Ken Rudnick counted himself a convert on Wednesday night as he cheered on the Philadelphia Rage in their 83-70 rout of the Colorado Xplosion at Temple University’s Apollo Arena. A 76ers season-ticket holder, Rudnick was feeling deprived as the NBA lockout reached day 134. Watching his local ABL team, led by four-time Olympian Teresa Edwards, hit more than 51 percent from the floor seemed like a reasonable way to fill the widening hoops void.
By halftime, the game had already become more than a better-than-nothing substitute. To Rudnick, it had started to look more real than the real thing. “There’s no cruise control in this game,” he marveled, promising to return for more. “It’s not the half-court game you see in the NBA. Every pass is contested. It’s a lot of fun to watch.”
That’s exactly the sentiment the ABL is trying to exploit as the women’s league enters its third season. But these days the league is feeling as shaky and riled up as the Rage players, who were being pushed around by the bruising Xplosion point guard Debbie Black as she dished out several black-and-blue marks to go with her nine assists. It’s the WNBA— the rival summertime women’s league— that has been jostling the ABL off the court, despite friendly rhetoric about how two women’s leagues create more opportunities for players. Having reportedly spent $15 million on marketing last season, and having tied up sponsorship and TV contracts through the connections of its bullying big brother, the NBA, the WNBA has cut off the ABL from the lifeline it needs.
Set up in smaller cities with plenty of local sponsorship and generally solid fan bases— and scoring lots of local press coverage— the ABL hits the court this year desperately needing the national attention that networks and Nike have lavished on the WNBA. ABL players may be happier than their counterparts about the better salaries, thicker benefits package, profit sharing, longer season, and faster paced games that their league offers (though some of that advantage may narrow now that the WNBA has unionized). But they’re beginning to itch for the national exposure that promises league survival, not to mention endorsement deals.
“Marketing is the biggest thing,” said the Rage’s Edwards after racking up 21 points and eight assists against Colorado, answering what she thought the players’ major concern was right now. Recently elected to the ABL’s board of directors— the first time a pro league has invited a player into its upper echelon— Edwards said the ABL has to figure out how to “wave a magic wand” over their publicity problems.
The NBA lockout seemed like it might work as just such a charm. No sooner had male sports-commentators blabbed that there wasn’t any pro basketball this season than the ABL published a four-page insert in USA Today proclaiming their presence. Meanwhile, having already increased its marketing budget from $2.9 million to this year’s $5 million, the league has set up its own cameras at some games, and offered satellite feeds to any takers. It has started sending highlight tapes around to news shows and begun pressing for the Fox network to expand its current contract for 16 broadcasts on regional affiliates in six of nine ABL cities: Chicago, Seattle, Portland, Philadelphia, Denver, and the Bay area. (Two ABL championship series games will be broadcast by CBS in April. By contrast, last summer there were 40 nationally televised WNBA games.)
But with NBC, CNN, and ESPN tightly tied to the NBA, the public is more apt to get reruns of “classic” men’s games than live coverage of a women’s league. So, unless you live in Philly or Denver, you probably didn’t catch Wednesday’s consecutive three-point plays by Edwards and guard Andrea Nagy, which catapulted the Rage to an early 20-12 lead.
Though ESPN’s SportsCenter has deigned to show some ABL material, following the women has hardly become a given. “SportsCenter is a news show,” explains spokesperson Mac Nwulu. “We make news judgments on the significance of things instead of just showing the daily routine of playing basketball.” So then why are they showing so many highlights of men’s college basketball exhibition games— how much news value is there in those contests?
As for Fox expanding its coverage of the ABL, media relations VP Michael Lewellen cautiously states, “We’re closely watching developments with the NBA and hope the situation is resolved soon.” In the meantime, they’ve filled the gap with baseball games from Japan and beefed up coverage of college basketball. Yet according to ABL founder and CEO Gary Cavalli, some of the Fox regional affiliates are discussing plans to pick up more ABL games as the lockout drags on. “Nothing is concrete yet,” says Cavalli, “but there’s definitely interest.”
The bind, of course, is that more regional play just isn’t enough. With the exception of low interest in Long Beach— whose team was disbanded after one year (this year the ABL added teams in Chicago and Nashville)— local appreciation hasn’t been a problem for the ABL. Indeed, it’s been the bedrock of the league’s grassroots philosophy. The league has been developing each team’s relationship to local community groups and has signed on loyal regional sponsors. It has also begun to sell Team Operating Rights to local investors with a stake in community institutions. So far, TORs have been sold for teams in San Jose, Portland, and New England, and a fourth is in the works. “This arrangement both strengthens our teams’ financial performance locally,” Cavalli says, “and it helps ensure the league’s long-term
The ABL has also worked hard to place players on teams in regions where they grew up or went to college, and the league’s current consideration of expanding into the New York area might help woo University of Tennessee superstar and Queens native Chamique Holdsclaw next year. Since the WNBA’s Washington, D.C., team has the first draft choice for the upcoming season, if Holdsclaw goes with the glitzier league, she’s unlikely to end up near home, unless the WNBA changes its rules to allow for multiplayer trades. The Arizona Republic has already rumored that the Liberty might consider trading Rebecca Lobo, Sophia Witherspoon, and Kym Hampton for Holdsclaw.
In any event, Cavalli says there’s a point at which he’ll bow out of a bidding war for Holdsclaw to avoid widening the salary split between star players and the bench. A fair salary scale is another of those grassroots principles he simply vows not to violate. (ABL minimum salaries are $40,000 nowadays and they average $80,000, compared to a minimum of $15,000 in the WNBA and an average of $35,000.)
With commitments like that, it remains to be seen whether the mom-and-pop league can survive in a megastore landscape. Some days, the ABL seems like a socialist country barely keeping afloat in a sea of global capitalism. Yet Cavalli hasn’t dropped his optimism. Season-ticket sales are already up 30 percent from last year, he notes. And he expects to come close to breaking even this year— a fine performance for a start-up company, he says, noting that the WNBA also finished its second season in the hole. Sure, Cavalli admits, the ABL has to hustle this year for more national TV and sponsorship. But one thing remains as certain as Teresa Edwards’s bounce pass: “We’re not going to change our philosophy.” —Alisa Solomon