Nothing But Net (Profit)
In the second half of a horrendous game of professional women's basketball on June 29, a recording of Aretha Franklin's "Respect" blasted into the crowd that came out for the WNBA's New York Liberty home opener. Filled to near capacity with families, Madison Square Garden was rocking. The crowd roared as loudly for Aretha as it did for the occasional jumper or lay-up working its way toward the basket, or for a frequent turnover by the opposing Phoenix Mercury. By the start of the second half, the crowd still seemed unfazed by the teams' combined 25 turnovers and 21 fouls. With New York leading 25-22, it became one of the lowest-scoring halves of professional basketball ever played. Yet there was no lack of respect going around. In fact, it was unconditional respect, regardless of the ball-playing.After years of sending its best players overseas in leagues in South America, Europe, Turkey and elsewhere, women's professional basketball has arrived in the U.S. with not one but two organized leagues. The American Basketball League -- with a New England team, the Blizzard, that features a trio of former UConn stars (the WNBA has one -- Rebecca Lobo) and plays half its home games in Hartford (the other half in Springfield, Mass.) -- will begin training later this summer for the league's second season.The WNBA teams have yet to hit their stride. The short summer season has been designed so as not to compete with the boys, whose season begins in early fall. Already 10 games into its 28-game season, the WNBA may be shooting off-target. After watching the sloppy play of last month's Liberty home opener, one Connecticut reporter remarked, "The ABL has nothing to worry about."Nonetheless, the success of women's professional basketball in the United States may hinge on the success of the WNBA. With the marketing might of the men's NBA behind it, the eight-team WNBA has capitalized on a grassroots movements of women's basketball that crystalized during Huskeymania in 1995 when the women Huskies went undefeated. Their NCAA trophy became a landmark victory for women's basketball. As Rebecca Lobo, Jennifer Rizzotti and Kara Wolters enjoyed the spotlight that no other women players in U.S. history had ever achieved, professional league entrepreneurship began to take hold.Early in its first season, the WNBA has played to big crowds. Its games have been broadcast on national TV. At 17,780, the turnout for the Liberty home opener was the largest ever for a women's professional basketball game in the United States. It showed how far the WNBA could get on glitz and glitter alone. (The rival ABL, in its debut season last year, averaged just over 3,500 per game.)Professional women's leagues have been attempted four times before, most recently by the Women's American Basketball Association in 1984. But the WNBA has more going for it -- more funding, more TV exposure, more marquee players -- than any before. "There has never been a start-up sports league that has more resources behind it than we do," WNBA President Valerie Ackerman says. "We have the full support of the NBA and all its teams."However, if the crowds that have turned out for opening games in the eight NBA arenas across the country decide on other alternatives as the summer swelters on, the WNBA will have become one more novelty act in the history of women's start-up pro leagues. "In the end, the product has to sell itself," said Ackerman as a pregame display of gymnastics, aggressive break-dancing and a laser show took place on the Garden floor.Unfortunately, the league's marketing is opting for what appears to be the easy route: promoting name-brand players such as Rebecca Lobo over more seasoned professionals who come to the league with a flashier, more aggressive style. These players may not have Lobo's charm or on-camera charisma, but they could perhaps better attract die-hard sports fans across the spectrum rather than just those who've been turned on to women's basketball by watching UConn's teams dominate the NCAA and by following the U.S. Dream Team's victory at the 1996 summer Olympics.And many of these less-promoted players happen to be black. According to women's basketball insiders and observers, part of Lobo's marquee value may be that she is white, helping to attract the kind of white, upscale audiences that advertisers covet."She's promoted like nobody else," says Coach Kerri-Ann McTiernan, of Brooklyn's Kingsborough Community College, about Lobo. "The WNBA's marketing is trying to be all-inclusive, so she's a good face to put out there."The issue of race "never came up," says WNBA Director of Communications Alice McGillion. "I don't think anybody would ever suggest that Rebecca isn't where she is because of who she is.""By a lot of people's estimation," says McGillion, Lobo "is the most recognizable figure in women's basketball. She had a 102 game winning streak -- that does not happen to a player who is not a very good basketball player. Her statistics are amongst the leaders in the league. If people want to quarrel with it, I think that's pretty petty. She's a terrific role model and a wonderful spokesperson."-------------------------------------------------------The WNBA has hyped three marquee players. At the apex of a pyramid of hero worship stands Connecticut's home-grown, 6'4" Lobo. Sheryl Swoopes (Houston Comets), out on maternity leave, and Lisa Leslie (Los Angeles Sparks), whose playing has been hampered by foul trouble, also reached WNBA stardom before the league's first game. (Both Swoopes and Leslie are black, but neither has reached quite the celebrity status of Lobo.)If the success of this new women's league depends only on marketing, commercial endorsements or the $15 million-plus of NBA dollars, Lobo and her Olympic cohorts will have cashed in without the benefit of high-level athleticism. But after WNBA promotional ads featuring Lobo appeared during every NBA game last season, no basketball mortals could ever live up to what was expected of them -- not even Lobo.From the start of the opener, anything Lobo did caught the crowd on fire. Pulling off her warm-up jacket to enter the starting line-up, she got the loudest welcome of any team member. With a jumper here and there but mostly plain-Jane, low-post moves, Lobo has no signature style. Even with the flashy new left hook she recently acquired, the crowd seems to superimpose the larger-than-life postures and aggressive marketing moves on a formidable but uninspiring player.When a selection committee chose Lobo to represent the U.S. in the Olympics, coach Tara Vanderveer publicly objected. "Rebecca Lobo is a very good player. I never disputed that," said Vanderveer. "I just had some questions about whether she was one of the 15 best players in the country, or at least one of the 15 best for that team's needs." Committee members who outvoted Vanderveer pointed to Lobo's popularity with the general public as a reason for her being on the squad. "It's not a cut on her," says McTiernan. "Lobo did great things at UConn on a great team, but she needs to be set up. She's not going to create a lot for herself at this [WNBA] level."The packaging of Lobo as an icon of women's basketball may ultimately be a disservice to professional women's basketball and to Lobo herself. As a center/forward, Lobo largely remains a low-post power. While she shoots more from the perimeter than she did in her college game, she is not an effective multi-dimensional scorer. (At press time, she was ranked 14th in scoring -- unimpressive for a marquee player on a league of eight teams.) A thinking woman's player with deft passing and rebounding skills, certainly; a superstar, hardly.UConn coach Geno Auriemma has said of Lobo's playing, "I can't say any one thing. But the sum of her parts is unreal." Lobo, however, lacks some of the parts that make for stardom in basketball: creative play-making, ally-oops, behind-the-back passing, through-the-legs dribbling, high scoring are a few. And there are women doing it without cushy endorsement deals.Less-hyped WNBAers include Teresa Weatherspoon (New York Liberty), who leads the league in steals and gets the ball to Lobo for her to score. New York fans seem to appreciate her more dramatic style of play, greeting her with cheers of "Spooooooooon!" Andrea Stinson (Charlotte Sting) leads in assists and is among the top five scorers. Kym Hampton (Liberty), a 12-year pro who has outplayed most other centers, and Ruthie Bolton-Holifield (Sacramento Monarchs), a quick-release, long-range shooter whose scoring is third in the league, are superb players. Failing to promote more of these great playmakers may turn out to be costly if and when substantive ball-playing becomes the last thing left to draw crowds.Asked about the choice of Lobo, Leslie and Swoopes to represent the league, Lobo responds in the most stern voice of her post-game interview. "I have one answer for that," she says. "Lisa, Sheryl and myself were in the United States; everyone else was playing overseas. What were they going to do, fly everyone back for a commercial?"The statement is true in only one sense, points out Erica McKeon, vice president of Bruce Levy Associates, which represents more than 30 professional women basketball players in the WNBA and ABL. "The three players who were here stayed here for that reason. They were selected because they were part of the national team and the Olympic team that brought so much promise to women's basketball. They were not selected totally on the basis that they were here. There were players whom we did endorsements for who were overseas, such as Bridgette Gorden, Teresa Weatherspoon, Vicky Bullett, Lady Hardmon, Jennifer Gillom, Deadra Charles. Nothing in their contract would have restricted the WNBA from having flown players in."It is hard to imagine any overseas pro who would not have flown back to be in the slick TV promos that blitzed every night of the NBA season, especially since the "commercial" could have led to endorsements. According to McKeon, Lobo, Swoopes and Leslie's early crack at it "made it difficult for other players to get endorsement deals, because they weren't being seen and their names weren't out there. It was Lisa, Rebecca and Sheryl all over the place."Realistically, these three were the ones who were going to get the marketing opportunities all along," says McKeon. "With someone like Rebecca Lobo, it is much more about her name recognition than her athletic ability." McKeon points out that Lobo is now up against centers with more than 10 years of overseas experience.-------------------------------------------------------The American Basketball League (ABL), meanwhile, is selling itself unencumbered by the distractions the WNBA has created for itself. In the wake of Huskymania, the 1996 Olympics demonstrated that righting an inequity can be profitable. Here were the best women basketball players, coming from a country without a professional league. Only on the international circuit had U.S. women been able to prove their game and get a bite to eat. In what many sportswriters reported as being some of the best Olympic teams ever, the U.S. women whupped the top-ranked Brazilian, Australian and Russian teams. It was "winning the gold and the team's tour around the world which preceded it," according to WNBA director of communications Alice McGillion, "that set into motion the formation of the WNBA."While WNBA founders watched these events feeling nothing but net -- as in profits -- ABL founders fantasized about a women's professional home-grown league. "Not to sound too jingoistic," says Gary Cavalli, CEO and co-founder of the ABL, "but the ABL is basically a league to bring American women home." The league immediately set out to recruit the best players, and signed eight of the 12 Olympic gold medalists and College Players of the Year: Saudia Roundtree, Jennifer Rizzotti and many more top college players. The league claims to have 99 of the top women players in the U.S.The ABL now has a far more impressive talent pool of younger-legged players than the WNBA, with newly signed Naismith Player of the Year Kate Starbird (Stanford) and AP College Player of the Year Kara Wolters (UConn), and hoop goddess Dawn Staley, considered by some to be greatest female player ever to grace this planet. (Magic Johnson has suggested the WNBA buy the ABL to acquire her.) The league kicks off its second season in mid-October. Already, the league says, "teams have sold more season tickets for 1997-'98 than were purchased all of last year."While the WNBA has adopted the "We Got Next" playground court expression, the ABL replies, "We Got Players." With the ABL's longer playing season (nine months versus the WNBA's two), and salaries at least twice as high, it's a more attractive offer for players who want to stay home.Meanwhile the WNBA, in NBA style, went out on an international star search to open up markets overseas. As a result of scrambling to gather as many name players from here and yon, the WNBA teams left themselves only three weeks' pre-season play, with 13 international players and many more overseas players going through culture shock and trying to adapt to a drastically different style of play.The distractions showed at game time on three major networks -- NBC, ESPN and Primetime -- under contract to broadcast WNBA games. "When I watched the early games, I said, 'Oh, geez, this is going to be bad. This is prime time and this is not the best of what we have out there," says Kingsborough Community College's McTiernan, who was recruited to try out as a player for the ABL but decided to hold out for a coaching position with one of the leagues. "They're trying to get as big a market base as possible, but they're going to lose some of us. The U.S. Olympic team won the gold medal for a reason. If you're going for the international athlete that's fine, but they're not as good as some of our second-round athletes in the U.S. right now."Sports critics cut no slack for the girls now in the big leagues. "The We Got Next League is getting fan support, kind words from observers... and an all-out marketing blitz from the NBA," reported Tom Knott of the Washington Times, "but there's one itty-bitty problem. The [WNBA] is not bringing a game to the show, not unless you like missed lay-ups, a high number of turnovers and an inability to complete elementary functions." By overwhelming media accounts, including recognized women basketball writers Mel Greenberg ("There's no question the ABL is the better league") of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Earl Gustkey of the L.A. Times, the ABL teams began their season playing faster and more dynamic ball.The ABL spent its time involving players in decision-making regarding the rules and structure of the game. The ABL's younger players, teammates who had played together in school and regional tournaments, bonded easily on the court during their three-month pre-season training. In addition, the ABL targeted smaller-market cities for its franchises: cities like Hartford, where fans had already proven an allegiance to women's basketball through their support of college programs.The WNBA may turn out to be more about business than sports. The ABL, however, touts itself as a movement to empower women in sports. CEO Cavalli articulates the league's approach: "Play in basketball season, play a legitimate-length season, showcase the greatest players and play in cities that have shown a commitment for women's basketball."-------------------------------------------------------Given the sloppy play at the Liberty home opener, the nonstop cheering at the Garden was more for a self-congratulatory Title IX festival than for a riveting sports event. Title IX, the 25-year-old law that requires equal opportunity for women at schools receiving federal funds, laid the foundation on which these leagues were able to grow. More money being infused into women's high school and college basketball programs has led to a greater talent pool and more public exposure.For now, some of the support comes from thousands of young women and their families who welcome professional female basketball role models. It wasn't hard to imagine, at the Liberty home opener, how many parents were saying to their daughters while pointing at Lobo, "That could be you, too, if you keep practicing.""Terminally ill -- that's what we were," said Mercury coach Cheryl Miller about her team's play, including shooting a sickening 28 percent from the floor and producing a total of only nine assists in "team" play. With 40 percent shooting from the Liberty, Miller may as well have included the New York team in her diagnosis.At the moment, basketball may be an afterthought to many WNBA fans. But with a shift in emphasis from profits to playing, maybe soon at the half-time entertainment the teams will actually earn fans' R-E-S-P-E-C-T.