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Few Leagues Of Their Own

Sports Business: Women's Pro Sports

Few Leagues of Their Own

Other than the WNBA, attempts to build women's pro leagues have largely gone nowhere

You know you're in trouble if you can't even give your product away. Early in 1998, while the National Football League was being offered $17 billion for its TV rights, the women's American Basketball League was begging the networks to take millions for airtime.

No TV meant few sponsors and, in turn, a cash crunch. By Christmas, the ABL had too much red and not enough green. It folded on Dec. 23 in the midst of its third season. Although its demise was partly due to its rival, the higher-profile, better-financed Women's National Basketball Assn., the ABL is part of a larger story: the failed promise of women's pro team sports.

U.S. women's teams excelled in the 1996 Olympics, and each Atlanta gold medal seemed to beget its own pro league. By 1997, two basketball leagues and a fast-pitch softball league were up and running. Soccer was ready to roll, and a few months after a surprise 1998 gold medal in Nagano, a women's ice hockey league was slated to begin.

Now, much of that enthusiasm is gone. The ABL is dead, soccer postponed until 2001, hockey scrapped completely, and softball struggling. Volleyball is fractured into several small leagues. And while the WNBA has been promoted as a runaway hit, its real status remains unclear. Second-season attendance was up 12%, TV ratings were down slightly, and the fallout from the National Basketball Assn.'s just-ended lockout is yet to be gauged.

The push for women's leagues has had more than Olympic gold going for it. Title IX, the 26-year-old federal law requiring colleges to fund women's sports as fully as men's, created a generation of female athletes--potential pros and likely fans. New women's magazines from Sports Illustrated and Conde Nast sprouted. And with families looking for affordable tickets and would-be sports moguls eager to buy teams, the time seemed right for women.

"TV, TV, TV." Still, starting a sports league is daunting, and the fields of America are haunted by the ghosts of ball clubs gone bust. Says WNBA Commissioner Val Ackerman: "You need TV, TV, TV--national TV. That breeds credibility with sponsors and fans. You also need the right organizational oomph and the right season. We play in summer so as not to compete with the NFL, NBA, hockey, and college sports for airtime."

To get that TV time, though, it helps to have the NBA behind you. Sean McManus, president of CBS Sports, notes that there's little room for women's teams on the networks. "Advertisers aren't convinced that the way to reach women is through women's sports. A lot more women watch the World Series than the WNBA Finals." Even cable channels are cautious. "The big problem--and I say this with kindness and respect--is that this whole women's sports explosion is mythical. It's still an embryonic movement," says Brian Donlon, vice-president for sports at Lifetime Television. The key, he says, is a new business model, fundamentally different from men's leagues, where TV rights pay most of the bills. "I'm bullish on women's sports, but these new leagues need to be more realistic," says Donlon.

In the summer of 1999, the WNBA will expand to Orlando and Minnesota and absorb many top ABL players--which should bolster the WNBA's sometimes spotty play. Yet even if the WNBA flourishes, its success might not be replicated. The scenarios for other women's leagues sound more like the ABL: grassroots support, small arenas, tiny startup budgets, few sponsors, inadequate airtime.

-- HOCKEY. The Women's Professional Hockey League (WPHL) was scheduled to begin this winter, with four teams (in Quebec, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire) and a $2.5 million budget. Twenty players, including six Olympians, signed letters of intent. The basic plan was a league-owned structure like the WNBA, with maximum salaries of $21,000 and $5 tickets. But the numbers didn't click, and plans were shelved. The new buzz is that the NHL is considering starting a women's league.

-- SOCCER. The National Soccer Alliance was slated to begin in 1997. With commitments from 12 Olympians, eight teams were to be backed by a single corporation each putting up $1 million per year. Most important, Mia Hamm--a star player who has been featured on People's "50 Most Intriguing" and "25 Most BeauTiful" lists--was on board.

But the NSA never kicked off. Jennifer Rottenberg, a founder, suggested there was "hostility" from the powerful U.S. Soccer Federation, which feared that the NSA might interfere with the inaugural Women's World Cup, which begins this June, and with Major League Soccer, the men's league. There's hope, though. The Women's Cup could galvanize the 7 million girls and women who play.

-- SOFTBALL. Backed by AT&T Wireless, the six-team Women's Pro Fastpitch league was launched in 1997 with teams in FloriDa, Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia. Coaches drive vans, players crash on couches, and the salary cap for an entire team is $72,000. Still, even on the cheap, the WPF champion Orlando Wahoos went bankrupt in November.

The good news is that it's still too early to write off women's professional leagues. The road to success was full of ruts for men's major leagues, and as the recent experience of the NBA demonstrates, trying times are never far away. What matters is that women's leagues are finally making a run at the big time.By Michael Goldstein in New YorkReturn to top

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