Since the inception of the WNBA, the Los Angeles Sparks have been at the epicenter of the league's attention. The franchise, being one of the eight original teams, was founded in 1997 and has brought women's basketball excitement to the Los Angeles area for over 15 years.
Just like the Los Angeles Kings of the NHL, Lakers, and Clippers of the NBA, the Sparks call Staples Center their home. While the venue holds over 18,000 fans for a NBA, the Sparks list their capacity as 13,141 due to the upper level being closed. There have been times however, where sections of the upper level are indeed open to the public.
When the franchise began play, they opened at the aging Forum. The Sparks would play home games there for roughly four years prior to moving to the Staples Center in 2001.
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During a Sparks contest, the food selection is a bit more watered down than it would be for the Lakers, Clippers, or Kings. On the lower level, roughly 70% of the concessions were open while the upper level did not seem to have more than one.
I started off by checking out Camacho's Cantina, perfectly suitable for any team in Southern California. Here, they offered a carne asada or chicken burrito ($7.75), nacho chips with guacamole ($6.50), two soft tacos (carne asada or chicken for $7.75), the Camacho nachos ($8.50), a Camacho Bowl (choose a meat and up to five toppings for $9.50), or the tostada salad ($9.50).
At the stand known as "Big Dawgs," you'll find a variety of hot dogs that are better than you can find at any local ballpark. For $7.75, you can get the "BBQ Dawg" (all beef hot dog, classic potato salad, bbq sauce, pickle spears, and Tabasco red onions), "Deli Dawg" (Polish sausage, pastrami, sauerkraut, grated Swiss cheese, Russian dressing, and caraway salt), or the "Junkyard Dawg" (all beef hot dog, chorizo and potatoes, jalapeno jack cheese and sport peppers) among other options. Other side items at this stand include macaroni salad, cole slaw, or potato salad ($3.50), peanuts ($5.25), and the popcorn. The popcorn options are just phenomenal as you can get the regular ($4.50 for the normal size or $6.00 for bottomless souvenir size), kettle corn ($5.25), caramel corn ($5.25), or the zebra corn (with dark and white chocolate for $5.25).
If neither of these has generated an interest, you could stop by the California Pizza Kitchen. Here you can get cheese for pepperoni pizza for $8.75 (or a BBQ chicken pizza for $9.75). They also offer their Chinese chicken salad for $8.75.
Other options scattered throughout the arena included the patty melt ($8.75), turkey BLT ($8.75), veggie burger ($8.50), Italian grinder ($9.75), chicken tenders ($8.25), sloppy joe sliders ($8.75), chicken breast sandwich ($9.00), onion rings ($5.50), spicy chicken wings ($10.00 for a regular or $18.50 for the large bucket in BBQ, buffalo or teriyaki flavors), French dip ($10.25), pomodoro & carne de diavolo ($8.50), pasta alfredo ($8.50), "fork and knife" chili dog ($7.75), turkey sandwich ($10.75), pastrami sandwich ($10.75), italian grinder ($9.75), potato salad, cole slaw, or macaroni salad ($3.50), Sensible portions ($2.75 veggie straws, miner's gold, potato straws), candy $4.00, ice cream cup ($4.50), or a sorbet smoothie bar ($5.25).
The famous Wetzel's Pretzels also makes an appearance for $4.50 with non-fat, almond crunch, or cinnamon options. You can pick up a caramel dipping sauce for $1.00 as well.
Of course, there is also a McDonald's, which offers food that you cannot find anywhere else in America. If you must have this hard-to-find-food, you are going to pay a premium for it. Forget your dollar menu and check out some of these prices: medium drink ($4.75), shake ($4.00), ICEE ($4.25), Dasani bottled water ($4.25), Coffee ($3.50), large french fry ($2.80), salad ($5.50), quarter pounder with cheese ($4.00), crispy chicken ($5.00), 10-piece nugget ($4.80), parfait ($2.25), McFlurry ($4.00), or a sundae ($3.00). Oh, and if you want to make any one of your sandwiches a combo, add $5.75 to put your meal well above the $10.00 mark.
On the beverage side, you can get Coke products in the "regular" size for $3.75 or the larger size for $4.75. A rather reasonable deal is the bottomless soda for $6.50. Bottled water is $4.00 (thus cheaper than at the McDonald's stand) and vitamin water is $5.00. Not that you'd need it in Southern California, but coffee and hot chocolate is available for $3.25.
As for the older patrons, a regular domestic beer is priced at $8.00 (or a premium for $9.75) and a large domestic for $9.25 (or a premium for $11.00). Some of the beer options include Budweiser, Bud Light Lime, Blue Moon, Coors, Heineken, Stella, Corona, Amstel Light, Sierra Nevada, and Shock Top. There are also stands that offer large Coronas or Dos Equis for $13.00. Frozen margaritas and strawberry daiquiri can be had for $11.25, cocktails ($7.75, $8.75, $9.75 depending on the brand of liquor), and wine is $6.75 or $9.00, depending on the branding. There is even a gluten-free beer option for $7.00.
You'll find some more elaborate alcoholic options at the Harbor or Figueroa Bars found near each of the main entrances of the building.
Unfortunately upon arriving at the arena, I did not see a lot of indications that the Sparks were playing on this very night. No banners outside of the venue showed the Sparks' logo or colors.
The player introductions were rather entertaining and on par with any NBA team. The lights were dimmed, hip-hop music was played and there was a reception line for the players. I must say it was rather odd to see the players blowing kisses to the crowd on the video-screen.
Rather than a dance team, the intermission entertainment was the Sparks' Kids dancing and throwing out t-shirts. The Sparks' do not utilize the "Lights Out" campaign like their NBA-partner franchise, so everyone in the arena is visible at all times.
To begin the contest, the team has a tradition known as "Stand and Roar" where all fans make quite a bit of noise while standing until the first bucket is scored by the home team.
Some of the promotional contests included the oversized clothing race, t-shirt toss, and a singing contest to promote lung capacity (anti-tabacco). If there wasn't a promotional item, fans were treated to a bit of hip-hop music which had many of the fans up and dancing. During almost every break, the person with the microphone was definitely promoting the notion to come out and see the Sparks all summer.
I found the atmosphere very enjoyable. The pace of the game was much faster than that of a NBA game, so the fans were not bored with seemingly endless intermissions. While the fanbase was rather loud at times, I did find it a great way to relax and take in some basketball.
Over several years of stopping by the Staples Center, it is rather amazing how much the neighborhood has changed and developed. You hear of many development projects, but rarely do you see them come to fruition like this one. Sitting next to the convention center, the arena is part of the 4,000,000 square foot L.A. LIVE.
This area includes the Nokia plaza, which you'll often find filled with fans before or after the game with all sorts of newscasts and promotions going on. Not far away is the Nokia Theater which has hosted the ESPY Awards, American Idol, the Emmy Awards, and the MTV Music Video Awards.
Also nearby is the Grammy Museum, the Ritz Carlton and JW Marriott Hotels, a 14-screen movie theater, and the ESPN Los Angeles broadcasting studio,
Just across the street from the arena, you'll find one of the few remaining ESPN Zone restaurants. Here, you'll find a lot of your typical pre and post game fare, but what sets this venue apart is the sports arena, or arcade for adults.
Not far away is the Lucky Strike Lanes and Lounge. This spot is far from the grimy bowling lane you may have become accustomed to in the past. A rather upscale bowling alley, you'll find all of your favorite drinks here and comfort that few bowling alleys can offer.
Other notable spots nearby include Yard House (200+ beer options), Wolfgang Puck (contemporary bar and grill), Flemings (aim for the best wine and food pairings), Rock N' Fish (try the Navy grog and oak grilled artichoke), Rivera Restaurant (Latin), Farm of Beverly Hills, La Bella Cucina (informal Italian), Lawry's Carvery (known for its prime rib), Palm Restaurant (great seafood appetizers), or Katsuya (Japanese).
One of the Los Angeles food landmarks includes The Pantry or Cafe; Pantry. Fans of all walks love this place because they can get hearty meals 24 hours a day. In fact, they could have asked for a meal at pretty much any time over the past 88 years with the exception of one day (I'll let you do your own research on why it was closed that one day). Give yourself some time to check this place out as the lines often spill outside of the building and around the block. Please note however that this is a cash-only establishment.
Of course if none of this suits you, keep in mind that you are in downtown LA. Just minutes away, you can probably get your hands on any type of food you fancy.
I had some skepticism regarding the fans when I first arrived at the arena as there were only a handful of fans sporting the colors of the Sparks. It seemed more like a group of people seeking an entertainment option for an evening rather than a devout fan base.
This being said, I was rather surprised by the fan interaction throughout the game. I think the pace of the game was definitely conducive to the fan participation. When the Sparks' scored, thousands of younger female (or male) fans would scream with delight.
There was not a lot of jeering of the opposing teams, but there were definitely some "boo birds" when the officials made a call that favored the opposing team.
While many celebrities show up at several NBA games at the Staples Center, the Sparks games seem to cater to more of the everyday fans. Therefore the fans that do show up are much more likely to be particularly engaged.
Tickets for the Sparks are much more accessible for the everyday fan. The average fan can get a seat anywhere in the arena and even suite seating is widely available. I find going to a Sparks game very enjoyable because the Staples Center is not as crowded with fans or restrictions, so fans can really get to know one of the best arenas in sports.
The fan base is concentrated in the lower bowl as the upper bowl is typically closed to the fans. During the key contests, some sections of the upper bowl will be opened and fans can expect to find plenty of ushers around.
The Staples Center is located in the heart of downtown Los Angles, so it is relatively close to four of the major freeway, the 405, 110, 10, and 101. Unfortunately this is Los Angeles and at any hour of the day, these freeways could be significantly backed up, so leave plenty of time when traveling to the arena.
One of the beautiful things about the Staples Center is that the Pico Station is just a block from the arena and the 7th Street Station is just a five minute walk away. Visit the Metro's Trip Planner site to avoid traffic and parking fees when visiting the Sparks.
There are roughly 3,300 parking spaces at Staples Center and approximately 16,000 privately owned spots within a five to ten minute walk. The spots at Staples can be prepaid via the arena box office and Ticketmaster. Parking comes at a much lower price than the fees expected for Lakers and Clippers games. There are spots ranging from $3 to $10 (anything over $10 is far too much). I've even found free street parking if you are willing to walk a few more minutes. Luckily, the area has been vastly built up, so there aren't many rough areas around the arena any longer. Unfortunately tailgating is prohibited in all lots.
Once you arrive at the Staples Center, you will have to go through some metal detectors, so be sure that you pack light. This is one of the few arenas to use this practice, but is well worth it for the additional safety. Also be sure to review the Staples Center camera policy before bringing your camera as many have been turned away. As you pass through the detectors, you'll notice the immense size of the lobby, standing 85 feet high.
There are five open concourses in the arena and are extremely clean and spacious. If you have to leave your seat, you can follow the action on one of the 1,200 televisions set up throughout the arena.
The arena offers the 100 and 200 levels, both accessible via the street level. The three levels of suites, and the small upper level (300) are accessible via escalators that will take will take you up and down from the upper levels and unfortunately the size and speed of these create a backlog of fans. What I find most interesting about these escalators is that they slowly pass the club level, allowing the fans to peer in and gain something to aspire to. This model is the complete opposite of that of the Honda Center in Anaheim, where no escalators exist to get to the upper levels.
The club level offers 2,500 seats and 160 luxury suites. Fans will notice that most suites are on one side of the arena, allowing them all to have a great view when concerts are in town. Eight of the suites were converted into the Hyde Lounge in 2009.
This is one arena that you will not be sneaking down to a better seat. Security remains extremely tight in this regard. In fact, any time you are leaving your seat, be sure to have your stub ready because the usher will question you time and time again.
The restrooms are extremely spacious and look like they were constructed yesterday. These are kept in tip-top shape despite the millions of visitors that pass through them annually. If you notice a sizable line, take a lap around the arena and the crowds will have likely subsided.
On most gamedays, fans can walk up to the box office and purchase a ticket. The cheapest seats typically run $10-12, and the seats closer to the action run from $16-$55. The Sparks offer all sorts of multiple purchase incentives, so visit their website to check for any promotions before purchasing. I did also notice a significant inventory of tickets on third party sites and even saw a Groupon promotion in the days leading up to opening night.
Season tickets are extremely reasonable with the lowest at $128 and the highest at $720.
Parking is definitely on par with anything you would expect in downtown Los Angeles. I would expect to pay these rates on non-game days, so I have no problem with the current parking rates.
The concessions are a bit pricey, but again, no different from most food options in the area. In fact, food across the street at LA Live might just be more expensive than inside the arena.
Ultimately, a single fan can take in the WNBA action for less than $30 with everything included. It's a great value being in downtown Los Angeles, witnessing one of the greatest venues in sports, and watching WNBA action from one of the most notable franchises in the league.
While it may seem lost among all of the Los Angeles Lakers banners, the Sparks have also raised some memories as well. A single banner in the corner of the arena commemorates both the 2001 and 2002 WNBA Championships. Below that are the two retired jerseys of former Sparks players Lisa Leslie (9) and Penny Toler (11).
The concrete surrounding the Staples Center has silica carbide in it to give it a little sparkle and remind fans that they are in the home of the stars. In the plaza closest to the Nokia Theater, there are many bronze statues honoring some of the Los Angeles greats including Oscar De La Hoya, Wayne Gretzky, and Magic Johnson.
Every time I visit the Staples Center, regardless of my seating location, I always journey up to the 300 level and take in the moment on the balcony behind the Staples Center sign. Up here, you'll find some of the most passionate fans talking about their gameday experience. There are plenty of tables and chairs to sit down with your favorite beverage and before or during breaks in the game. If you go to the edge of the balcony, you have some great views of the plaza below, the Nokia plaza, and the Ritz Carlton hotel.
New in 2011 is the 4HD scoreboard above center court. Vivid color and crystal clear images allow fans in every section of the arena to know what's going on. Perhaps most impressive here is that there is no banner over the bottom of the scoreboard and fans in the lower section no longer have to cramp their neck to look up at the scoreboard. There are HD screens on the underside of the scoreboard so that fans and players can quickly take a glance up to see a replay or the score.
On the ground level, any fan can access a few of the additional items at the Staples Center. There is the Sports Museum at Staples Center, the Verizon Studio (get some free photos), Art of the Game Sports Art and Memorabilia Gallery, as well as an auction stand where you can bid on your favorite memorabilia.
You can really get a feel for the importance of the Staples Center as your walk through the concourse and you see some of the images on walls throughout arena commemorating the big events that have been held there, such as the NBA Finals for three consecutive years from 2008-10.
In 2009, both the arena and the office supply company Staples came into a lifetime agreement for naming rights, making the first such deal for a major market arena.
The nightly light show outside of the Staples Center makes it an extremely recognizable landmark for all of Los Angeles. From miles away, fans can spot the lights atop the arena.
While I've never been inside, the arena also offers the Grand Reserve Club. Not your typical stadium club, this area offers both indoor and outdoor fireplaces, a wine cellar, and a humidor with 36 drawers for cigars!
Staples Center was also the first arena in sports to become the permanent home of four professional sports teams. While the setting between a hockey game and basketball game are vastly different, the turnover rate to change one to another is rather impressive.
While the Sparks are likely the least known tenant of the Staples Center, they still provide an entertaining experience in Los Angeles. The NBA has been showing commercials of its stars stating "basketball is basketball" to rid the stigma that WNBA basketball is any less entertaining. Sure enough, after taking in a Sparks game, I was able to conclude that regardless of the gender of the athletes, it was still a very enjoyable experience from professional athletes.
The Sparks have signed notable players from Lisa Leslie to Candace Parker over the years, and always have been one of the more entertaining franchises in the WNBA. I hope that the team can continue to grow its fanbase and make the team a mainstay of the league.
Follow Drew's journeys through Southern California on twitter @Big10Drew.
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