February 7, 1997
SPENCER MICHELS: Women's professional basketball in its first year is starting to bring in the money and the fans. Nearly 4,000 people recently came to watch the San Jose Lasers play the Richmond Rage, two of the eight teams in the new American Basketball League, or ABL. Since the 1970's, four women's pro leagues have gotten off the ground only to fail. But now the time may be right.
WOMAN: I think before it failed because people weren't really taking women as athletes seriously, and now they are.
SPENCER MICHELS: The start of the ABL was timed to take advantage of the enthusiasm surrounding the 1996 American Women's Olympic Team, which won a gold medal. But the foundation of the game was laid during the Nixon administration when Title IX of the 1972 Education Bill was passed. It required equal funding and opportunity for women's high school and college sports. As a result, women's basketball has grown immensely in popularity at the high school and at the college level. The highly ranked Stanford team has provided many of the players for the nearby San Jose Lasers. Tara Vanderveer is the coach.
TARA VANDERVEER, Stanford Coach: Well, without Title IX, I don't think we ever would have had the professional leagues that we have now because there wouldn't be the development of the game. Professional athletes don't just become professional when they're twenty or twenty-five years old. They learn as young, young girls to play sports to that level, and so you need to have all the things that help develop the young players.
SPENCER MICHELS: The ABL has placed those now-experienced players with teams in markets near successful college women's basketball programs. The Lasers, like all the teams, is owned by the league, itself. The women's game has been both praised and criticized for how it differs from that played by men in the National Basketball Association, the NBA. It's not as flashy, not as star-oriented. But it can be just as physical, and tempers sometimes flare, as they did in the ABL All Star game. In just a few months the ABL has developed a reputation for tough competitive play, an image the Lasers' Jenni Ruff thinks is well deserved.
JENNI RUFF, San Jose Lasers: It's very physical. You know, a lot of people think, oh, women, they're not physical, but all the guys that I ever played in gym ball, girls, they call girls very dirty and very physical, and they don't like playing against us, so, you know, it is a physical game, and I think that, you know, we're strong enough and we're going to handle it just fine.
SPENCER MICHELS: Some say the ABL plays a truer form of basketball than the men. Lasers' head coach Jan Lowery.
JAN LOWERY, Lasers' Coach: They only play man-to-man defense. And where we're allowed to play zone, and I think we play below the rim and we play a very team-oriented game; we set screens; we're patient; we try to get good shots; and I think that's maybe a little bit different from the men's professional.
TARA VANDEVEER: I honestly think that women at this point are less egotistical; they're more into the team experience. They're more into playing together, and their team being successful, than into me and my stats and my individual numbers, and things like that.
SPENCER MICHELS: The women's game seems more fan-oriented. A family of four can attend a Lasers game for $40, less than the cost of one ticket to most NBA games. After every home game, the players and the coaches attend a Lasers fan club meeting, signing autographs and talking to the crowd, sometimes about the free basketball clinics they put on for kids.
PLAYER: Fine. But I think that was great. All the players came, and they were really into it, so--(applause)--
SPENCER MICHELS: Working the fans is part of a long-term league strategy to build a viable sport. League Founder Gary Cavalli predicts the strategy will eventually pay off.
GARY CAVALLI, Co-Founder, ABL: We'll probably lose about $4 million, and, you know, we'll probably lose a little bit of money the second year, and we'll be profitable in year three. We have to draw strong enthusiastic crowds. We have to increase our sponsorships, and we have to realize the vast potential that's out there for licensing and merchandising in women's basketball.
SPENCER MICHELS: Some sports experts aren't so sure. The Dallas-based Sports Marketing says that its surveys show that women's pro basketball has a very limited market and doesn't have a chance to succeed. Women, the surveys indicate, would much rather watch men play ball. ABL officials are betting real money that there is an audience for women's basketball. Players are getting paid an average of $70,000, with Olympians like Jennifer Azzi, sidelined with an injury, at $125,000. The money, not even close to what men stars make, was one attraction for point guard Sonja Henning, who had played for Stanford and then in Sweden. She came back to basketball after she had become a practicing lawyer.
SPENCER MICHELS: Money okay?
SONJA HENNING, San Jose Lasers: Yeah. The money's great. I mean, we had, you know, a lot of the players have shoe contracts. I got a NIKE endorsement, which is just on top of the salary, so it's a lot of opportunities that a few years ago women didn't have.
COMMERCIAL SPOKESPERSON: And we're most definitely not waiting for anyone to let us play.
SPENCER MICHELS: Shoe companies not only give individual players money; Reebok and Lady Footlocker sponsor the league, itself.
COMMERCIAL SPOKESPERSON: This is our time; this is our league.
SPENCER MICHELS: The shoe connection is essential says Andy Dolich, former vice president for business operations of the Oakland Athletic Baseball team and a longtime sports businessman.
ANDY DOLICH, Sports Businessman: If you look at the success that the NBA has had, a lot of it has been dictated through the shoe companies, and that same phenomena, I believe, will occur in women's basketball because it's about selling more equipment, more shoes.
SPENCER MICHELS: Shoe companies not only make their shoes stars; they also can create stars among the players.
ANDY DOLICH: It's not enough to just have that pair of PF Flyers or Keds that somebody had when they were growing up. Now there's Lady Footlockers; there might be a hundred choices of footwear, and those companies will create the kind of star power that feeds on itself.
SPENCER MICHELS: Another ingredient for economic success in sports is television. The ABL is carried on cable TV on both the sports channel and black entertainment television. The league doesn't yet make any money from these telecasts, but they do help spread the word. The ABL is not alone in its quest to make women's basketball profitable. A competing league is entering the field. The National Basketball Association will own all eight teams in the new league, the women's, or WNBA. They will play their games during a short summer season, instead of competing directly with men, or the other women's league. Val Ackerman is president of the WNBA.
VAL ACKERMAN, President, WNBA: We felt that the winter time frame was frankly awfully crowded when you take into account the World Series, baseball, college football, the NFL, the NHL, the NBA, college men and college women, it really doesn't leave a lot of room for a new league to have the kind of niche that we felt the WNBA needed to take hold and to have a spotlight.
SPENCER MICHELS: Because of its NBA parentage, this league has an advantage over the ABL. It has signed contracts with NBC, ESPN, and Lifetime. And there's a rivalry between the two women's leagues when it comes to recruiting top players like Olympic star Lisa Leslie. That competition may be healthy, according to Andy Dolich.
ANDY DOLICH: There's no reason that both leagues can't succeed. Down the line we'd probably look at some sort of an accommodation, as has happened in football, as has happened in other sports, and that will probably happen in basketball.
SPENCER MICHELS: For players like the Lasers' 6 foot one Trisha Stafford, a former University of California forward, the important thing is that she has someplace in America for play and pay.
TRISHA STAFFORD, San Jose Lasers: I'm excited about both. I mean, I'm excited to the point where I hope both succeed; however, I hope, you know, they don't clash, and we end up with nothing.
SPENCER MICHELS: The ABL finishes its first season and begins play-offs in late February. The competing WNBA starts its first season June 21st. For the women and their fans and for the business of sports, it's a whole new ball game.