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Published Sunday, January 24, 1999, in the San Jose Mercury News 

ABL boxed out of position


•  Former ABL players game at De Anza College, 2 p.m. today.

 Gary Cavalli, one of the ABL's founders

Mercury News Staff Writer 

When the American Basketball League began its third season last November, today was to be its all-star game at San Jose Arena, a celebration of a new professional age in women's sports.

Instead, it is 24 days since the ABL filed for bankruptcy (more than $10 million in debts listed against $500,000 in assets), the arena is dark, and the game will be a collection of ex-ABL starters and benchwarmers playing in a 1,600-seat junior college gym.

The ABL's true believers have been shaken.

At a time of growth for women's sports, their league -- the one that did things ``the right way'' -- is dead, almost ignored by national media in its passing. Meanwhile, the Women's NBA survives by kowtowing to the male sports hierarchy: waiting for the boys to leave the gym to play in summer, surviving on Michael Jordan's pocket change and reaping the rewards of a fawning media. The WNBA also survives with more than double the ABL's 4,000-per-game attendance.

``I think you've got to believe in something,'' said Anne Cribbs of Palo Alto, one of the ABL's founders, ``and we believed in doing things the right way.''

That meant doing things that made dispassionate business analysts blanch. Average player salaries were more than twice that of the WNBA, and benefits were unprecedented for a startup league for either sex, including year-round medical coverage, 401(K) plans and 10 percent league ownership.

It meant competing for TV time and sports section space in the busy fall and winter seasons instead of choosing the sports doldrums of summer.

The things that killed the ABL, said Gary Cavalli, a partner with Cribbs in a public relations firm and another league founder, ``are a sad commentary on women's basketball and its stature.''

Some observers blame the rich NBA, father and financier of the WNBA, which has enjoyed more than double the ABL's average attendance of 4,000 per game. At least two state attorneys general -- California's Bill Lockyer and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, home state of the ABL's New England Blizzard -- are investigating whether the NBA illegally forced the ABL out of business.

``The ABL's folding is giant step back for women and little girls,'' said Valerie Still, center for the two-time league champion Columbus Quest, who hopes to play for the WNBA. ``It's about women having equal opportunity in the United States.'' 

When the ABL was being planned in 1995, the Atlanta Olympics were on the horizon. U.S. athletes, particularly women in the post-Title IX sports boom, were excited about playing the Games at home. 

Under Stanford Coach Tara VanDerveer, the U.S. women's basketball team was beginning an undefeated, yearlong series of tuneup games for Atlanta, where it would recapture the gold. The 30,000-seat portion of the Georgia Dome curtained off as the basketball venue was quickly selling out.

There seemed no better time for women's team sports to step into the professional era and no better sport to take that step than basketball.

The ABL was first out of the blocks. In February 1996, at a news conference in San Jose, the founders announced an eight-team league placed in strong women's college basketball markets -- mostly small and mid-sized cities. The national team players were the league's most influential consultants, insisting, among other things, that they play during basketball's traditional winter season.

All but three players from the national team signed with the ABL, which would begin play in the fall of '96. 

NBA Commissioner David Stern announced the eight-team WNBA on April 24. Wholly owned by the men's league, it would play in eight NBA cities beginning in the summer of 1997. Stern had been hinting publicly since January at the NBA's interest in women's basketball, and the NBA had sponsored the women's Olympic team.

The entry of the WNBA -- which inherited a partnership with NBC-TV, sponsorship agreements with corporations such as McDonald's and Coca-Cola and 50 years of pro basketball history -- radically altered the women's pro landscape.

National market

No one wanted to compete with NBA 

Whether the NBA played by the rules of business competition is now the subject of antitrust probes.

Hilary McLean, a spokeswoman for Lockyer's office, confirmed that California has joined a ``multi-state investigation,'' but she provided no information about what prompted California's action.

Blumenthal has subpoenaed NBA records, including market studies and other documents that might mention the ABL.

When the WNBA was announced, the ABL had signed two national sponsors, Reebok and Connecticut-based Phoenix Home Life Mutual Insurance Co. Despite the efforts of its own sales force and several consultants, the ABL never sold another national deal, Cavalli said. It never landed a network television contract until CBS agreed to show two of its playoff games next March -- but the ABL had to buy the time.

``We were close to deals I'm convinced would have happened,'' had the NBA not entered women's basketball, said Bob Rosen, a sports marketer and former network television executive retained by the ABL during its first two seasons. ``The biggest problem, frankly, was the strength of David Stern who, through people working for him, exercised enough influence to keep us out.''

A WNBA spokesman declined comment.

Agent Andy Brandt, who represented players in the ABL and WNBA, said that the NBA's mere presence might have been enough to give the WNBA an edge over the ABL.

``I do think people shied away from competing with the NBA,'' Brandt said. ``I don't know if it were something where it was conspicuous, where David Stern squeezed the networks, but I don't think much needed to be said. Sponsors and networks want to be with the cachet of the NBA.''

Cavalli said recently that the ABL was close to a contract with ESPN early in 1996. But after meeting with network vice president Steve Risser in May -- after the WNBA announcement -- the deal never materialized. ESPN later signed a contract to carry the WNBA through 2001.

``To say that we were close (to an ABL deal) is really inaccurate,'' Risser said. ``We couldn't even agree on what time of year to play. We couldn't get past the point that they were really a fall and winter league and we didn't have the inventory room.''

Lack of a TV deal and insufficient sponsorship were intertwined problems.

Marty Rolnick, vice president of media sales for DNF Group in New York, a firm that helped the ABL, said initial responses to his calls were encouraging. ``In this business, if you make 100 calls and get five people interested, that's a lot,'' he said. ``I had three or four interested.''

One was hair care and toiletries manufacturer Helene Curtis. But without national TV to run its commercials, the company wasn't interested.

``You're looking at us as an investor, not a sponsor,'' Rolnick said he was told.

Rolnick said some of his rejections came from companies fearful of damaging current or prospective relationships with the NBA. ``If there were no NBA, we would have had a better time drawing in support,'' he said, but we still would have had a problem.''

Players' flight

Without television exposure, the ABL's luck turned 

WNBA spokesman Mark Pray said that his league never considered the ABL competition because they didn't overlap in markets or season.

``It was an immense benefit for women's basketball in general to have more leagues,'' he said. ``There were more jobs for players, and there was synergy from having the game played year-round.''

In the break between the leagues' first two seasons, the spring of 1997, the ABL snapped up nearly every graduating college player of note.

But after a summer of WNBA on NBC, ESPN and the female-oriented Lifetime cable network, the ABL's luck turned.

Said Mike McIntyre, director of sports marketing for Frankel & Co., which has neither league as a client: ``The ABL was up against a very smooth operation. It's not typical for a new league like the WNBA to go get a television network to back you.''

The ABL's second year of playoffs were almost invisible on its cable TV outlets, regional Fox Sports and Black Entertainment Television. When the college class of '98 began choosing leagues, only one of the 10 Kodak All-Americans picked the ABL.

Last summer the ABL cut all non-player salaries by 10 percent, folded its expansion team in Long Beach, and saw one of its founding players, Olympian Dawn Staley, defect to the WNBA. After the 1998-99 season began, Quest Coach Brian Agler jumped to the WNBA. 

Always on defense

Nationwide outreach effort perpetually short-handed 

Rolnick believes the ABL's real problem was under-capitalization -- not having enough money on hand to stay alive while the media and public got used to its product.

Which, he says, was not basketball, or even women's sports.

``We never stayed on our message, because we were always having to defend ourselves against the WNBA,'' he said. ``If we positioned it about women, opportunities for women, sponsors were interested. This was truly a `women thing.' It was beautiful.''

Cribbs faulted herself for that.

``If I had it to do over again, I would spend more of my time getting in touch with women across the country about how important the ABL is. It's not about basketball, but what we represented, earning a fair year-round wage. That's something women have fought for for a really long time.''

At the end, the league that did things ``the right way'' did not get much support from women themselves.

``The league should have been run by women,'' Rolnick said.

Its CEO and public face, Cavalli, was a man, as were its chief operating officer and half of its six vice presidents (Cribbs was vice president of corporate and community development). A majority of the force of sales people and consultants -- the face of the league to business contacts -- were men.

Even though the league's sketchy surveys indicated a majority of the fans at games were women, it was a small group of women, and attendance fell off this season from the 1997-98 high of 4,335 per game.

``If there is a general sense that women will watch women's sports because it's women, I don't know if that's true,'' said Harry Usher, chief operating officer of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and partner in the Jaust Group, another sports marketing firm retained by the ABL its first season. ``I'll bet you more men watch women's basketball on television than women do. But I don't have statistics to prove that.''

Of the $30 million the ABL raised during its 2 1/3-season existence, nearly all came from male investors, Cavalli said. There was only one ``significant'' woman investor, and she was in for $500,000.

``We approached lot of wealthy women, a lot of CEOs, professional women athletes, none of whom invested in the league,'' he said. ``Too risky, not enough television.''

Return to
Return to Women's Sports
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[Seattle Reign!]

"The View From The Floor"
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