The Women Are Back In Town
by John Gettings
When the American Basketball League tipped-off its inaugural season in October of 1996, the critics laughed at the league's decision to run its games up against the NBA regular season.
Who's laughing now?
While NBA officials are hunched over meeting room tables trying to resolve their messy lockout, one of the country's two women's professional basketball leagues has suited up for its third season, proudly boasting —for at least the next month— that they're the only game in town.
More than 8,000 fans showed up for the ABL regular-season opener November 5 between Philadelphia and New England. The ABL and its rival, the Women's National Basketball Association, hope the NBA shutdown will mean higher attendance and television ratings in late 1998 and 1999.
Through two full seasons it's clear that the ABL is losing the popularity contest. The average attendance for WNBA games in 1998 was 10,869, more than double the ABL's 4,333 per-game average. More households have tuned into WNBA games thanks to a triple-team of coverage on NBC, ESPN and Lifetime.
The ABL On the Rebound
But the ABL is hoping to even the score. A pair of television deals with FOX Net Sports and CBS means more games will be nationally televised than ever before. And a scheduling change has the ABL finals happening after, not during, the wildly popular NCAA basketball tournament.
"We don't have players choking coaches. We don't have players on strike. We have players who love their fans — come out after the games and sign autographs, and are totally committed to the league…" said ABL co-founder and CEO Gary Cavalli to the media this preseason.
But holding on to those players has been difficult for the ABL. Tempted by more money and increased notoriety, former collegiate and Olympic stars like Nikki McCray (the ABL's 1996-97 league MVP) and Dawn Staley (two-time ABL All Star) have been lured away to the WNBA. Also, franchises in Atlanta and Long Beach failed and have been replaced this season by Chicago and Nashville — facts not easily forgotten by fans or league executives.
That's why the ABL is working hard this fall to get fans and sponsors interested in women's basketball. The league has nearly doubled its marketing budget to $5 million and has rolled out print and television ads in major U.S. cities. Season ticket sales are up 30 percent from last season and Cavalli is negotiating with Fox to get more games on the air while the NBA is MIA.
Last month Philadelphia Rage forward Teresa Edwards, the league's most recognized player, became the first active player in professional sports to be named to their league's board of directors, a move that Edwards hopes will have league executives talking like players.
"We believe in the ABL. We believe in this product. These are great players. We had an original concept. We are the first. I think we're the reason we have competition… I can't really find a negative. Even if you give me an obstacle, I'll have to find a way to knock it down or go around it. You know, until it's drop-dead gone, I don't see any reason to stop."
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TeamsChicago Condors, Columbus Quest, New England Blizzard, Nashville Noise, Philadelphia Rage, Colorado Xplosion, Portland Power, San Jose Lasers, Seattle Reign