The WNBA has basked in the spotlight in its inaugural season, making it seem like the first professional women's basketball success story in the United States. But although the first season of its cold-weather counterpart, the American Basketball League, went widely unnoticed, it apparently has the makings of a legitimate rival.
The ABL operates in eight smaller cities and had attendance figures considerably lower than the Women's National Basketball Association's in its first season, which ended in March, but the ABL attracted some of the best young talent out of colleges, signing the last two collegiate players of the year.
"There is no question about who has the better talent, the better salaries. We have investors. We have a lot of people interested in buying team operating rights. We're doing really well, especially at the local level," said Gary Cavalli, the president and CEO of the ABL.
Cavalli said he does not expect any defections to the WNBA, though the Los Angeles Times reported this week that three top ABL players, Philadelphia's Dawn Staley and Columbus' Nikki McCray and Andrea Lloyd, may jump ship.
Though the ABL seems to be taking incremental steps forward, including an announcement this week of a sponsorship between its Columbus franchise and a Midwestern-based bank, it has so far been unable to carve a niche in the public's consciousness.
"The WNBA has been more of a marketing success and the ABL more of a competitive success," said Marc Ganis, president of Sportscorp, a Chicago-based sports consulting firm.
And it's marketing that has given the WNBA a leg up on the ABL.
Unlike the WNBA, which has a 35-game television contract split among three national carriers, the ABL has scrambled for television attention.
The ABL has a contract with Black Entertainment Television for a game of the week, but BET is not available on all cable systems nationwide. League officials are negotiating with Fox Sports Net, an amalgam of regional sports networks, to revise the contract the league signed with Prime Sports, the forerunner of Fox Sports Net.
"Coming out of the gate, we felt good we had [Prime] and BET," said Cavalli. "We do want to add more coverage. If we don't over the next two or three years, we won't be in great shape."
Some network officials say the ABL doesn't have a national television contract nor the amount of sponsors of the WNBA because of the ABL's schedule.
The ABL operates from October to March, overlapping with not only the NBA, NHL and NFL, but also men's and women's college basketball.
The WNBA's attractiveness to the networks is a result of its non-traditional summer schedule, when most other major sports are in recess.
"TV windows are not available [during the winter]. The other major sports have a lock on the prime TV spots," WNBA president Val Ackerman said. "As a start-up league, you don't have that leverage."
Cavalli says that shouldn't be so.
"We believe women should have a legitimate stage on which to showcase talent," Cavalli said. "They're saying they are going to slot women when it's convenient."
Regardless, the ABL has been dwarfed by the WNBA, even though the ABL, which plays a 40-game schedule, pays its players much higher salaries than the WNBA, whose schedule runs 28 games.
Cavalli said the ABL pays an average of $50,000 to $150,000. The WNBA pays players an average of $10,000 to $50,000, according to a recent HBO "Real Sports" feature on the two leagues, though a few players, like Staley of the ABL and the WNBA's Rebecca Lobo and Lisa Leslie, make much more than the averages.
The ABL receives revenues from tickets -- whose prices, Cavalli said, average about $10 -- and sponsorships.
Nike spokeswoman Kathryn Reith said that although Nike is not currently an ABL sponsor, the company is "in conversation" with and "interested in" the ABL. Cavalli said that almost $10 million has been invested in the ABL by private investors.
But television money is the lifeblood of most sports leagues, and the ABL is no exception.
"I do believe we need better TV coverage," Cavalli said.
The ABL lost money in its inaugural season, and the WNBA is expected to do the same. Cavalli said that the ABL lost about $4 million in its first season and expects to lose up to $2 million next season, with a goal of becoming profitable in the third year.
Ackerman said financial figures for the WNBA are unavailable, but added her league will lose money.
"We don't expect the league to be profitable for a couple of years," Ackerman said. "It is part of the process of a start-up league. We look upon it as an investment. Our owners are willing to make the investment."
The ABL has plans for expansion, including a team that will begin play next season in Long Beach, Calif., increasing the number of teams in the league to nine. Cavalli said the league has an eye on markets like Washington, Dallas, Chicago, St. Louis and Long Island, N.Y., with a plan to add at least one franchise in the 1998-99 season and to reach 10 to 12 teams by 2000.
Pub Date: 8/12/97