The WNBA's first season was characterized by stronger marketing than ballhandling -- and it wasn't a close contest. Even in Year 2, the league's snappy promotions earned better reviews than certain teams did. With the league's fan-oriented approach, along with the deep pockets of its parent the NBA, the WNBA filled arenas and won sponsors, even though the quality of play varied markedly from the remarkable Houston Comets to the hapless Washington Mystics.
This season, however, armed with an array of largely unknown players from the now-defunct American Basketball League, the WNBA promises to provide -- finally -- an on-court product that merits its fancy packaging. The WNBA drafted or otherwise acquired 37 players from the former ABL. Of the first 17 players selected in the spring draft, 15 came from the ABL. Most are expected to become starters or impact players in the 12-team league.
"The level [of play] will definitely rise," said former ABL and University of Virginia point guard Dawn Staley, whom the Charlotte Sting drafted sixth overall. "If you're not a fan of women's basketball after this season, we give up hope. You're going to see the best."
The new players are expected to provide polish to the WNBA product, which has everything the NBA has -- from big-time arenas to Saturday afternoon games on NBC -- except for universal acceptance of its game and athletes. The WNBA dreams of becoming the first women's professional basketball league to achieve financial stability in the United States. Thirteen women's pro leagues in the U.S. have failed in the last 23 years, according to WNBA researchers.
The average sports fan likely will be unfamiliar with many of the ABL newcomers, except for Staley and a couple of others who played for the 1996 gold medal Olympic team. ABL players received little national television exposure and attention outside the small markets in which their teams played. As a result, the most recent ABL most valuable player -- 6-foot-2, 200-pound center Natalie Williams -- has about as much national name recognition as your local mail carrier.
The ABL, which always billed itself as the "players' league" and lured players with large salaries that eventually led to its demise, provided the NBA with an undeniable flood of talent. Consider: Former ABL players, including Williams, composed about two-thirds of the most recent U.S. women's national team roster, far outnumbering WNBA players.
Even WNBA President Val Ackerman, who has always defended the caliber of play in her league, acknowledged the significance of this talent infusion.
"As the novelty of the league wears off, as curiosity about our NBA association fades, and as we become even more reliant on having a good product, then having the best players becomes vital," Ackerman said.
The talent boost couldn't have come at a better time. All but one of the WNBA's dozen sponsor agreements expire at the end of this season. Only one company, Sears, has renewed its three-year sponsorship early. There was no mistaking the anxiety in Ackerman's voice as she talked recently about the coming challenges of soliciting sponsors' commitments.
"We think many of our existing sponsors will come back," Ackerman said. "But it's a tough process. . . . It's one of the most important processes we have at hand."
Sponsorship dollars, at this point, provide the major gauge -- along with attendance figures and television ratings -- of the league's success. An average of 9,669 attended WNBA games in its inaugural season and 10,869 attended last season, far exceeding the league's expectations. Television ratings have been less impressive, earning a 2.0 rating on NBC in 1997 and a 1.6 rating last season. For comparison, the first five weeks of this year's NHL playoffs earned a 1.5 rating. The average rating in the NBA regular season was a 4.3.
Sponsors provide the only source of income to the WNBA, which collectively owns the 12 teams and pays the salaries of all of its players. Individual teams keep their own gate receipts. The league's media partners, NBC, ESPN and Lifetime, do not pay television rights fees; they give the television time to the WNBA, which sells the advertising time and pays off what television-related expenses it can, according to Ackerman. Ackerman said several teams, which she declined to identify, broke even or made a profit last season because of spectacular attendance.
The league, however, wasn't close to breaking even.
"The operation of the league is coming at a huge cost to the NBA," Ackerman said. "For the foreseeable future, this league will continue to be an investment opportunity for the NBA."
The one expenditure the league has successfully reined in is players' salaries. In its first two seasons, salaries ranged from $15,000 to $62,500, with a handful of marquee players receiving about $200,000 to $250,000 in personal-service contracts. After the players unionized during the offseason, they won year-round medical coverage, but the minimum salary rose only to $25,000. The highest salaries are believed to be around $70,000.
Ackerman considers the WNBA's actions fiscally responsible, but some players consider them miserly or, even worse, unfair. In the ABL, players grew accustomed to salaries that averaged $80,000 and climbed as high as $150,000. With the ABL eliminated, players lost nearly all of their bargaining leverage.
"You see the NBA with an abundant cash flow, and then you look at the WNBA and say, `Okay, the stands are full at a lot of games, so where's the revenue?'" said Minnesota guard Tonya Edwards, the seventh overall draft pick from the ABL's Columbus Quest. "Without a doubt, the women are agitated about the salaries. But they are also looking to make sure the league grows properly. Hopefully, as time goes on, the salaries will increase."
Players and management seem to agree on one point: For everybody to make money, the WNBA must provide a great show for fans. The league this year instituted a ban on hand-checking that is intended to enhance offense. The ABL players, for their part, are expected to bring parity to the league. The Comets, the two-time WNBA champions, compiled a 27-3 record last summer. The Mystics were 3-27. In a late-season matchup between those teams, Houston won by 45 points. Non-competitive games usually make for bored fans.
Of course, the Mystics, the perfect model of the style-over-substance that characterized the first two WNBA seasons, drew a league-high average of 15,910 to MCI Center last summer.
Phoenix guard Michelle Timms predicted that this season would eliminate outrageously good and outrageously bad teams.
"It's ridiculous how close it's going to be this year," Timms said. "Who is going to win? I have no idea. Absolutely none at all. . . . Look at Utah, Sacramento and Washington. They all struggled last year. Now, on paper, they look as tough as Houston, Phoenix and New York."
Cynthia Cooper of the Comets won the league's first two most valuable player awards and led the league in scoring both seasons. This season, there are a handful of ABL acquisitions -- Williams, Staley, Edwards and Yolanda Griffith of the Sacramento Monarchs, to name a few -- who have their eyes on both distinctions.
Even the expansion teams, Minnesota and Orlando, are well-stocked. Minnesota Coach Brian Agler, who led the ABL's Quest to two straight league titles, had so much confidence in his former Columbus players, he drafted four of them and received another in a pre-draft allotment. His roster is thus filled with winning, veteran players.
"The balance of power is remarkable," said Detroit Sparks Coach Nancy Lieberman-Cline, whose team won 17 games last summer as an expansion team. "Orlando and Minnesota could contend. They are Cinderella, and the clock has not hit 12, and it won't hit 12."
More uncertain is whether the clock will strike midnight on the WNBA.
"We still have a long way to go toward winning over the general populace because there are so many pro sports leagues," said Maura McHugh, an assistant coach for Sacramento. "I think the league feels [the] pressure. What it all boils down to is dollars and cents."