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Sparks to be sponsored by coalition of veterans group, county and state mental health agencies

Sparks to be sponsored by coalition of veterans group, county and state mental health agencies
The Sparks' Candace Parker shoots against the Lynx's Maya Moore during a game in August. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The suicide rate is higher among female veterans than male veterans. So is the homeless rate.

It is easy for a sports team to honor veterans, to provide them with a free ticket and a standing ovation. It is more challenging to provide them with resources to impact their daily life, particularly with respect to female veterans.

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“Women veterans don’t easily identify as veterans,” said Ruth Wong, director of the Los Angeles County Dept. of Military and Veterans Affairs (DMVA).

“Many times, women don’t give themselves credit for serving in the military unless they’ve gone to combat, unless they’ve carried a weapon, unless they’ve been in an actual wartime scenario. Therefore, they’re not going to seek the same services and benefits that men do when they return to their communities.”

In an effort to publicize those resources to the women who might need them, the county DMVA has joined county and state mental health agencies in committing close to $1 million to sponsor the Sparks during the coming season.

The sponsorship is the second largest in the five years the Sparks have been owned by investors who include Mark Walter, the Dodgers’ chairman, and Magic Johnson, a Dodgers co-owner and the Lakers’ president of basketball operations. The funding comes from taxes assessed under Prop. 63, the 2004 Mental Health Services Act.

When Bumble, the women-first dating and networking app, wanted to use sports to reach a female audience, the company signed a sponsorship deal with the Clippers. The Clippers’ fan base is 35% female, team spokesman Chris Wallace said. The Sparks’ fan base is 49% female, team president Danita Johnson said, albeit with a smaller base.

“It’s the connection with the player,” Johnson said. “Teams may have a bigger audience, but our uniqueness is our team.”

In the WNBA, the average career lasts about 3 1/2 years, according to the players’ union. The minimum player salary is about $42,000, the average salary about $77,000, and players commonly make more money during the offseason by participating in foreign leagues. In order to do so, they leave friends and family behind, for months on end.

“It’s very similar to what happens with women in service,” Johnson said.

In addition to traditional sponsorship elements, including announcements on broadcasts and within Staples Center and gatherings of veterans at games, Sparks executives will meet with female veterans to discuss career transitions and professional development, and players will join with veterans to talk about topics including motherhood, wellness, homelessness, art, meditation and music.

Under Prop. 63, funding is specifically authorized for mental health programs designed for prevention and early intervention. Wong, an Air Force veteran, hopes the Sparks’ program can spark similar programs, in the Los Angeles area and elsewhere.

“This is a model that would help to prevent women from isolating themselves,” she said. “When people isolate themselves, they become depressed. That is one of the hallmarks of mental illness. We want to bring those people out from isolation and depression so they can integrate with their communities and fulfill their dreams.”

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