Trial by Fire: The World of the NWBL

Can a new women’s pro basketball league survive? Even with the backing of the powerful NBA, the WNBA has struggled to hit its stride. But while perhaps not achieving the ultimate numbers desired, the enthusiasm that greets women’s professional play is undeniable. Perhaps others thought, If done on a smaller level it can work. It is that thought that prompted the debut of the Pro League of the National Women’s Basketball League (NWBL, previously a semi-pro league) in 2001.

The goal of the NWBL’s Pro League is to give women hoping to make it to the WNBA level exposure, as well as provide a competitive venue for WNBA players who wish to play in the U.S. during the off-season or rehab injuries.

After surviving their inaugural season, the Pro League expanded to include six franchises in 2002: the Atlanta Justice, Birmingham Power, Chicago Blaze, Houston Stealth, Kansas City Legacy, and Springfield (MA) Spirit. Stocked with talent drawn from local colleges, several teams also boasted marquee names from the WNBA, including Sheryl Swoopes, Rebecca Lobo, Tamika Catchings and Coco and Kelly Miller.

The two-month, 20-game season began in February and was to culminate with the second “Pro Cup” scheduled to take place in San Antonio during the Women’s NCAA Final Four weekend at the end of March.

The history of women’s professional basketball is littered with leagues that have failed in spite of their basketball talent and diehard fans (can anyone say ABL?). It is clear the NWBL is still trying to find its way.

NWBL Vice President of Players and Personnel Michael Walker points to the influx of WNBA players and the competitive quality of play as one of the many pluses of the season. The biggest stumbling block, admits Walker, is the poor quality and quantity of their media exposure.

Perhaps they shouldn’t be complaining. Requests by Women’s Basketball for information from the NWBL were unanswered; media releases are often poorly written and full of typos. While other non-niche sports have used the Web as an extraordinary resource, the NWBL has been slow to take full advantage. On the league website the actual information is sparse, infrequently updated and occasionally wrong. There’s no team news, no listings of coaches, and limited statistics. Some team rosters listed are just the draft results – not reflective of who is actually playing on what team. Minnesota Lynx guard Betty Lennox, who played in 2001, is listed, but did not play this year.

Walker says he hopes to improve the NWBL’s overall treatment next season by taking responsibility for statistics and game-day news from franchises and housing them in the league. “When you look like a pro league and act like a pro league,” acknowledges Walker, “that’s when media treats you like a pro league.”

Acknowledging the NWBL’s steep learning curve, Walkers notes the “difference between being an entrepreneur and starting a basketball league and having 20 million dollars to start it is that a lot of the things you do evolve as you experience a single game-year.”

Other than being willing to pay $100,000-$120, 000 to cover franchise fees and operations, it is unclear what the NWBL requires of its franchises in terms business plan, staffing expectations and marketing goals from prospective owners. (Despite requests, franchise information was never forwarded to WB.) While coaches, general managers and players are paid ($15-$65 a day, depending on draft position), many franchises depend on volunteer staff.

Steve Fox of the Springfield Spirit capitalized on the four years of groundwork laid while he ran a CBA feeder men’s team, the Springfield Slamm. When he decided purchase an NWBL franchise, he simply rolled his entire organization – season ticket holders, sponsors, mailing lists, relationship with the community, and basketball clinics – into his plan to make the Spirit a success. Having five former UConn players on his roster – Kara Wolters, Rebecca Lobo, Shea Ralph, Rita Williams and Christine Rigby – allowed him to access the Connecticut fan base built over the last 10 years.

Opening weekend Fox was selling out of t-shirts, hats, practice jerseys and programs. The Spirit has their own Website, a newspaper linked message board, and keep fans in-the-know with thoughtful and fun fan-emails. Fox’s reward: happy players (despite a poor win/loss record) and 2000-8000 fans a game, depending on the venue.

The five other franchises have not been so fortunate, averaging between 50 and 300 fans a game.

Liz Tucker, a hard-nosed guard out of the University of Albany, has experienced both sides, having started the season with the Spirit and then being traded to the Kansas City Legacy. “Steve [Fox] has done a great job of selling the product,” says Tucker. “I walk around town here [in KC], and only an handful of people know about us.”

“I know we don’t have a lot of money here,” says Carrie Lally, general manager of the Legacy, “but we try and make it as professional as possible.”

She recognizes Missouri is a different challenge than Connecticut. “We’re fighting to sell women’s basketball.” As such, she’s been frustrated by the poor communication and lack of organizational support from the league. “They just thought people would go from there,” says Lally. “There was no infrastructure. So it’s been fly by your seat: You ask them to do something, and if it’s done it’s done. If not, [it’s], ‘Oh, we’ll try better next time.’ ”

Chicago Blaze General Manager Robert Graham, one of a group of 10 owners of the first-year franchise, agrees. “We knew this was going to be an uphill battle this first year, and we expected that,” he says. “I don’t think the league has done enough to support each individual franchise and the growth of the league.”

Weak communication has lead to misunderstandings, mistakes and bad feelings amongst owners and players.

A prime example was the decision to shift the Pro Cup from San Antonio during the Final Four to the Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut – an 8000-seat venue. Though understandable from a business standpoint – Springfield was where the league was getting fans – there were league-wide repercussions. Some owners say they were not consulted. Graham himself learned of the move through a Springfield Spirit fan email.

He had to convince his players it would be worthwhile participating.

“Where are the [WNBA] coaches going to be? At the Final Four or watching me in Connecticut?” said Kansas City’s Tucker, “The whole point of being near the Final Four is to have those coaches there.”

For Darla Simpson, a 32-year old teacher who played for the ABL’s Colorado Xplosion, it brought up a simple question: “What is the reason [for the league]? Are you doing if for the money or you doing it for the players?”

Ironically, while two WNBA representatives were present – Greg Williams, coach of the Detroit Shock, and Tom Newell, a scout for the Portland Fire – the tournament only drew 1,839 people over three days.

Since NWBL has no direct professional connection with the WNBA, it is important they maintain a good professional relationship with those from the WNBA who do play, especially if they intend to use the cachet of a “name” WNBA player as a draw.

“I’m sure the Springfield Spirit was happy to get me,” says Lobo. “I made sure it was okay with the WNBA before I decided to play in the NWBL. I am a player for the Springfield Spirit in the NWBL. I am not a spokesperson for the league.”

While Lobo says she enjoyed her playing experience with the Spirit and would encourage other WNBA players to participate, Sheryl Swoopes is not so generous.

Her schedule limited the number of games Swoopes was able to play for the Houston Stealth to five, but she felt it wasn’t made clear to potential fans.

“Just because you want to promote the league, don’t go out and tell these people ‘Sheryl’s going to be coming,’ ” says Swoopes, “because you know that’s not happening. I think sometimes they got to the point where they did that. That’s why — as a far as professionalism, I feel they didn’t have any. I think that’s bad for women’s basketball. And that’s why I wouldn’t do it again.”

Steve Fox recognizes that, despite its missteps, the league is vastly improved. “If you knew where they were last year, they’ve accomplished 200 percent more,” he says. “Next year, they’re talking about hiring a marketing person, an administrative assistant and a director of operations so they can start creating an infra-structure.”

Graham is cautiously optimistic. “You need to stabilize what you have and get everyone on the same page,” he says. “That shows solidarity to the league itself, not just one franchise doing better than the other.”

“We definitely think we have something that can grow,” says Graham, “But we don’t just want Chicago to grow. We want Atlanta to grow, Birmingham to grow, because it just brings credibility to what we’re doing here in Chicago.”

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