WASHINGTON - When Dawn Staley looks around at what the WNBA has wrought in its first four years, she is warily pleased.
The Charlotte Sting point guard, who will spearhead the U.S. Olympic team in Sydney this fall, sees the growth and progress of the league as signs that the game is beginning to cement its place in the American sports lexicon.
However, to Staley's mind, there are nagging signs that things aren't as rosy as they could be.
"We have some great individual players in the league, and their contributions are shown in the statistics," Staley said Saturday before the Sting beat the Washington Mystics at MCI Center.
"But, overall, we're moving away from the team concept and more to exploiting players. For the league to grow, you have to have a mixture of both to see the beauty in women's basketball. The basketball has got to get better. We have to rise to the challenge. We just can't be satisfied with maintaining. We have to push to another level."
In a certain sense, the WNBA, which stages its second All-Star Game tonight in Phoenix, has met a level that few in the sport would have foreseen at this point.
"We're ahead of schedule on many fronts," WNBA president Val Ackerman said. "Women's professional basketball has made a stronger impact at an earlier point than we had envisioned. We continue to be optimistic that the growth will continue."
The league is averaging about 8,500 fans, more than twice the 4,000 that WNBA officials projected in its first season.
With the American Basketball League out of the picture since it folded over a year ago and most of its star players now in the WNBA, the remaining league has doubled in size, from the eight teams that started out in 1997 to the current 16, including a whopping four-team expansion for this year.
Of the four new teams (Seattle, Portland, Indiana and Miami), three are drawing about the league average, while Indiana's 11,000 average is fourth-best in the league. Ackerman said, however, there will be no expansion for next year.
Also, the league's ratings are up 6 percent from last season on NBC, one of three national television carriers, traffic on its Web site has tripled over its life span and the players are heavily marketed and promoted, thanks in large part to the NBA, which owns the franchises and farms out the daily operation to NBA teams in those cities.
"The WNBA has done a really good job of promoting the league," said Washington guard Nikki McCray, who, like Staley, will be on the Olympic team. "All during the NBA Finals, they kept people aware of what we do, and the global tour has kept up exposure throughout the world."
But there are also clear markers that the WNBA's early progress has slowed, if not flat out stopped.
Attendance, for instance, though double the original projection, is down 12 percent from a similar period last season, and off 21 percent from the high-water mark of 10,900 in the 1998 season.
The turnstile count is down in all but one of the 12 pre-2000 expansion cities, and in the case of Orlando, which leads the Eastern Conference at the All-Star break, attendance is down 3,000 fans a game.
In Los Angeles, Utah and Charlotte - three charter franchises - attendance is below 6,000 per game, and there are rumors that any of those teams as well as the Detroit franchise could be moved to other NBA cities.
In addition, ratings are down 31 percent on ESPN and Lifetime, and it is difficult, if not impossible, to hear talk about the league on sports talk radio or to see highlights on many sports news shows.
On the court, there are complaints that play is ragged and that officiating is inconsistent.
"The one thing I'd like to see us change is the ability to finish plays," said Houston coach Van Chancellor, whose Comets have won all three WNBA championships. "I mean, we get chip shots inside, we get basketballs inside and I'd like to see us finish off those plays. That will help our product and in term help out the league."
Said Staley: "To me, the game needs to be taught even on our level, and I don't think there's enough teaching. There has to be constant teaching because the fundamentals of the game are a lost art. You see it. We can hide it through athleticism, but you can definitely see it when there's a need to execute a certain play."
The reasons for the perceived retrenchment are as varied as the players, but one of the most prevalent is the relative immaturity of the women's basketball game as compared with more stable and enduring outlets such as the NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball.
"It's still very young," NBC analyst Ann Meyers-Drysdale said. "It's in its infancy, and I've said from Day One that I don't think until the 10th year will we have some stability. There's so much expectation because of what the first year presented. This league has to take a little bit of the lumps and go along with what people are saying."
Ackerman said she hears the talk, but she thinks the league is a victim of its own success.
"There are challenges now that we're in the operating stage, rather than the start-up stage," Ackerman said. "The game itself, which is really what we hang our hat on in the long term, is getting better and is certain to improve, and I don't think we've lost a step with expansion this year."
In the league's defense, Ackerman said the schedule started two weeks earlier than last year - during the week of Memorial Day - to accommodate the 30 WNBA players who needed time to train with their respective national teams for the Sydney Olympics.
Ackerman, herself a mother of two, said that start, coming before the close of school, hurt the WNBA, where 40 percent of its audience comes to games with a family member.
Even so, Ackerman said, the league is halfway to its goal of attracting 2.5 million fans this summer - the most for a women's professional league in any sport, and, as school has ended, she expects attendance to pick up.
Still, Ackerman called the situations in Los Angeles and Charlotte "disappointing" and said the league is trying to find ways to boost attendance there, but added that relocation is an option, albeit a "last resort."
As for the level of play, Ackerman said shooting percentages are up from last year and the talent base is growing.
Next year's draft is expected to be particularly impressive, as the collegiate senior crop is strong and the group of foreign players entering the league is reportedly good, headed by Lauren Jackson, a 6-foot-5 Australian who is expected to go first in the draft.
"As our league grows, we accept that the fans that come to us are going to be the concerned and not the curious. Our challenge is to maintain and grow that fan base," Ackerman said.