- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 15, 2007

For the WNBA, it’s one decade down and on to the next.

The women’s professional basketball league begins its 11th season this weekend and again is facing questions about its place in the world of sports.

On one hand, league officials and observers argue the quality of women’s basketball might never be better and that the league has more competitive balance than in past seasons. The league’s television contract is more extensive than ever, and there is talk of expansion.

But the league also is coming off a season with attendance declines in many cities and is entering this season down to 13 teams after the shuttering of a franchise in Charlotte.

“I think there was a lot of foundation laid down in the first decade,” WNBA president Donna Orender said. “It’s our responsibility to respond and build on those fundamentals.”

The WNBA continues to operate with both the moral and financial support of the NBA, which injects about $12 million annually to keep the league viable. Most teams are not profitable on their own, but league officials said the WNBA as a whole is on track to make money as soon as this year. Moreover, the league has had talks with more than a half-dozen cities, including Denver, Kansas City, Albuquerque, San Francisco and Atlanta, about adding a franchise as soon as 2008.

The talk of expansion comes mere months after the Charlotte Sting, one of the WNBA’s founding franchises and sister club to the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats, folded after owner Bob Johnson failed to find a new buyer for the team. The Sting had been hurt by poor results on the court and low attendance; they drew an average of just 5,783 fans, second worst in the league.

Orender placed a positive spin on the demise of the Sting, arguing that the loss of a weak franchise only could help the league as a whole.

“We want to operate from a position of strength, and you can’t do that when you have a franchise that’s holding you back,” she said.

Reported attendance at WNBA games has declined about 5 percent each year since 2002, falling from about 9,100 a game to less than 7,500 during that stretch. But Orender said that figure is skewed by small crowds for the Sting and expansion Chicago Sky and that six teams last year saw increases in attendance over 2005. League observers also noted that several teams, including the Washington Mystics, became more precise in their counting last year, thus causing reported attendance to decline even if actual crowds did not shrink.

David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at Southern Cal, said the WNBA is financially strong but that it’s important to avoid comparisons with other sports properties that operate on a much larger scale. Consider that the Los Angeles Sparks were sold in the offseason for about $10 million — less than a 20th of the value of the Portland Trail Blazers, the least-valuable team in the NBA, according to Forbes Magazine.

“It’s settling in to being a viable league but not a wildly viable league,” Carter said. “It’s always going to be on the sports landscape but on the second-tier of that landscape. It’s just viable on a smaller scale.”

The WNBA could get a boost this year from increased TV exposure on the ESPN family of networks and NBA TV. It also has larger sponsorship deals with Discover Card and Ocean Spray, among others.

Carter said the league’s big challenge as it enters its second decade is to maintain the cache and prestige that comes with being associated with the NBA while simultaneously moving toward private ownership of teams.

At the very least, the WNBA appears to have solved the problem of competitive imbalance. With the Detroit Shock becoming the third WNBA champion in as many seasons last year, there appears to be more parity now than in the league’s early years, when the Houston Comets breezed to the first four titles.

Analysts said offseason player movement shows more teams are able to find ways to fill roster holes. The New York Liberty stunned the league on draft day last month by trading two-time All-Star guard Becky Hammon to San Antonio for the Silver Stars’ top pick — Ohio State center Jessica Davenport — plus a first-round pick in 2008.

Also on draft day, the Phoenix Mercury selected guard Lindsey Harding with the first pick but quickly traded her to the Minnesota Lynx for five-time All-Star center Tangela Smith. That trade came after the Mercury had acquired center Kelly Schumacher from the Liberty for a second-round pick in next year’s draft. The Mercury also traded forward Ann Strother to the Indiana Fever for center Olympia Scott.

Meanwhile, the Sacramento Monarchs also were active, trading a second-round pick in 2008 to the Indiana Fever for guard-forward La’Tangela Atkinson and re-acquiring guard Chelsea Newton from the Chicago Sky in exchange for a draft pick.

“There’s been some good movement,” said ESPN basketball analyst Carolyn Peck, a former coach with the Orlando Miracle and the University of Florida. “Things are as unpredictable this year as ever because there are some teams that filled some voids and balanced things out.”

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