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Sting Is Staying If Support Is There

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Charlotte's best professional sports team looks to repeat last year's championship runWhen the Charlotte Sting tips off its 2002 season June 1 against the Los Angeles Sparks, the question won't be whether the team will be fun and exciting. Given that all starters are returning from last season's Cinderella run to the Eastern Conference title and WNBA Championship Series, the Sting should be more than competitive.

The question is: Will there be enough support from season ticket holders and corporate sponsors to keep the Sting here beyond this season?

One of the eight inaugural teams when the WNBA began in 1997, the Sting is playing on borrowed time. WNBA officials have said they will let the Sting stay here without an NBA team in the city if the Sting can sell 3,000 season tickets and raise their level of local corporate sponsorship. The goal for the latter is a modest 10 percent, so it's really Sting ticket sales that will make or break the situation.

But less than two weeks before the team's home opener, the Sting had sold only a third of what it needs to remain in the Queen City -- about 1,000 season tickets. And time is running out.

"We have through the second week of the season (about mid-June); we need to create a sense of urgency," says Sting Director of Business Operations Felicia Hall. "'Save the Sting, Purchase tickets' " that's our focus."

What amazes me are the team supporters I run into who either haven't heard the team has a chance to stay or simply don't understand the importance of buying season tickets. Season tickets are the lifeblood of any sports franchise. They're the money in the bank that allows you to operate the team, and are the best gauge of fan commitment. Plus, the cost for Sting season tickets is affordable. To give you an idea, for $272, you can sit fewer than a dozen rows from courtside for the home season, 16 games. And there are plenty of other good seats, not much farther from the court, for less.

Many fans assumed that since the Hornets are gone, the Sting would automatically leave after this season. Not true. The WNBA is using Charlotte as a test case, to see if it can become a model for a WNBA city without an NBA team.

"The national spotlight is on Charlotte," Hall says. "We would love for Charlotte to be the prototype for so many other cities that want to get in the game. We can be a gateway."

This summer, the WNBA will be running the Sting, not the Hornets, providing help with ticket sales and promotions. This is not a big leap, given that the WNBA/NBA owns all 15 WNBA teams. If the Sting can reach the benchmarks to stay here, the league will be looking for a marketing group to operate the team.

In the meantime, the Sting hopes to pick up where it left off last year. It opens the season at 8pm, June 1 on national TV (ESPN) against LA, which trounced Charlotte 82-54 to win the WNBA title last September in LA.

"We want to establish from the start that last season was not a fluke -- that we're a team to be reckoned with," says forward Charlotte Smith, who well remembers losing the best-of-three championship series 2-0.

Says Sting Head Coach Anne Donovan, "We want to set the tone right off the bat. It will be LA's third game when they play us. They won't have the jitters, but the last time they were in Charlotte (in the championship series), we had the game in hand and let it slip away. We look to win this one."

Not only do all starters return from last season's Eastern Championship team, second-year center Tammy Sutton-Brown is expected to be a more consistent force in the paint.

"Our biggest challenge last year was that we didn't have a beast inside," Smith says. "We need a banger to compete with people like Yolanda Griffith, Natalie Williams and Lisa Leslie. I think Tammy has gained a lot of experience. She's looking great. She's finding a way to shoot with people hanging on her arms."

Guard Kelly Miller also is showing the potential that was hoped for last season when she was the team's top draft pick (second overall). She will likely see more time backing up leading scorer, and Charlotte native, Andrea Stinson at shooting guard. In the team's only preseason game in Charlotte, Miller scored eight of the team's first 11 points and finished with 15, including three-of-seven three-pointers.

"She's shooting the ball extremely well, with confidence, and isn't rushing her shot nearly as much as she did last year," Donovan says. "She has really matured."

The Sting's strength is its backcourt, provided point guard Dawn Staley's knees hold up. She didn't play most of the preseason because they were bothering her. If she's out, Keisha Anderson is her likely backup. Anderson has had a "solid training camp," Donovan says. Tonya Edwards, another back-up point guard, has been battling a knee problem as well.

The biggest challenge for the Sting will be reserve play in the post, or center position. The team traded reserve center Clarisse Machanguana to Orlando to gain the opportunity to draft point guard Sheila Lambert, a rookie out of Baylor. The move was controversial because Lambert currently has a broken right ankle and won't even practice with the team until July.

"We gave up the security of 'Mach' in the post," Donovan says, "but we can make up for what Mach provided. There is such an up side with Sheila Lambert. That kid will be one of the best players in the league. She's worth the wait. The trade also made us younger as a team."

The Sting drafted five-foot, seven-inch Lambert seventh overall. She led Baylor in scoring, assists and steals in her junior and senior seasons, and was a Kodak All-America selection this spring. Baylor finished the 2001-2002 season ranked Number 7 in the Associated Press national poll. Yet at best, the Sting expects Lambert to play "late in the season," Donovan says. "We are not going to push her by any means."

In compensating for Machanguana, the Sting are looking to Summer Erb and Shantia Owens to provide key minutes off the bench. Six-foot, six-inch Erb, who played behind Machanguana last year, is a wide body in the paint. Owens, at six-foot, four-inches, is more agile but missed last season for personal reasons and has had knee problems.

"We've got to continue to develop our depth at the post," Donovan says.

The Sting believes they have one back-up spot plugged, though. Erin Buescher is expected to be first off the bench when forward Charlotte Smith needs a break. Last year, Smith and Shalonda Enis shared the position, but Enis is out indefinitely after giving birth May 1 to a son, Chance. The Sting obtained the six-foot, two-inch Buescher in a draft-day trade that sent guard Shaunzinski Gortman, a rookie out of South Carolina, to Minnesota and brought six-foot, three-inch forward Maylana Martin to Charlotte. Martin was competing for a spot with the Sting as this story went to press.

So, if Staley's knees cooperate, Sutton-Brown is strong in the paint, and the other starters -- Stinson, Smith and forward Allison Feaster -- play as they did last year, the Sting will razzle-dazzle fans at the Charlotte Coliseum this summer.

But just as the starters need strong back-up from the reserves during the fast-paced, 32-game season, they also have to have support from the fans. Some 16,132 poured into the Coliseum for the championship series game in Charlotte last August, the last time the Sting played at home. The team would like to see such crowds again, but most of all, it needs only a fifth of that number to buy season tickets to keep the Sting here. It seems so little to ask. *

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