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WOMEN'S BASKETBALL / EARL GUSTKEY

No Matter What, It's Not a League Totally Its Own

June 24, 1997|EARL GUSTKEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A couple of months ago, at a Women's Sports Foundation banquet in Chicago, they finally met.

For 21 months, while they assembled their two basketball leagues, American Basketball League chief Gary Cavalli and Women's NBA President Val Ackerman had never met.

Now, here they were, at the same head table. Ackerman spotted Cavalli, approached him and said: "I thought you should see what a 900-pound gorilla looks like first-hand."

Cavalli broke up, recalling

his line on the day the NBA announced it was forming a women's league: "We knew from Day 1 there was a 900-pound gorilla right down the street."

Now that the WNBA is finally under way, here's the first question of the day for both of them:

When can we expect to see one women's pro basketball league?

Expect the WNBA to shake loose some of those corporate sponsorship millions, buy out the ABL and bring those teams into a 17-team WNBA. But don't expect it to happen in the near future.

"At this point I don't see things moving that way," Ackerman said Saturday, when asked before the Los Angeles-New York league opener about merger prospects.

Cavalli concurred that there have been no buyout or merger talks.

In the meantime, the basketball public can only sit back an observe, with some awe, NBA marketing muscle.

Crowds exceeding 14,000, 11,000, 9,000 and 16,000 saw the first openers. This, for a league most in the women's game concede doesn't match up in talent to the ABL.

Said ABL most valuable player Natalie Williams of the Portland Power at halftime of the New York-L.A. game: "I've looked at all the WNBA rosters and I think on average about three players per WNBA team could make ABL rosters."

WNBA spinmeisters, of course, would prefer you never mention the ABL. They certainly didn't in an opening-week program piece that reviewed the history of the women's game, starting from 1892.

Talk about arrogance. They even recounted the failed women's leagues of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The ABL? Not a word. Possibly they're still sore over losing Kate Starbird, Kara Wolters, DeLisha Milton, Clarise Machanguana, et al, to the ABL.

On the subject of its 10 corporate sponsorships, the WNBA protests it hasn't taken in anything like the $30 million reported here recently.

Yet Jim Andrews of the Chicago-based IEG Sponsorship Report, a newsletter that tracks sports/corporate sponsorships, says the number is between $25 million and $30 million.

When WNBA players making the maximum $50,000 realize how much money the league took in before the season even started, can a player's union be far behind?

NAMES AND NUMBERS

Recommended: "Venus to the Hoop," Sara Corbett's account of her year-long visit with the 1996 women's U.S. Olympic basketball team. She had exclusive access to the team and staff, and her book reinforces what seemed so clear at the time--the superb job of melding talent by Coach Tara VanDerveer, bringing 12 strangers together to form the game's greatest team. . . . The Long Beach Stingrays, the ABL expansion franchise that plays its first season beginning in October in Long Beach State's Pyramid, finally have someone on the payroll. The ABL announced Ron McGillis, interim athletic director at the University of Houston, will become the team's general manager July 1.

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