WNBA looking back with pride at its rise

League is resounding hit

labor dispute only cloud

July 15, 2002|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - For Sue Wicks, the chance to talk about the state of women's professional basketball in this country is a chance to wax poetic about the WNBA.

Wicks, 35, a forward for the New York Liberty, has been around long enough to remember the days when the top female collegiate players all had to head to Europe or Japan to ply their trades as professionals.

Many still do, during the fall and winter, but, come summer, they also have the WNBA, and Wicks couldn't be happier.

"All these things, they're amazing when you think about them, as we go through these processes," Wicks said before Saturday's Liberty-Washington Mystics game here. "And it gets better and better. In these six years, you feel a tremendous growth within the league. It's been very successful."

By virtually any objective standard, the WNBA, the 17th attempt at a domestic women's professional basketball league, has been successful, doubling in size over its six years, with players such as Lisa Leslie and Sheryl Swoopes taking their places alongside some of the most famous figures in American sports.

The league's games are televised on NBC, ESPN and ESPN2, and as it prepares to stage its fourth All-Star Game at MCI Center tonight, the WNBA presents itself as a bellwether.

"More than anything, what I feel good about is not only is the league in lock-step with the times, but leading the times in terms of representing something bigger than the game," said WNBA president Val Ackerman.

"Women's sports are on the rise. It's the 30th anniversary of Title IX. ...

"And I think the potential exists to go even further, and I'm confident that we will go even further in terms of making our mark as a spectator sport and, hopefully, leading the way for other women's team sports that are to follow."

The league is averaging nearly 8,500 fans this season, up 1 percent from the same time last year and, in cities such as Washington, New York, Los Angeles, Houston and Sacramento, more than 10,000 fans on average are attending each game.

And while the WNBA's overall television ratings are either flat or down slightly from last year, its numbers among teen-agers and women are up 25 percent from last year.

To be sure, the WNBA has not achieved the stature of the Big Four of men's professional sports - the NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball and the NHL - but it is starting to experience some of the same problems that the men's leagues have endured.

In particular, the league is involved in a dispute with its labor union, the WNBPA, which has hinted it might order a strike when the collective-bargaining agreement expires Sept. 15, two weeks after the season.

At issue is the league's willingness to distribute wealth among the rank-and-file. The players association contends the league's average salary is just under $47,000, while the WNBA says the average for the three-month, 32-game season is $58,000, a figure the WNBPA says is inflated by the inclusion of, among other things, performance bonuses and the value of 401(k) plans.

In addition, the players association contends that the veterans' minimum salary of $40,000 is often below what some rookies earn, and it wants pay to be determined by performance, not by scale. The WNBPA also wants free agency, as well as the right for all players to be able to sell their marketing rights during the season.

"We've asked them for figures to show us things, and they haven't presented us with all the information that will help us base what we're asking for," said Phoenix forward Lisa Harrison.

"We've been patient throughout the start-up of the league as far as making sacrifices to ensure that this league is still around and is working. We just want to be compensated now for us making sacrifices along the way. The league is still here and, from what we see, it's doing well. It's time to pay us back."

Considering the parties will have nine months before the 2003 season starts, few may even realize WNBA players are on strike if, indeed, they walk. However, given the antipathy the public already feels toward player unions and the nascent nature of the league, a strike could reverse the gains the league has struggled to achieve.

The players' case recently received an unexpected shot in the arm when Johnny Buss, the president of the defending-champion Los Angeles Sparks, said he would like to see salaries double, or at least increase by 50 percent - a remark for which he was subsequently fined.

Ackerman has sounded a conciliatory tone, and said she expects to come to an agreement with the players, though no talks have been scheduled.

Meanwhile, the WNBA, a subsidiary of the NBA, continues to struggle to find a place in the hearts of traditional sports fans - read men.

The fact that the women's game is slower-paced than the men's version and is played below the rim draws criticism from many men.

But, said Michael Cooper, coach of the Sparks and a five-time NBA champion with the Lakers, "This is how basketball is meant to be played.

"These ladies play below the rim. They make more passes than men do. All five players touch the ball at least once or twice down the floor. That's more entertaining basketball than having two players play and three players watch on one side of the court."

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