WNBA Keeps On Churning: Pluses Outweigh Minuses As League Enters 10th Season

By W.H. Stickney Jr.
Updated: May 5, 2006

HOUSTON — When the WNBA began in 1997, a popular cigarette advertisement that targeted women had vanished from the nation’s landscape.

But its slogan — “You’ve come a long way, baby” — easily could be applied to today’s WNBA. The league — whose start-up catch phrase was “We Got Next!” — will begin its 10th season later this month.

The WNBA has been around longer than many expected and made strides that are satisfying to league and NBA officials.

“As a pure basketball matter, the basketball in the WNBA is the best it’s ever been, and it’s having an extraordinary (run) and a little recognized influence on the college game and the high school game,” NBA commissioner David Stern said during NBA All-Star Weekend in Houston.

“In the course of the WNBA, we have seen the USA Today Top 25 (poll) expand to high school girls; the Nike and Adidas camps expand to girls; the letters of intent from (female) high schoolers going to college reported about; the cover of Sports Illustrated adorned (simultaneously) by (Emeka) Okafor and (Diana) Tarausi (of Connecticut); the Baylors of the world and the Purdues of the world joining the Connecticuts and Tennessees of the world (as NCAA women’s champions).

“Why? Because young women are feeding into the college game, because they have the role models of the WNBA. And when they’re in college, they’re pushing themselves with a kind of discipline, growth and teamwork that used to be the preserve only of men.”

Yes, the WNBA has gone through its crawling stage and early walking stage and become the standard-setter for women’s basketball in the United States. It zoomed past the ambitious but dollar-starved American Basketball League, which folded in late 1998.

The WNBA’s first game on June 21, 1997, showcased two of its marquee players, Rebecca Lobo of the New York Liberty and Lisa Leslie of the Los Angeles Sparks.

“Every day, I think about the WNBA and all of the great moments of the league,” said Val Ackerman, founding president of the WNBA and now president of USA Basketball. “I think often of those early championships in Houston and those amazing crowds all dressed in red and the great performances of Cynthia Cooper and Kim Perrot, and of course Sheryl (Swoopes) and Tina (Thompson), the great job Van (Chancellor) has done.

“They’re just indelible memories for me. And I’m proud that the league is celebrating its 10th year this year. It’s a huge milestone. I hope we’ve proven to the skeptics once and for all that the league is here to stay, and it’s only growing.”

There’s been a new champion each of the last three years, which is a major step in parity after the Comets won the first four titles and the Sparks the next two.

Not free of problems

However, a few headaches persist.

The WNBA has survived shaky numbers in terms of TV viewership, and attendance, with few exceptions, continues to be a problem.

Also, the league operates under the stigma of paying its players much less than marginal NBA players. But Stern and second-year WNBA president Donna Orender are quick to say the positives far outweigh the negatives.

“Would we like to be averaging 16,000 (in attendance) instead of 8,000 or 9,000? Yes,” Orender said. “Would we like to be having television ratings that are higher than the NBA instead of merely the NHL’s? Yes. But so be it. And we are here.”

When the WNBA began, there were eight franchises: Houston, New York, Los Angeles, Cleveland, Phoenix, Sacramento, Charlotte and Utah.

Texas Southern graduate Denise Taylor, who has spent the past five years at Jackson State, was the first coach of the Utah Starzz. She remembers fondly the fledging days of the WNBA.

Moreover, Taylor was confident the league would be around for a while.

“I was super-excited about the inception of it,” she said. “I heard all of the talk (about a potentially short future for the league), but with the NBA’s backing — and they’ve been around (more than) 50 years — I didn’t ever believe it was going to fail.”

Taylor said any problems the league has encountered were to be expected.

“Anything that you start from the ground, you’re going to have to go through some growing pains,” she said. “Any business that you do and you start, there are so many unknowns. That’s just a part of anything growing.

“And if you look back at the history of the NFL, you look back at the NBA, they have not always been where they are today.”

Salaries an issue

The size of the WNBA peaked in 2000 at 16 teams, and there will be 14 clubs this season with the addition of the Chicago Sky.

When the WNBA began, top players such as Swoopes, Lobo and Leslie had a ceiling of $50,000. But endorsements ballooned the pay of the league’s elite players to six figures.

Back then, the WNBA was responsible for paying each player. Three years ago, that responsibility was placed in the hands of each owner.

Top players today receive a paycheck of $90,000 under terms of the latest collective bargaining agreement, signed in 2003. Players with three years’ experience or less are capped at $42,000. Rookies, on average, earn $30,000 per year.

The minimum salary for an NBA rookie was just under $400,000 this past season.

Only so much money

Thompson believes high salaries are necessary for the WNBA to take its next huge step of progress.

Comets teammate Dawn Staley, who will retire at the end of this season, said she’d love to see players paid more. But she thinks the WNBA is handing out salaries that are commensurate with the league’s overall budget.

“I think we get paid appropriately to what’s coming in,” Staley said. “If we compare it to what’s coming into the NBA, there is no comparison.

“(Thompson) is probably right on the hat with it, but comparable to what this league makes, then I think we’re paid fairly. Certainly, you want to get paid like your male counterparts. But (the WNBA) has got to be a billion-dollar corporation (before that happens).”

Orender has come on board in time to orchestrate the WNBA’s 10th-season celebrations. And she has an eye toward a long and successful future.

“I think it’s exciting for everybody — for all of our players, the fans, obviously the entire NBA organization — because it’s definitely a testament to a great property that’s received tremendous support,” Orender said. “And all we have is upside.”