Two Leagues Of Their Own?

Women's hoops is hot. Just ask the NBA and the fledgling ABL

Fat salaries and endorsements, screaming fans, limos. Oh, the glamour of professional basketball--unless, of course, you're a female player.

For the past decade, there has been a glaring disparity: Women's college basketball has been on fire, with attendance tripling since 1985, TV ratings soaring, and charismatic players such as former University of Connecticut star Rebecca Lobo showing up on magazine covers and slapping high-fives with David Letterman. But because there's no U.S. pro league, as soon as they turn in their cap and gowns, the cream of the American women's hoop crop has departed for foreign teams.

Now, two would-be professional leagues are gambling that women's basketball is good business. On Apr. 24, National Basketball Assn. Commissioner David J. Stern proclaimed women's pro ball "ready to bloom" and announced an NBA-backed, eight-team league that would begin playing a summer schedule in 1997. But while the NBA's potential marketing clout could bode great things for women's ball, the league doesn't yet have players, coaches, venues, or even a name.

MARQUEE PLAYERS. Meanwhile, since last September, a smaller West Coast effort has been quietly creating a league of its own. The American Basketball League already has signed eight marquee players, including USA Basketball star Jennifer Azzi and four-time Olympian Teresa Edwards. And almost 500 women have registered for its May 28 tryouts in Atlanta. Unlike the NBA-backed summer league, the ABL's season will follow a more traditional October-to-March schedule, targeting modest-size arenas.

The trick is to build on the sport's growing--but still mostly regional--fan base. That's something past efforts couldn't accomplish. In the late 1970s, the Women's Professional Basketball League drew poorly. In the early 1990s, another effort lasted only one game after outfitting its players in spandex and lowering the baskets several feet.

The women's game has come a long way since then. Talented athletes such as University of Tennessee star Michelle "Spinderella" Marciniak have become role models for their discipline, talent, and athleticism. Major women's programs at Tennessee and Stanford often outdraw their male counterparts. More important, the game's a hit on TV. ESPN spokesman Dean Diltz says the 3.7 rating share for the '96 title clash between Tennessee and Georgia was ESPN's best ever for a women's basketball event--and fell just shy of the network's top-rated men's game. Last year, ESPN inked a seven-year deal to cover National Collegiate Athletic Assn. women's basketball. "It has been proven that there's an audience out there," says Diltz.

But could two leagues be too much? The NBA's announcement broadsided the ABL as the pioneers were trying to ink coaching, TV, and sponsorship deals. ABL signees seem very loyal, but the league has raised just $4 million--peanuts compared with the NBA's potential. "They're very formidable competition," concedes ABL co-founder Gary Cavalli. Still, U.S. Olympic women's coach Tara VanDerveer applauds the NBA: "If the NBA ran a league on Mars I think women would go there to play."

SLAM DUNK. Sponsors are waiting to hear concrete plans from the NBA, though corporate backers of women's basketball include Champion, Sears, Kraft Foods, and State Farm Insurance. One reason: attractive core demographics--professional women and families with young children. Shoe manufacturer Nike Inc. says its year-old Air Swoopes shoe, a women's basketball sneaker named for former Texas Tech star Sheryl Swoopes, has been a slam-dunk sellout. "I'm sure we're going to play a role in bringing these leagues to reality," says a Nike spokeswoman.

There's no doubt players are ecstatic about the chance to advance their careers at home. Former Cornell University cager Julie M. Crotty recalls the main perk of playing pro ball in New Zealand: They helped her find a day job. That may not be necessary for today's pros--even if the pay isn't anywhere near what male players earn. The ABL envisions an average salary of about $70,000, while stars may earn $125,000.

With the two leagues going one-on-one, consolidation seems inevitable--ideally before they split talent and sponsors. True, none of it spells glamour yet. But for a slew of great women athletes, it could sure beat a day job.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE