RICHMOND, Va. -- In the beginning, there was the college game, which grew up in the 1970s, came of age in the '80s and reached the point in the 1990s where there had to be something more for America's best women's basketball players.
They had waited so long. Waited for the same post-collegiate opportunities that the top male players have taken for granted the past half-century. Waited and wondered if there would ever be enough money -- and enough fan support -- to sustain women's professional basketball in the United States.
That opportunity has arrived. The eight-team American Basketball League began play late in 1996 and the NBA-sponsored Women's National Basketball Association will begin play in June, but the hard questions still have not been answered.
Can the women's game create enough excitement in the male-dominated sports market to sustain itself at the professional level? And, perhaps an even tougher question: Can two women's pro leagues coexist without endangering the prospects for even one to survive?
Opinions vary, but everyone seems to agree that it is time to find out.
"That's definitely a concern," said Tammy Holder, general manager of the ABL's Richmond Rage, which appears to be headed for a second-place finish and a playoff berth in the ABL's Eastern Division. "It would be more of a concern if we were playing at the same time, but we're not. We're not playing at the same time. We're not playing in the same cities. And the two leagues have completely different mission statements."
The WNBA would appear to be better positioned to succeed, because it operates under the financial umbrella of the NBA, but the ABL already is up and running and has positioned itself in markets where it will face less competition from other professional sports.
"Certainly, there are areas where the WNBA will impact us, but you can't sit around and obsess about that," ABL co-founder and chief executive officer Gary Cavalli said from the league office in San Jose, Calif. "We think we have the right plan. We're playing at the right time of year. We've got 75 percent of the top players. Women's basketball is a great sport, and if we present it right, we'll do well."
The ABL plays during the traditional basketball season. The WNBA is scheduled to play in the summer, when it will have easy access to big-time basketball venues. The ABL has targeted second-tier sports markets like Columbus, Ohio, and Hartford, Conn. The WNBA will have teams in New York and Los Angeles. The ABL would like to cast itself as the faithful protector of the women's game. The WNBA is all dressed up and hoping to create a new image for the sport.
That much was obvious when the WNBA announced its first player assignments last week at the NBA studios in Secaucus, N.J. The league assigned two top-name players to each of its eight franchises during a slick television production that was more a reflection of the NBA's tremendous emphasis on marketing than on the growth of women's basketball.
"I think the easiest, simplest way to talk about the ABL and the WNBA is: The WNBA is a business and the ABL is a movement," said Jim Weyerman, general manager of the ABL's Seattle Reign.
The ABL is seeking to draw the core women's basketball following and then expand on that fan base. The WNBA hopes to lure the sport's traditional fans, but clearly intends to use the NBA's international clout and media connections to sell a slicker, more entertainment-oriented product.
The proof was in last week's production, which featured Olympian/fashion model Lisa Leslie and Olympians Rebecca Lobo and Sheryl Swoopes. All of them were carefully coiffed to break the tomboy stereotype that some feel limits the marketability of the sport.
"We're very focused on the quality of the product," said WNBA president Val Ackerman. "We want to have the best of everything."
Leslie has made it a personal crusade to change the perception of the female athlete. She starred at the University of Southern California and was one of the most prominent players on the gold-medal U.S. Olympic team last year, all the while dressing for success and stressing that traditional femininity and modern athletics are not mutually exclusive.
"I think it's important for girls to know that they don't have to look like boys to play like boys," she said.
She will get no argument from the ABL, which remains publicly supportive of the WNBA. But the two leagues definitely have different philosophical approaches. The ABL wants to be viewed as the no-nonsense league, where you don't have to dress up the game to lure people into the arena.
Holder smiles at the mental picture of Leslie and Lobo being primped by professional makeup artists in preparation for last week's WNBA media event.
"I don't feel we really have to do anything to make us up and dress us up," Holder said. "We're role models on and off the court. I just hope it doesn't get to the point where it's too much, where you have agents making all the decisions. I don't think our players want to get to that point either."
But neither has the ABL been reluctant to market its product. The league's Richmond Rage showcased Olympic track star Jackie Joyner-Kersee when it announced her signing in September. Joyner-Kersee was a reserve until deciding in early January to return to her track career.
The ABL is not a group of individual franchises. It is run by a single board of directors. The average player salary is about $70,000, and the players -- as a group -- hold a 10 percent ownership interest in the league.
The WNBA, which has yet to establish a salary structure, will start with eight franchises, all of which will play at NBA sites and be operated by the NBA franchise in each city.
For the moment, both leagues are on the same side of the gender gap, fighting to promote a sport that only recently has elbowed its way into the national sports consciousness. But already they are competing for players and media attention.
Though Cavalli expresses concern over the competition for sponsors and television time, he agrees with Ackerman that each league is making a contribution to the growth of the sport.
"There are some good things about having two leagues," Cavalli said. "Now, there are 160 great women basketball players who will have jobs in the United States where previously they might have had to go to Europe or give up the sport. Second, there are five different television networks that are going to be broadcasting games. We're on SportsChannel and BET, and they have NBC, ESPN and Lifetime. That's fabulous. There also are more jobs for coaches, assistant coaches and trainers.
"Then there are the complicating factors. There are sponsors, television networks and players who have to choose between the two leagues. Our focus is just to do the best job we can."
If the ABL isn't overly concerned about the possibility that the WNBA might drive it out of existence, there are fans who worry that one league will win the battle, but eventually lose the war.
"My fear is that this league won't make it," said Richmond Rage fan Beep Cutright, who has attended about half of the team's home games this year. "I'm afraid that when the WNBA starts, it will take away from this league's ability to make it. We [women] really need to have something. When I was a kid, there wasn't TC anything like this."
The NBA affiliation gives the WNBA instant credibility. The New York franchise will play at Madison Square Garden. The Los Angeles club will play at the Great Western Forum. But that may be a mixed blessing.
Big venues. Big women's hoop dreams. Risky business.
The ABL is thrilled to draw 6,000 fans to a game. That same crowd at the Garden is going to look like the cleaning crew. The WNBA plans to alter the configuration of the arenas to enhance crowd concentration, but the larger arenas still come with a larger responsibility to fill seats. Perception is everything.
Smaller ABL venues
"The premise of our league is that we will be associated with the NBA," Ackerman said, "so it's important to have access to the NBA facilities. We think that will be an important element of our success, but we're mindful of capacity and projected attendance, and we're working on downsizing the facilities."
That is not a major problem in the ABL. The medium-sized Richmond Coliseum is one of the larger venues, so a crowd of 3,000 does not look so sparse. The ABL averages about 3,500 per game, and, according to Cavalli, interest has increased as the inaugural season moves into its final weeks.
The New England franchise drew 11,800 to a game in Hartford last week, and the Colorado Blizzard had a crowd of 8,800 for its last home game.
Still, the league projects a loss of more than $4 million this year, and needs to cut into that deficit next season to remain viable.
"Our core audience are people who have been watching women's basketball for 20 years and waiting for a chance to bring their daughters to see a game like this," Weyerman said.
"Maybe in three years, there won't be room for that, but I think our league is much more about an emotional statement about women in sports in America than it is about professional basketball. I don't know if that will carry us forever, but we're going to keep the sport moving forward and see what happens."
Pub Date: 2/02/97