When the Women's National Basketball Association begins its season today, players, coaches and executives will have more than the sweaty palms that go with opening-night jitters. Much more than the game is on the line -- and much more than the league.

The eight-team WNBA is better supported and better marketed than any women's pro league in history, with three television contracts, 10 big-name corporate sponsors and NBA backing. It's timely, too. Success enjoyed by female athletes at the Atlanta Olympics last summer created interest in women's sports that is so strong, the WNBA already has an entrenched competitor, the American Basketball League.

So WNBA officials feel the time is now, can be now and must be now. Failure of such a high-profile endeavor could set back the entire women's professional team sports movement.

"I'd be hard-pressed to say otherwise," WNBA President Val Ackerman said. "I can't imagine anything more we could throw at women's basketball. If this isn't a formula for long-term success, I don't know what is. . . . It was now or never from the NBA's standpoint."

Hopes are high. The ABL will expand to Long Beach, Calif., its ninth city, next season, and Ackerman said WNBA expansion is already "in the cards." Each WNBA team is sponsored by an NBA team, and Matt Williams, vice president of communications for Washington Sports, the company that runs the Wizards, said the Wizards are interested in sponsoring a team "as soon as next season."

Eighteen NBA teams showed interest in sponsoring WNBA teams last year, Ackerman said, and Washington, with its "strong management and new {MCI Center}, is definitely a place {the WNBA} will be looking at."

But first, the WNBA must complete its 28-game inaugural season, which runs through August and culminates with winners of the Eastern and Western conferences and the two teams with the next best records advancing to single-elimination playoff games.

Since the mid-1970s, five women's pro basketball leagues have folded. The WNBA will try to avoid becoming the sixth by keeping projections reasonably low and the rims high, unlike the now defunct Liberty Basketball Association, which featured rims lower than 10 feet, spandex uniforms and a miniature ball in 1991, its lone season.

"In order for the WNBA to succeed, it's going to take each and every one of the players to perform and play the game the way it should be played," New York Liberty guard Teresa Weatherspoon said. "We need to show the people that we are truly players who can get the job done."

The WNBA's attendance goal is 4,000 per game, sticking close to the 3,536 average the ABL had in its first season, and NBA arenas in which the teams play will offer limited seating. All 8,505 lower-level seats have been sold for today's opener between the New York Liberty and Los Angeles Sparks in Inglewood, Calif., (4 p.m., WRC-TV-4); the 9,000 upper-level seats will be curtained off.

There will be stars with season tickets just as in the NBA. The Los Angeles Lakers have Jack Nicholson; the Los Angeles Sparks will have Jodie Foster. The New York Knicks have Spike Lee; the New York Liberty will have Rosie O'Donnell.

Ticket prices will range from $150 for O'Donnell's court-side seat at Madison Square Garden (Lee pays $1,000 to watch the Knicks) to $5 for a seat behind the backboard to watch the Utah Starzz at Delta Center. The league's average ticket price is $14.54, nearly a dollar more than major league baseball's.

Millions can watch on NBC, Lifetime and ESPN or participate in what Ackerman called "unique promotional opportunities" throughout the nation. To reach its target audience of existing basketball fans, active women and children, the WNBA is promising camps, fans clubs, autograph sessions and radio shows.

"There will be no shortage of off-court activities -- we're a new league, and we need to be seen," Ackerman said. "The more exposure we get, the greater chance we have to reach fans. It will be critical to get that interest in our inaugural year."

With such emphasis on exposure, critics accuse the WNBA of shortchanging its product. Ackerman said the WNBA "was very lucky to sign" three of five starters from the 1996 U.S. Olympic team -- New York's Rebecca Lobo, Los Angeles' Lisa Leslie and the Houston Comets' Sheryl Swoopes (who is pregnant and will be out until August) -- but the ABL has eight of the team's 12 players. The ABL also has signed most of college basketball's elite, such as Stanford's Kate Starbird, the 1997 Naismith Award winner, and Connecticut's Kara Wolters, the Associated Press player of the year.

The WNBA boosted its rosters by attracting players from 14 foreign countries, allowing them to play in European and Asian pro leagues in the winter and the WNBA in the summer. But it's still losing ground to the ABL, which does not allow its players to participate in another league. WNBA contracts do not bar athletes from playing in the ABL, Ackerman said.

Salaries that range from $40,000 to $150,000, a six-month season and a 42-game schedule attracted players to the ABL. The WNBA's salary range of $15,000 to $50,000, 10-week season and 28-game schedule has been viewed as too paltry, despite the glitz of the WNBA and its summer slot, free of the heavy competition from professional basketball and hockey and college basketball that clogs the winter sports scene.

"We have the better players, but I wish them success," said former Olympic track and field star Jackie Joyner-Kersee of the ABL's Richmond Rage, who is careful to preach coexistence with the WNBA. At this point, merging is not on the agenda. "We both need to do well, not just for us, but for women's sports in general."

** WOMEN'S NATIONAL BASKETBALL ASSOCIATION CHARLOTTE STING: Three former North Carolina State teammates -- C-F Rhonda Mapp, C-F Sharon Manning and G Andrea Stinson -- have been reunited to make up the team's nucleus. G Tora Suber, a finalist for the Naismith Award last season at Virginia, leads a Washington area contingent that includes C-F Vicky Bullett (Maryland) and G-F Penny Moore (Stuart High School). CLEVELAND ROCKERS: G Lynette Woodard is returning after a five-year leave from organized basketball. She is the all-time leading scorer in women's college basketball with 3,649 points, a four-time all-American at Kansas and a former Harlem Globetrotter. Woodard will share the team's leadership role with Janice Lawrence Braxton, an all-American center at Louisana Tech in the early 1980s. G Jenny Boucek (Virginia) is a reserve. HOUSTON COMETS: Expected to be a top defensive club, Houston will be led by Tina Thompson, a versatile forward who can score from long range and provide defensive help down low. F Wanda Guyton, who averaged more than 14 rebounds per game in Italy last season, and F Tammy Jackson, with 11 years of professional experience, should provide ball control. When forward Sheryl Swoopes returns from maternity leave, she should provide a spark in the offense. LOS ANGELES SPARKS: Coach Linda Sharp, winner of back-to-back NCAA titles at Southern California in 1983-84, has a strong, physical front court led by 1996 Olympic team starter Lisa Leslie. At center is the tallest woman to play Olympic basketball, 6-foot-8 Zheng Haixia of China. G Penny Toler (St. Anthony's High School) is a local hero from her days at Long Beach State, and G-F Katrina Colleton (Maryland) will provide some defense. NEW YORK LIBERTY: C-F Rebecca Lobo, who rose to international stardom with the U.S. Olympic team, will use her size and blocking skills on the defensive end. Fellow Olympic gold medalist Teresa Weatherspoon, a nine-season veteran of Italian pro basketball, will provide experience and leadership on a team that includes F-G Jasmina Perazic-Gipe (Maryland) and G-F Kisha Ford, a Baltimore native who played at Georgia Tech. PHOENIX MERCURY: Two members of the Hall of Fame will lead Phoenix: Coach Cheryl Miller, three-time NCAA player of the year and 1984 Olympic gold medalist, and G Nancy Lieberman-Cline, an Old Dominion star and veteran of four pro leagues. Joining them will be high-scoring Australian star Michele Timms, who won a bronze medal in Atlanta, and F Monique Ambers, currently an assistant coach at George Washington. SACRAMENTO MONARCHS: Two Olympic gold medalists, G Ruthie Bolton-Holifield and F Bridgette Gordon, will lead a balanced team that likely will use an eight-player rotation. Two local centers who led their teams to the NCAA tournament, Denique Graves (Howard) and Tajama Abraham (George Washington), add size inside. UTAH STARZZ: Russia's Elena Baranova will play center and lead with the skills that made her the top rebounder at the Atlanta Olympics. G Dena Head, who led Tennessee to the 1991 NCAA title, was the first overall pick in January's WNBA Elite Draft and has played professionally for five years. F Wendy Palmer (Virginia), G Tammi Reiss (Virginia) and F-C Jessie Hicks (Maryland) round out the roster. CAPTION: LISA LESLIE CAPTION: Cheryl Miller won two NCAA titles and Olympic gold medal as a player, and now she's coaching Phoenix in WNBA. CAPTION: Denique Graves led Howard to two straight NCAA tournaments; now she'll help lead the Sacramento Monarchs, along with another local star, GW's Tajama Abraham.