Originally created 08/12/97

WNBA vs. ABL



When it comes to national television exposure, the American Basketball League's slogan could very well be "We Got Next to Nothing!"

The rival WNBA has NBC, ESPN and Lifetime for this first season and four to follow. Even though the ABL has more marquee players, those networks agreed that sheer marketing muscle and the WNBA's summer schedule made it easy to decide which women's league to put on the air.

"It's proven to be the right strategy," said Brian Donlon, vice president of Lifetime Sports, which is showing 10 games this season.

"The only thing you're competing against is major league baseball. And if the only thing you're competing against is a league that can't get its head together, you're going to do pretty good," Donlon added. "Otherwise, you're competing against football, college basketball, hockey, the NBA. When we start a new venture, I always like to have a clear path."

Of course, it's hard to turn down the WNBA when the league is selling the national commercials for the life of the TV deals. That's an incentive the ABL has nowhere near the resources to offer.

"It's sort of a joint venture - a revenue sharing, expense sharing venture as well," said NBC Sports spokesman Ed Markey. "The WNBA provides the advertising. We provide the production and the air time and the on-air promotion."

And the WNBA is getting respectable ratings for a start-up league, with all three networks saying interest is exceeding their expectations.

NBC, which is airing all of its regular-season games on Saturday afternoons, is averaging a rating of 2.1, meaning they are reaching about 2 million of the 97 million homes that make up the nation's TV audience.

"The first weekend got off to a huge start. ... It's settled into about a 1.7 average, which is where we thought it would be," Markey said.

ESPN is drawing an average .9 percent of its audience, or about 657,000 households, for games televised on various nights. Lifetime averages about a .6 rating, or about 400,000 homes.

It may be time for the leagues to start talks about joining forces to ensure women's basketball survives, rather than pretending they can coexist.

At the very least, the ABL might want to rethink playing a fall and winter schedule. But it isn't budging, even while acknowledging that getting a regular national audience remains one of its biggest challenges.

"We're pleased with the coverage we had during the first year. That was a great first step. And we're going to get better," said Steve Hams, the ABL's chief operating officer.

For its inaugural season, Sportschannel showed 20 ABL games and the Black Entertainment Television showed eight. BET has signed up to broadcast 12 games this season. Sportschannel is now part of Fox Sports Net, which the ABL is trying to lure as a carrier.

The ABL, which put its teams in women's college basketball hotspots while the WNBA chose the biggest NBA markets, believes in its strategy.

"We've proved people wrong from the very beginning. We're very confident the plan we have is the right plan for women's basketball," Hams said.

So far, the TV moguls are not convinced.

"A sport becomes a major league sport in large part by virtue of how strong its television coverage is," said Jeffrey Pollack, publisher of The Sports Business Daily.

"Next to labor peace, it is the single most important business driver," he said.

The odds for survival are not good if the ABL sticks to its current schedule.

"It's tougher. There's more clutter from other sports in the fall and winter," Pollack said. "With the exception of baseball, the WNBA has really had a clear playing field for media and public attention this summer."

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