Year Three for the NWBL Pro League

“We are the other professional league in this country,” says Patrick Alexander, President of the National Women’s Basketball League (NWBL), “because we offer the players the opportunity to play in the United States competitively.”

While that was always their intent, the initial vision of the NWBL (now concluding it third year) has evolved.

“Conceptually we were trying to form a league that could help develop players to play at the next level,” explains Mike Walker, Vice President of Player Personnel. “Because of the world situation, and the willingness of top players in the United States to play, we’ve now turned into another professional league – we’re by no mean a competition for the WNBA. We just want a league that gives player an opportunity to play here as opposed to overseas.”

After a sophomore season full of painful and joyful growing pains, the National Women’s Basketball League (NWBL) has made significant strides on both a talent and organizational level. “I hate to speak too soon,” says Walker but we really feel we’re real stable as far as the financial picture and the franchise picture. There’s still a learning curve, but we’re past that point where we’re worrying about what were going to do day by day.”

The League still fields six teams: Four holdovers from last year — the Birmingham Power, Houston Stealth, Chicago Blaze, and Springfield (Mass.) Spirit — and two new franchises — the Blizzard in Grand Rapids (MI) and the Tennessee Fury in Knoxville. A perusal of their vastly improved website (www.nwbl.com) reveals that almost a third of this season’s players also play in the WNBA. This, says Chicago owner and general manager Robert Graham, gives a “tremendous amount of credibility to the league.”

It is pretty much agreed that no one is playing in the NWBL for the money. Twenty-two thousand dollars is divided amongst each team’s top eight draft slots (averaging out to approximately $125 a game for a 22 game season) and lower picks aren’t paid.

Then why play?

Four-year WNBA veteran Becky Hammon just completed her first season in the NWBL. She’s enjoyed the high level of competition, and the chance to both improve her skills and get into game shape. “You get to go out and play 40 minutes and have a lot of fun,” says the New York Liberty guard. “That’s part of being intense – you find intensity in playing hard and having fun.”

Of course, the folding of two WNBA teams means fewer roster spots this season, something LaTonya Johnson of the WNBA San Antonio Silver Stars is well aware of. “I know my (WNBA) coach is watching. She put me in this league for a purpose: to make some progress.”

Players without a WNBA contract bring a different intensity to the game. “Some of us are playing for survival,” explains Kelly Komara, of the Grand Rapids team. A third round ’02 draft pick out of Purdue, Komara was knocked out of the Indiana Fever’s training camp by an injury, and welcomed the opportunity to play in the NWBL.

“It’s a starting point – a springboard into something else – whether it be overseas or the WNBA,” she explains.

This season, the NWBL can point to three strong franchises. The Springfield Spirit continues to be its flagship franchise, averaging a little over 2,000 a game. This Spirit’s close proximity to Connecticut, combined wit the presence of University of Connecticut alumnae Sue Bird, Swing Cash, Rebecca Lobo and Kara Wolters, allows it to draw on the legendary Huskies fan base.

Similarly, the new Knoxville franchise has reaped the benefits of nearby University of Tennessee and fields former Lady Vols Semeka Randall and Shalon Pillow. “Everyone in Tennessee has welcomed the Fury with open arms,” says general manager Ryan McCallum.

Managing a staff replete with local graduate student interns, McCallum has lined up sponsors ranging from the Tennessee First National Bank to Kripsy Kreme. In keeping with the league’s tight bottom line, every promotional item – be it player posters, travel tags, or t-shirts – has been a trade. McCallum has also seen a steady increase in attendance: The final game between the Fury and the Houston Stealth (with UT alumna Michelle Snow) filled the 1,800 seat Maryville High School arena.

In Houston, the purchase of the team by local businessman Roy Marsh helped persuade a reluctant Sheryl Swoopes to return for a second season. “There were a lot of situations and issues that they weren’t prepared for or didn’t know how to handle,” says Swoopes, reflecting on last year.

“I laid everything on the table,” explains Swoopes. “This is what I expect of you as an owner, and this is what I’m going to give you in return as a player.”

Stealth head coach John Chancellor is the son of WNBA Comets coach Van Chancellor. In addition to Swoopes, fellow Comets Kelly Gibson, Tina Thompson and Snow are on the roster. As a consequence, the team has tapped into the WNBA fan base, boosting the Stealth attendance to and average of 800.

Walker acknowledges that finding a balance between building the league and building the individual franchises is challenging. In an effort to attract fans, the distribution of WNBA players is often dictated by the locale of the team and the regionality of the player. The Spirit, Fury and Stealth, for instance, boast four to five top WNBA players, while Grand Rapids, Birmingham and Chicago have two and three.

“That’s not necessarily fair to the other teams,” says Hammon, whose Tennessee team also includes WNBA All-Star Marie Ferdinand. “But on a business side, it’s very smart.”

Considering “the best” play between 30-40 minutes a game, the influx of marquee players from the WNBA can be a double-edged sword for players like Komara. While the policy does put people in the stands, projecting into the future, one has to wonder how long the “no name players will be willing to sit, unpaid, on the NWBL bench.

An added bonus for players playing stateside is that they can meet their WNBA and endorsement obligations, as well as pursue other professional opportunities. Swin Cash and Sue Bird, for example, were ESPN commentators.

The challenge for the NWBL is that those obligations may require to miss games. Miscommunication of that information to fans and other owners last season was one of the reasons Swoopes was hesitant bout returning for a second season. The NWBL has tried to take into account player’s conflicts and schedule games accordingly. When conflicts have arisen, the league has been much more proactive bout getting that information out via the press or its Website.

“We don’t want someone to show up for a game to see their favorite player and find out that day that they player has got another obligation,” says Walker.

This year has not been without its growing pains. Springfield owner Stephen Fox hoped to capitalize on last season’s league-leading attendance numbers by moving Spirit games to larger venues. But higher ticket prices, the Iraqi war, a cold and snowy winter and scheduling challenges led to significantly lower-than-anticipated attendance. This year’s NWBL Pr Cu, schedules to be at the 10,000-seat Mohegan Sun (home to the new WNBA franchise, the Connecticut Sun), was moved to the 2,000-seat American International College. Next season will see the Spirit back in more intimate spaces.

While there’s talk of the league’s future expansion (Denver, San Jose, Atlanta and Washington, D.C. have been mentioned), the evaluation of future franchise purchasers will have to be more thorough, especially considering how much independence each franchise is afforded.

“In year four we’ll probably take a much harder look at demographics and other things outside of someone just having enough money and a business plan,” says Walker.

The NWBL will also have to evaluate current franchises. Last year saw the demise of both the Kansas City and the Atlanta teams. The Chicago Blaze has battled to break into the Chicago market but seems to be on solid footing guided by a group of committed owners Birmingham, in its third year, still struggles. Grand Rapids has endured venue issues, staffing problems and low attendance. Requests for interviews with Grand Rapids staff were not returned.

“We’re going to have markets that survive and markets that don’t,” says Walker. “For the survival of the sport, you do what’s necessary to make your league continue to flourish.”

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