- The Washington Times - Friday, December 13, 2002

Turbulent days have arrived again for the WNBA.

In the league's sixth offseason, major changes to its ownership structure, a brewing labor dispute and several individual franchise shifts have collectively thrown the much-publicized league into turmoil and have many observers wondering whether it still has a future.

Among the significant events since the 2002 season ended in August:

•Franchises in Miami and Orlando, Fla., have ceased operations.

•The Utah Starzz last week moved to San Antonio after Utah Jazz owner Larry Miller refused to keep funding the Starzz's losses. The Seattle Storm and Portland Fire could be next to move or fold.

•Contract and marketing issues with WNBA players remain unresolved; a work stoppage next summer is possible.

•A historic vote in October by the NBA Board of Governors eliminated the WNBA's single-entity ownership model and shifted the equity, operating costs and financial risk of each team to individual owners.

WNBA commissioner Val Ackerman acknowledges the league may play in 2003 without the full 16-team lineup it has sported since 2000 and that franchise instability could be a factor for several more years. But she also insists all the changes were necessary and ultimately will improve the operation.

"We can't rule out playing with [fewer than 16 teams] next year," Ackerman said. "But this is part of our growing up. Whatever negative impact we may see out of this, we hope that it will only be temporary. The single-entity model, while we would have not started [in 1997] without it, has basically run its course for us.

"The new model will allow us to seek out teams in non-NBA cities that want women's basketball, as well as non-NBA owners in those league cities."

All the turmoil, however, creates larger questions. Even with the NBA's financial and marketing support, can the WNBA survive outside of this protective cocoon? Is the WNBA now headed toward the same high-dollar, low cost-control mistakes that ultimately doomed the American Basketball League, the WNBA's one-time competitor?

"One thing is for sure: This league is now going to sink or swim on its own merits," said David Carter, a Los Angeles-based sports industry consultant and lecturer at the University of Southern California. "We're going to find out whether the WNBA is truly sustainable, and I think the jury is really out on that.

"The change in ownership model is generally a good thing because it gives them greater control over their own destiny and doesn't tie them down with ancillary issues with the NBA owners. But there are still major funding issues with this league."

Ackerman intends to have a firm grasp on the franchise lineup for both 2003 and 2004 by the end of next month. Hartford, Conn., near the storied University of Connecticut women's program, is a strong bet to receive a team and may inherit the dormant Miami Sol or Orlando Miracle as soon as this spring. No other city will be ready for a relocated team for 2003, Ackerman said, but other possibilities for 2004 or 2005 include Nashville, San Francisco and Pittsburgh.

The Charlotte Sting, fully controlled by the league, will remain there for 2003 and probably longer while the NBA continues its push for a new team, owner and arena in that city.

Other elements of the WNBA's fiscal health are a mixed bag.

The league improved its average attendance by 2 percent last year to 9,228 a game, its best showing since 1999. A new TV deal set to start next season with ESPN and ABC promises to boost the league's national TV exposure. The sponsorship portfolio continues to grow and includes corporate heavyweights such as General Motors and Anheuser-Busch.

But many of the WNBA's attendance counts remain dependent on free or heavily discounted tickets; the recently relocated Starzz gave away more than 3,000 a game last season. And aside from teams in New York and Washington, the league's franchises have not established a niche in the local sports markets.

The labor matter is dicey. The players want a hefty raise from average salaries pegged at between $46,000 and $55,000 depending on which side is calculating the figures free agency rights and greater freedom to pursue endorsement deals.

The league says cost control and stemming losses are important. Regardless of negotiating platforms, the ongoing fight could simply diminish interest in the sport, just as baseball's labor problems have turned off millions of fans.

A negotiating session between the two sides was held Nov.22, and the union has made an initial proposal for a new collective bargaining agreement. But to date, the league has not responded and no sessions are scheduled.

"A work stoppage, obviously, is very undesirable," Ackerman said. "Both sides, I think, understand we need to get an agreement so we can get on with growing the league."

The union favors restructuring and its potential to replace weak franchises with stronger ones more likely to spend more on players. The players' general negotiating stance, however, has not changed as a result of the current uncertainty.

"There's greater potential and promise for the WNBA under this new structure," said Pam Wheeler, director of operations for the WNBA Players Association. "But there's no secret with where we are. We want a fair deal where our players also share in that new freedom and opportunity."

Amid all the changes, the WNBA is still not without some hubris. The league will expand its regular season in 2003 by two games to 34 and hold its playoffs in September, opposite the start of the NFL season and baseball's pennant races. The WNBA traditionally has finished its play each year in late August.

"Our fan bases are really different anyway," Ackerman said. "This gives us an opportunity to give each team an extra home date and allows us to put a little breathing room in the schedule."

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