6th season for WNBA opening on high note

New TV contract near, but pay's a sore point

Pro Basketball

May 25, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

The WNBA begins its sixth season today with much to celebrate.

Start with survival, which has been unusual among women's sports leagues. Its players and teams have improved and become more competitive. The 16-team league seems happy with its television exposure and expects to announce a new television agreement within two weeks.

The WNBA has taken over the operation of the Charlotte Sting this season, because the Charlotte Hornets, the NBA team that spawned the Sting, is moving to New Orleans. The league talks of adding a team in San Antonio next year and perhaps in Oakland the year after.

The season begins today in Los Angeles, where the New York Liberty will meet the league champion Sparks. Both teams are potential conference champions this year, and their coaches, who have extensive NBA backgrounds, are excited by the improved WNBA game.

"The league has gotten so much better," Liberty coach Richie Adubato said. "Now, all the players are better coming out of college - bigger, better and more talented."

Michael Cooper, the Sparks' coach, said: "I love the way women approach the game, like a throwback to the men's game in the '80s. Nobody's keeping the ball while everyone else looks up into the stands. They're all working to get it done."

But the WNBA is not one big happy family. When the American Basketball League existed (1996-98), there was competition for the best players, and the players' salaries reflected that. When the ABL folded 3 1/2 years ago, so did high salaries. To maximize their income, most of the WNBA players spend the rest of the year playing overseas.

The league's three-year collective-bargaining agreement with its players union, the Women's National Basketball Players Association, expires after this season. WNBA president Val Ackerman said this week she expected negotiations for a new agreement to begin in the fall. She contends that the league is not making money.

"Most sports leagues lose money, and most new sports leagues lose a lot of money," she said. "At this stage, the WNBA still represents an investment for NBA owners. Our intention is for the league to become profitable."

The union says that because salaries are relatively low, the league is making money and that any losses are a result of creative bookkeeping.

Salaries for the four-plus months from training camp to the league's playoffs range from $30,000 for rookies who were not selected in the first round to almost $80,000 for elite veterans. Benefits include a 401(k) retirement plan, per diems, in-season housing and modest (if any) appearance fees.

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