League stays upbeat despite bad economy

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NEW YORK --- Roster sizes have been reduced and teams lost an assistant coach. Also, one of the marquee franchises has folded.

Just don't tell WNBA president Donna Orender that her league is doomed for extinction in a tough economy.

Orender points to recent increases in attendance, TV ratings, jersey and merchandise sales, and Web traffic as a sign the league, which begins its 13th season this weekend, is healthy.

"I have a great degree of confidence where the WNBA is," Orender said. "This is a league that is growing."

NBA commissioner David Stern said the struggling economy can actually benefit the WNBA because of its affordability.

"Ticket prices are so relatively modest that you have a family of four go see a great entertainment experience at a very modest cost," Stern said. "But of course, we all know there's less disposable income out there in a difficult economy. That's a challenge for every sports league, including the WNBA."

The league lost one of its original teams in the off-season when the Houston Comets, who won the first four championships from 1997 to 2000, folded.

But an eight-year contract with ESPN/ABC that pays the league rights fees for the first time kicks in this season, and earlier this week, the Phoenix Mercury became the first team to put a sponsor's name across the front of their jerseys. The league also reached a deal with Starwood Hotels to make the chain the official hotel of the WNBA.

"That's going to result in greater service at lesser cost," Orender said.

As part of an effort to reduce league-wide costs, coaching staffs were cut by one full-time assistant for all teams, and rosters are being limited to just 11 active players.

In recent years, teams were allowed to have up to 13, with two designated as inactive before each game.

"It's not insignificant," Oren-der said. "You have to house that player, feed that player, travel that player. All those things add up."


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