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Year in Review: 1997

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Re-rank the list of top sports stories of 1997

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Tiger Woods takes
golf world by storm

Pedro Martinez signs
record deal with Sox

Latrell Sprewell
assaults coach, gets ax

Rick Pitino becomes
Celtics coach, president

Bill Parcells quits after Patriots' banner year

Martina Hingis
rules women's tennis

Florida Marlins win World Series

Women's pro hoop
meets with success

A Patriots surprise:
Super Bowl XXXI berth

Wil Cordero charged
with assaulting wife


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Check out the top news stories of 1997

In year 2, ABL offers real alternative

League will reclaim basketball spotlight from WNBA

By Barbara Huebner, Globe Staff, 10/11/97

As the American Basketball League begins its second season tomorrow night, its spiritual leader would like to extend her thanks. To the WNBA.

``A lot of marketing was done this summer,'' said Teresa Edwards, the four-time Olympian and player-coach of the ABL's Atlanta Glory, ``without us having to do a thing.''

Her sentiment -- that the unprecedented TV exposure and reported $15 million of flashy marketing given the WNBA in its inaugural summer season will rub off on the poorer, underdog ABL -- is echoed throughout the league, which will kick off its second year when Atlanta meets the New England Blizzard tomorrow at 7 p.m. The game, marking the debuts of former University of Connecticut star Kara Wolters and former Celtics player and coach K.C. Jones, is expected to draw at least 12,000 fans to Hartford Civic Center.

Make no mistake: Despite all the sweet talk this week from both sides about how the leagues benefit each other by keeping women's basketball in a year-round spotlight, the Goliath that is the WNBA must surely wish the pesky David would put down that stone.

``They were able to make women's professional basketball a household conversation around the world within three months,'' said Blizzard general manager Pam Batalis of the WNBA. ``We respect that and acknowledge that. But it's kind of a double-edged sword for me: They showcased a product that is not necessarily the best product women's basketball has to offer. I still believe we have the better league and the better players.''

On the latter, at least, few outside the WNBA disagree. Other than the high-profile Lisa Leslie, Rebecca Lobo, and Sheryl Swoopes, most of the 1996 US Olympic gold-medal team went to the ABL. Although Nikki McCray, last season's Most Valuable Player, defected to the WNBA, the ABL lured in her place Olympian Katrina McClain, who played last season in Europe. Of the last 11 Naismith Award winners as college player of the year, the ABL boasts seven. And of the top 13 players who came out of college last spring, the ABL snared 10.

One reason is philosophical: Teams in the ABL play a 44-game schedule in the traditional basketball season; the WNBA's shorter ``summer league'' is seen by many as demeaning. Another is visceral: Because Olympians Edwards, Dawn Staley, and Jennifer Azzi helped plan the ABL, which still relies heavily on their input, players feel a connection with the league, which just this week announced a stock option plan that sets aside 10 percent of the league's stock for its players.

But a third, perhaps stunningly, is financial, at least so far: While the WNBA reportedly offers salaries from $10,000-$50,000 for its shorter season, the ABL bottoms out at $40,000 and averages $80,000. Thus, players unlikely to supplement their income with the huge endorsement money of a Leslie, Lobo, or Swoopes can make more in the ABL.

``The WNBA has some marquee players, but I think the ABL, top to bottom, has the best talent,'' assessed Pat Summitt, coach of the NCAA champion University of Tennessee, who characterized the WNBA's early-season play as ``sloppy.'' Although Summitt said she saw improvement as the summer went on, others who observed both leagues come down squarely in favor of the ABL on the issue of quality.

Still, WNBA fans didn't appear to care. Ever-present promos during the NBA playoffs (``We Got Next'') lured a TV audience of 50 million to WNBA games on NBC, ESPN, and Lifetime, while attendance averaged 9,669 -- more than double the league's preseason projection.

That says something to WNBA president Val Ackerman. ``The fact that our games were hard-fought and fans appreciated them tells me we had games that were pretty terrific,'' she said, adding that she finds comparisons of the quality of play between the two leagues ``tiresome.''

It says something to Gary Cavalli, too: While the ABL's heart might still be grass roots, it has no choice to but to reach out to the masses. ``We now need to capitalize on that momentum,'' said the ABL co-founder and CEO during a teleconference this week. ``A mass-market approach will bring new fans to the games.'' A step in that direction was yesterday's four-page insert in USA Today, in which the league unveiled the pointed slogan ``Real Basketball'' as a replacement for last year's warm-and-fuzzy ``It's A Whole New Ballgame.''

In addition to doubling last year's marketing budget from $1.5 million to $3 million, the ABL -- while still not cracking a major network -- has significantly upgraded its TV exposure by hooking up with Fox Sports Net, which reaches more than 60 million homes through its affiliates and regional networks. In addition, Reebok has enhanced its multiyear agreement, while Nike has signed on to help with a TV ad campaign that will promote the league. The league has upgraded its coaching, including the splashy addition of a Celtics legend. It has expanded to nine teams, adding a franchise in Long Beach, and moved its Richmond team to much larger Philadelphia.

Attendance is also expected to rise. The Blizzard, who led the league last season by averaging 5,008 fans at 20 home games split between Hartford and Springfield, this year will play all but six games in more receptive Hartford and have already tripled their season ticket sales to 6,250.

But not everything is rosy. While McCray reportedly took a salary cut to jump to the WNBA, she undoubtedly did so to take advantage of the bigger opportunities for endorsements that come with that league's brighter spotlight. Almost immediately, she signed a $1 million deal with Fila.

Cavalli downplays McCray's departure, citing the dozens of players he said turned down offseason overtures by the WNBA, but crunch time will come next summer, when the two-year contracts of the Olympians run out. While Edwards vows that ``as long as the ABL exists, I'll exist with it,'' some of her teammates from the glory days in Atlanta are said to be weighing their devotion against the potential for a windfall.

While a merger might seem inevitable, no one is mentioning it. ``From our standpoint, it's not something we've even contemplated,'' said the WNBA's Ackermann. ``We think we have the right plan here and we are going to pursue that plan,'' said the ABL's Cavalli.

Summitt just wants to see good basketball. ``The question remains, are there enough players to provide the caliber of play in both leagues? What would happen if you took the best players and combined them? I think the quality of play would far exceed even what we have now.''


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