Christine Leslie-Espinoza got so tired of it. She'd be watching
her daughter, Lisa, a 6-foot seventh-grader, playing in a
basketball game, and people would come up to her shaking their
heads. "'Gosh,' they'd say. 'Lisa is so good, it's a shame she's
not a boy,'" Christine says. "Can you believe that? They might
as well have told me I ought to grow a penis. I always told them
I love Lisa the way she is, and that her day would come."
On Saturday, June 21, 1997, at the Great Western Forum in
Inglewood, Calif., 14,284 fans stood and cheered when Lisa
Leslie and the rest of the Los Angeles Sparks were introduced.
Less than a minute later Sparks guard Penny Toler put a move on
New York Liberty defender Vickie Johnson and hit an 11-foot jump
shot. These points will forever be the first scored in the
Women's National Basketball Association, and women who saw
history asked, Do you know what this means?
Later that day in Salt Lake City, Utah Starzz guard Tammi Reiss
flew downcourt with the Sacramento Monarchs giving chase and hit
a three-pointer to a deafening roar from a WNBA-capacity crowd
of 8,915 at the Delta Center, and women who were watching asked,
Do you really, really understand the significance?
"It's the anniversary of Title IX, and look at this," Lynn
Barry, a special adviser to the WNBA, said on Sunday as she
gazed up at a crowd of 16,102 in Phoenix's America West Arena
(capacity: 19,063), where the hometown Mercury was playing the
Charlotte Sting. "This is how far we've come in 25 years."
In Cleveland it didn't matter that the hometown Rockers were
never in the game last Saturday against the Houston Comets. Men,
women and children, 11,455 of them in the WNBA capacity crowd at
Gund Arena, went nuts from the moment the announcer said,
"Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the WNBA."
And they did.
Hyped, choreographed and heavily bankrolled, the new league blew
away all attendance expectations in its first weekend. (The
league is playing in NBA arenas, many of which have been
downsized by blocking off large sections of seats.) "Are you as
amazed as I am that we're drawing 12,000 here tonight and that
we're expecting 12,000 back in Houston on Tuesday?" Comets coach
Van Chancellor asked in Cleveland. "Never in my wildest dreams
did I see this happening."
Or this: NBC's coverage of the Los Angeles-New York game beat
out all other national sports competitions in last Saturday's
Nielsen TV ratings race. The WNBA opener received a 3.8
overnight rating, outdrawing regional telecasts of major league
baseball on Fox, the PGA's Buick Classic on CBS and the Auto
Club 200 on ABC, among others. The Charlotte-Phoenix game on
Sunday drew a respectable overnight rating of 3.0. With those
results the women's game completed an evolution from three
dribbles and a mandatory pass to three dribbles and a mandatory
shoe commercial. It crossed the line from pure sport to a
sports/entertainment/product-promotion phenomenon, with 10 WNBA
corporate sponsors smiling all the way. Most amazing was this:
The games weren't very good, but nobody seemed to care.
The WNBA is the kid sister of the NBA, which is backing the new
league. The game on the floor is only one part of an
entertainment package that last weekend included light shows,
outdoor carnivals, indoor fireworks and celebrity sightings. Los
Angeles Lakers regulars Jack Nicholson and Dyan Cannon blew off
the Sparks, but Tyra Banks was at the Forum, along with Magic
Johnson, Penny Marshall, Arsenio Hall and Christopher Darden, in
no particular order of importance.
In losing 67-57, the Sparks shot 31% and had 25 turnovers, but
who was counting (especially since the players had been
practicing together only three weeks)? "I went up on the
concourse, and it was amazing," Barry said afterward. "There
were men and women and lots of kids, lots of fathers with
daughters, and the kids were telling their parents, 'I want a
Lisa Leslie jersey.'"
It's simple, said fan Maria Christine, who cheered for the
Sparks and sat next to a woman who waved a sign reading THANK
YOU TITLE IX. "There are no big heads and no big salaries, and I
"They were even cheering for free throws," said Leslie. "We were
overwhelmed by it." After months of being at the forefront of
the preseason marketing barrage, Leslie had 16 points and 14
rebounds, both team highs, but was outplayed by unheralded New
York center Kym Hampton (13 points).
In Cleveland, where the Comets blew out the Rockers 76-56, fan
Walter Kimbrough watched with his grandson, Anthony. "They're
good and fast, and amazingly, the big girls can shoot free
throws," Walter said (indeed, the Comets would go 13 of 15 from
the foul line). "That's something you don't see a lot in the NBA."
The Utah front office, underestimating interest in the Starzz,
gave away 2,000 tickets in the weeks leading up to the opener.
Only 300 people were expected to attend a one-hour
meet-the-players reception last Thursday. About 1,000 showed up,
and the reception was extended to three hours. On opening day in
Los Angeles and Utah, there were lines at the season-ticket
Still, it was too soon to know the answers to the WNBA's own
questions: Were the large crowds because of the novelty of the
first game? Will people watch basketball in the middle of summer
instead of going to the beach? How many will show up at Madison
Square Garden the same night the Yankees or the Mets are playing
at home? Will any city support a loser?
The league should have some answers in a month or so. What's
already known is that half of marketing is creating a
perception, and the NBA marketing machine, which could sell
American cigars in Cuba, has delivered women's basketball to the
very framers of popular culture--network television and
corporate sponsors. That was the strategy, says NBA executive
vice president and chief marketing officer Rick Welts. The NBA
and Nike teamed to help market the pre-Olympic tour for the U.S.
women's team that won the gold medal in Atlanta last year, and
the NBA used the momentum to line up multiyear TV contracts and
commitments from corporate sponsors for the WNBA. "You can't run
a successful league in the 1990s without them," says Val
Ackerman, the WNBA's president. Three games a week will be
nationally televised during the 10-week season: one by Lifetime,
which will target women; one by ESPN, which will target men; and
one by NBC, which will target everyone.
The publications of the WNBA (official slogan: We Got Next)
detail the history of the women's professional game, mentioning
earlier leagues that went bankrupt. The publications, however,
fail to mention a little operation called the American
Oversight? Printer's error? No. If communism makes a comeback,
the WNBA marketers will get work with the news agencies. The
ABL, which three months ago completed its first season in eight
mostly medium-sized cities, isn't acknowledged because it has
better than half of the best talent in women's basketball,
including eight of the 12 members of the U.S. Olympic team. Mel
Greenberg, a women's basketball maven who started the first
nationwide women's college basketball poll in 1976, says the ABL
also "cleaned up" in the spring signing of college talent. "The
ABL got the two best players, Connecticut center Kara Wolters
[who went to the New England Blizzard] and Stanford guard Kate
Starbird [Seattle Reign]," says Greenberg. "And they took the
heart of the strong Southeastern Conference."
The WNBA wanted to sign many of the same players but came away
with a new slogan, We Got Perplexed. Why would a player turn
down a chance to be in the Show and opt instead for an outfit
that averaged fewer than 4,000 fans a game in its first season
and doesn't have a big network contract? ABL salaries are
bigger, for one thing, averaging between $70,000 and $80,000 for
a 40-game season and going as high as $125,000. The WNBA pays
Leslie and her Olympic teammates Rebecca Lobo (forward-center
for the Liberty) and Sheryl Swoopes (guard for the Comets) more
than that. But the rest of the league's 80 players earn between
$15,000 and $50,000 apiece for the 28-game season. Former
Olympian Nikki McCray, who played for the ABL-champion Columbus
Quest and was voted league MVP while getting a six-figure
salary, admits she is knocked out by the WNBA's marketing power.
"But," she adds, "I prefer playing a longer schedule in the
traditional winter season."
The ABL spent about $1.5 million on marketing in its first year,
says cofounder Gary Cavalli. The WNBA already has spent about
$15 million. "We're not embarrassed to say we're trying to
create something that has economic viability, and we're trying
to create household names out of our players," says Welts, who
adds that the relentless promotion of the WNBA on NBC during the
NBA playoffs was like giving a new TV show the slot after
The ABL lost more than $4 million in its first season (the WNBA
expects to drop several million dollars this year), but Cavalli
thinks the WNBA's marketing will only help the ABL because "it
builds awareness and will beat the drum for the sport of women's
basketball all summer." McCray's teammate Valerie Still, a
36-year-old forward-center, agrees. Still says she struggled far
too long (12 years) in Europe to bad-mouth any league that gives
women a chance to play in the U.S. "I would hope that people
could put their egos aside, and we could get one nice big league
really funded well," she says, "but I don't know if the leagues
are willing to merge."
Sure, says Cavalli, if it makes sense down the road. No way,
says Ackerman. If there's expansion, it will be into more NBA
cities. She must not have checked with Magic Johnson in Los
Angeles. "The WNBA needs Dawn Staley. She's a showstopper," he
said of the former Olympian, who's a point guard for the ABL's
Richmond Rage. "She's what it's all about: no-look,
behind-the-back, through-the-legs. They should buy that league
just to get her."
As the first weekend showed, it's not as if the WNBA is without
players. There are guards Bridget Pettis (17 points) and Michele
Timms (six assists) in Phoenix, guard Andrea Stinson (18 points,
nine rebounds and seven assists) in Charlotte and Lobo (16
points) in New York. Guard Cynthia Cooper had 25 points for
Houston, and guard Ruthie Bolton-Holifield had 18 for Sacramento
in its 70-60 defeat of Utah.
"I'd say Phoenix and Charlotte could play in the ABL right now
and do well," says Greenberg, who saw six teams in 24 hours last
weekend. The Mercury, coached by Cheryl Miller, clearly looked
strongest in its 76-59 victory over the Sting. Greenberg also
likes New York and Houston but wonders if the WNBA, with its
bigger players, can match the ABL for quickness.
For now, it doesn't matter. Last Friday, former college
All-Americas and women's basketball Hall of Famers Ann Meyers
(NBC analyst) and Carol Blazejowski (the Liberty's vice
president and general manager) were joking about playing against
each other in one of a half dozen forgotten pro leagues where
nobody came to the games and the paychecks bounced. Nearby,
shooting baskets, was Lobo, who was born at the right time.
Meyers and Blazejowski looked at each other and something passed
between them. Parents may never again hear it said of their
daughters: What a shame she's not a boy.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID LIAM KYLE Orange Crush Cleveland Rocker Isabelle Fijalkowski came up the winner in a battle with two teammates and two Houston Comets to rebound the new WNBA's distinctively colored ball (page 44). [T of C]
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (2) In fiercely played openers, Phoenix's Marlies Askamp (14) and New York's Lobo showed drive. [Marlies Askamp and others in game; Rebecca Lobo and others in game]
COLOR PHOTO: ROCKY WIDNER The 3-for-11 shooting of Utah's Lady Hardmon was typical. [Lady Hardmon in game]
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID LIAM KYLE In the league's first blowout, Pietra Gay and Houston rose above Tina Nicholson and Cleveland. [Pietra Gay and Tina Nicholson in game]