Minutes after the Women's National Basketball Association wrapped up its inaugural player draft in Secaucus, N.J., the American Basketball League, the only other women's professional league in the United States, raised the stakes.

Before the microphones in the Secaucus studios had time to cool, ABL co-founder Gary Cavalli was in front of his own mike in Hartford, Conn., announcing to a national audience that the ABL had beaten out the WNBA for University of Connecticut center Kara Wolters.

The timing of the news conferences last Monday was strikingly illustrative. While the two new women's leagues fight to get off the ground, they are also fighting each other -- for players, attention and marketing dollars. At the corporate level, the ABL and WNBA are entwined not in a spirit of sisterhood, but in a fierce competition.

It's a telling development considering no professional women's basketball league has yet survived in the United States. "Hopefully it won't hurt women's basketball overall," said Katrina McClain, a 1996 Olympian who recently signed with the ABL's Atlanta Glory. "What makes me kind of fearful about the whole thing is, with basketball in the summer and the winter, we're throwing a lot of {women's} basketball at the public."

The competition has grown more pronounced as the WNBA, backed by the considerable marketing muscle of the NBA and a network television deal, approaches its June 21 launch. With the WNBA climbing into its ready-made spotlight, the ABL -- which holds its draft Monday -- seems to be on the attack.

Spending far more on salaries than the WNBA, the ABL has landed most of the big-name college graduates in recent weeks, its most significant signing being Naismith Award winner Kate Starbird of Stanford, who signed with the Seattle Reign. After losing $4 million in its first season, the ABL has vastly increased its talent for the start of its second season in the fall.

While WNBA head Val Ackerman tried this week to move away from combative statements, saying the two leagues are "complementary," Cavalli has occasionally sounded like a Pepsi executive who just stole a few market-share points from Coca-Cola.

"It's been very stressful," Cavalli said. "For every top player signed, it's been a battle going up against the most successful, prestigious basketball machine in the world."

Hall of Fame player Nancy Lieberman-Cline, who will play for the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury, does not share Cavalli's feelings -- but she understands them. The WNBA has not had to work for exposure. Its "We Got Next" ads have appeared during every NBA broadcast on NBC since March 9, and all 29 NBA teams have aired the ads on team television and radio broadcasts.

Eventually, Lieberman-Cline said, she expects the leagues will merge. "It's David and Goliath," she said. "The WNBA feels it can take its time and build a foundation for the long term. I think the ABL has to be a little more aggressive in its approach."

It has been. Pointing out that the ABL has landed stars such as Georgia's La'Keshia Frett, Alabama's Shalonda Enis, Florida's DeLisha Milton, Notre Dame's Beth Morgan and Georgia's Kedra Holland-Corn, Cavalli said during last Monday's conference call:

"I wouldn't go so far to characterize it as a landslide. . . . {But} we identified 13 players out of college we felt we should have. . . . Of the 13 we identified, we signed eight. The WNBA signed three."

Cavalli added that, of the two remaining targets, (Clarisse Machanguana of Old Dominion and Katryna Gaither of Notre Dame) he was confident the ABL would win both.

Players say they are signing with the ABL because of the quality of competition, the timing of the season and the places the teams play. Wolters, who signed with the New England Blizzard, said the biggest factor in her decision was staying at home and playing in front of Connecticut fans. The bigger salaries also have been an enormous lure for the ABL.

The top ABL players, such as Starbird and Wolters, will earn $150,000 in base salary next season -- a $25,000 increase from the league's first 40-game season. The ABL's minimum salary, $50,000, is still more than the $37,500 that will be paid to the top three picks in Monday's WNBA draft: USC's Tina Thompson and Pam McGee, and Stanford's Jamila Wideman.

WNBA salaries decrease through the rounds of the draft, with fourth-round picks such as George Washington's Tajama Abraham earning $15,000. The WNBA says it is striving to keep salaries under control. It also touts the substantial number of overseas players it has attracted to play alongside U.S. stars Sheryl Swoopes, Rebecca Lobo, Lisa Leslie and Lynette Woodard. Players have chosen the WNBA for its apparent security, shorter season (which allows players to hold other jobs) and the guaranteed exposure. "With the NBA backing, you can't go wrong," said Virginia's Tora Suber, a first-round pick of the Charlotte Sting.

McClain, who was wooed by the WNBA before choosing the ABL, said she was pleased the ABL has signed the "better athletes." Even that, however, struck her as possibly problematic for both leagues.

"Who knows?" McClain said. "The caliber of play may not be the same in the summer {in the WNBA}. When people will see it on TV, they may watch it and say, Hmm, it's not all that good,' and all of a sudden you get to the fall league {the ABL} and they don't want to watch anymore."

Ackerman seems unconcerned by the ABL's recent signing blitz. Perhaps that's because, with the NBA firmly behind it, the WNBA does not need to get unnerved about anything. Games will be shown three times a week on national television. The WNBA has seven national sponsors, according to Ackerman, and is expecting to announce two more.

Whereas ABL games were televised on SportsChannel regional cable and Black Entertainment Television, which reach a total of 66 million homes, the WNBA has much wider exposure on NBC (which will have a game of the week) as well as Lifetime and ESPN, which reach more than 130 million homes.

Is it any wonder you couldn't find ABL scores on SportsCenter? "We believe we are excellent shape to present women's basketball like it has never been presented before, and to create the strongest possible foundation for the league," Ackerman said. "We know it's not going to happen overnight."

Added Ackerman, delivering a gentle dig to the ABL: "We don't believe high salaries and high debt will be a formula for the long-term success of a sports league."

The WNBA will play a 28-game schedule during a two-month season this summer, the least active time on the sports calendar. The ABL's 40-game season took place last fall and winter. Also, while the WNBA has franchises in large-market NBA cities, the ABL put its franchises only in smaller cities, careful to select regions it believed would be receptive to women's basketball.

Though it averaged 3,536 fans per game -- slightly above the preseason projection of 3,000 -- and still suffered $4 million in losses last year, the ABL was recently fortified by $6 million from a new group of investors and has expanded to a ninth city, Long Beach, Calif.

"I think there's enough talent to fill both leagues, but I just don't know if there's enough financial support," said George Washington Coach Joe McKeown, who turned down an offer to coach the WNBA's New York Liberty. "Can both leagues survive for five or 10 years, or merge? Those are questions. But {having two leagues} keeps people seeing women's basketball and helps promote the league."

Just about everyone involved, including Ackerman and Cavalli, acknowledges the problems created by two leagues making their forays at the same time.

"It would be great if we could merge and have one big league -- a women's dynasty," McClain said. "{But} you can't worry about it. You just have to give all you've got and pray it continues to work." CAPTION: COMPARING THE LEAGUES AMERICAN BASKETBALL LEAGUE Dates of Season: Mid-Oct. to March Length of Season: 5 months Minimum Salary: $40,000 Maximum Salary: $150,000 Average: $80,000 1996 U.S. Olympians: Teresa Edwards, Jennifer Azzi, Katy Steding, Dawn Staley, Nikki McCray, Carla McGhee, Venus Lacy, Katrina McClain. 1995 All-Americans*: Saudia Roundtree, Kara Wolters, Jennifer Rizzotti, Kate Starbird, Tanja Kostic, Kate Smith, Shalonda Enis, Angie Potthoff, Sheri Sam, Shannon Johnson. 1996 All-Americans*: Kate Starbird, Kara Wolters, DeLisha Milton, Clarisse Machanguana, Shalonda Enis, Kedra Holland-Corn. National TV Exposure: SportsChannel, BET Corporate Sponsors: Reebok, Lady Footlocker, Nissan, Phoenix Home Life Mutual Insurance, Baden Sports Inc., First USA Bank. Average Attendance: 3,536. Financial Backing: Private investors. Playing Rules: Same as women's college except -- six fouls, four 10-minute quarters, five-minute OT, 25-second shot clock. Franchises

Seattle Reign

Portland Power

San Jose Lasers

Colorado Xplosion

Columbus Quest

New England Blizzard

Richmond Rage

Atlanta Glory

New ABL franchise: Long Beach

(no name yet) WNBA Dates of Season: June 21-Aug. 30 Length of Season: 2 months Minimum Salary: $15,000 Maximum Salary: $50,000 Average: Not Available 1996 U.S. Olympians: Sheryl Swoopes, Lisa Leslie, Rebecca Lobo, Ruthie Bolton-Holifield. 1995 All-Americans*: Vickie Johnson, Debra Williams, Michi Atkins, Wendy Palmer. 1996 All-Americans*: Tamecka Dixon, Tina Thompson, Kim Williams. National TV Exposure: NBC, Lifetime, ESPN Corporate Sponsors; General Motors, Sears, Lee Jeans, Bud Light, Champion, Spalding. Average Attendance: Not Available. Financial Backing: Franchises owned jointly by existing 29 NBA teams. Playing Rules: Two 20-minute halves, a 19-9 three-point line, 12-foot lanes, 30-second shot clock, six fouls. Franchises

Charlotte Sting

Cleveland Rockers

Houston Comets

Los Angeles Sparks

New York Liberty

Phoenix Mercury

Sacramento Monarchs

Utah Starzz *Players named first-,second-, or third-team Associated Press all-American. CAPTION: The superstars of the Women's National Basketball Association that starts play in June: Sheryl Swoopes, left, Rebecca Lobo and Lisa Leslie. CAPTION: Richmond Rage's Adrienne Goodson drives past Jennifer Rizzotti of the New England Blizzard.