The new Women's National Basketball Association already has gotten more than "next" in its debut season on national network and cable television. It's gotten far more viewers for the three games broadcast every week on NBC, ESPN and Lifetime than anyone had anticipated.

And now, perhaps the league will change its promotional slogan from "We got next" to "We got respect."

Certainly, the WNBA has gotten the attention of TV executives, sports marketers, corporate sponsors and advertisers and, most of all, fans, who have helped the league exceed all expectations. The WNBA has averaged crowds of more than 9,000 a game, including almost 17,000 to see ESPN's game between New York and Los Angeles at Madison Square Garden this past Tuesday night. And ratings also have been a pleasant surprise.

NBC, for example, has averaged about a 2.1 rating (each point represents 970,000 households) for its seven weekend games, slightly higher than NBC Sports President Dick Ebersol's preseason estimate of about 1.8. The NBA averaged 4.9 for its regular season games last season, but any comparison between the two leagues is specious at best, either on the court or in the Nielsens.

The women obviously do not play the same game, and their audiences also are different. With unprecedented marketing and promotional muscle provided by the NBA in launching its sister league, the WNBA has drawn more of a family crowd to arenas around the country. Fans are attracted by reasonable prices, competitive and usually fast-paced games and far more accessible athletes willing to stay long after the final buzzer to shake hands and sign anything placed before them.

Yes, there are more turnovers and sloppy play, but teams had only a two-week training camp to prepare. And when is the last time you saw a nifty pick and roll in the NBA, or a superstar make a backdoor bounce pass to a cutting teammate for an easy basket? Happens all the time in the WNBA, usually accompanied by smiles, not surly scowls.

"It's probably the first start-up league that will come out a tiny bit in the black for all of us, which has never happened before," said Ebersol, whose company has invested about $5 million in the WNBA. "It's been a happy marriage all around. And you'll see a whole new peak in the number when we do the final" Aug. 30.

NBC recently did an audience survey that indicated 42 percent of its WNBA audience is men 18 and over, 38 percent women 18 and over, 9 percent kids between 2 and 11 and 11 percent teenagers between 12 and 17. The average NBA game attracts 52 percent men 18 and over and only 30 percent women 18 and over.

"I think we're all thrilled by what's happened so far," said NBC analyst Ann Meyers, a former UCLA all-American who remembers playing in the old Women's Basketball League in the late '70s "when we were lucky to get 2,000 people to show up. The marketing of this league has been phenomenal. I've never in my life seen anything like it. It's almost been overwhelming."

The major challenge in broadcasting the new league has been to make the players more familiar to the audience. While the popularity of women's college basketball has increased dramatically in the '90s and the gold medal success of the U.S. team at the Atlanta Olympics also drew major attention last summer, many WNBA players are unknown or long forgotten. Some played college ball in the '80s and went overseas to pursue athletic careers; others went to smaller schools or played for weaker programs that rarely made it onto national TV.

NBC and ESPN, which also produces the Lifetime telecasts, specifically have tried to go more up close and personal, with far more player features. NBC producer Lisa Lax also has made it a point to position a camera across from both team benches to show the emotion generated by coaches and players on the sideline.

"I watched our coverage of the gold medal game in the Olympics last summer," said Lax, best known for her brilliant work producing Olympic features. "The facial reactions from the people on the bench were unbelievable and really enhanced the game. The women react a little more. You may not get the razzle dazzle, the slam dunks you see in the men's game, but you see great passing and teamwork, and the women really react to that."

All three broadcast entities are using women to handle game play-by-play -- Hannah Storm on NBC, Robin Roberts on ESPN and Michele Tafoya on Lifetime. That's three more women than have ever handled play-by-play at the network or major cable level over a full season of any sport on a regular basis, and a welcome development.

Last weekend on NBC, Storm proved she could fling cliches and jargon with the best of either sex. A woman who has spent most of her air time in the studio or on the sidelines, she's not yet close to being polished in this new role, but who cares as long as she gets a chance. Meyers, a longtime analyst for both men's and women's games, said her partner has improved dramatically since their opening game in June, and grows more comfortable and confident with each passing week.

"It's been interesting to see her improvement from game to game," said Lax. "We're both rookies and we've both learned along the way. It was tough because none of us really knew all the players in the beginning, and it's tough to do play-by-play in those conditions. {Storm} was just coming off the craziness of the NBA Finals. But she's become a real play-by-play person now. It's been a tremendous opportunity for a lot of women, and not just the players."

For that reason alone, the WNBA has been an unqualified success. They got next, and so far, they've got it going quite nicely, too.