes. Eventually, though, he would like to see the Aces leadership reflect the team’s diversity.
Work has already begun on a new, 45,000-square-foot training facility adjacent to Raiders headquarters in Henderson, Nevada. It will have two full-size courts, locker rooms and training facilities – “Everything they need to create a home for them” – and Davis expects it will be finished by March 2022.
The 80,000-square-foot building also will house the Al Davis-Eddie Robinson Leadership Academy. Originally imagined as a means of addressing the NFL’s shameful record on diversity in the coaching and executive ranks, Davis now envisions it as a place to provide mentoring and leadership training, too.
Its first three board members are Yankees Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson; Tommie Smith, whose one-fisted salute on the medals podium at the 1968 Olympics has become an iconic symbol of athletes’ social justice efforts; and Stedman Graham, an entrepreneur and leadership consultant better known as Oprah Winfrey’s longtime partner.
“One of the free agents, who I was helping recruit, asked about mentorship (opportunities). I told her, ‘Absolutely, that’s what we’re all in for,’” Davis said. “… The synergy on Raiders Way is going to be a hotbed for change.”
For the Aces and, hopefully, all of women’s sports.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.