Women's Hoops Blog

Inane commentary on a game that deserves far better

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Val's retirement led a lot of people to look back at the history of the league. Part of the early history was defined in large part by competition with the ABL. To be honest, I don't know much about that chapter in women's basketball history, and looking around the web, there wasn't a whole lot of information.

I emailed Gary Cavalli, who was the co-founder of the ABL and also served as the league's CEO, and asked if he'd be willing to do an interview about league history. He graciously agreed; questions and answers are below. Thanks a million do Gary for the time, and for his frank and fascinating responses. (Thanks also to Barry and Helen Wheelock for helping me think through some questions.)

There are those who think that the WNBA killed the ABL. There are others who think that the ABL didn't have a chance either way -- Mechelle Voepel, e.g., said last week that the ABL had an "unrealistic idealism" and that "the WNBA was the only legitimate shot that women's pro hoops had." Do you think the ABL would have survived if not for the competition from the WNBA?

I think we would have survived and thrived without the WNBA. I've always believed there was room for one good women's pro league in this country. We launched our league when the WNBA was still a question mark. When they decided to go forward, after we had one solid year under our belt, we knew it would be much harder. It turned out there weren't enough sponsors, fans, and TV partners to support two leagues. (Some would argue that without the WNBA's deep pockets, there aren't enough even to support one league).

My belief is that without the WNBA competition for TV, sponsors, fans and players (which drove salaries up), we would have made it. I'm not sure who Mechelle Voepel is, but I'd agree with part of her assessment. We were certainly idealistic, but that's why so many players still refer to their time in the ABL as "the good old days." There's nothing wrong with trying to do things right--pay players well, give them a voice in the league, etc. It is possible to do things right and succeed, but not when you're battling such a well-organized, well-funded, and powerful competitor.

The ABL's contracts with its players included non-compete clauses that prevented them from playing in the WNBA. Absent those clauses, is it possible that both leagues could have survived?

That's an interesting question, and we debated it internally. We belived at the time that the large number of quality players exclusively competing in our league was a key factor in distinguishing us from the WNBA. In retrospect, it's possible that had we allowed our players to compete in both leagues and paid them less, we might have managed to survive as a sort of "minor" league for the WNBA. However, that would have been a big change from our original mission, and at the time, we didn't want to go that route.

The ABL sometimes marketed itself by contrasting itself to the NBA and the WNBA. In her press conference announcing her resignation, Val Ackerman said that she was "disappointed by the public[]negativity put out by the ABL about the WNBA." Do you have any response to that?

I'm sorry to hear she said that. I have a great deal of respect for Val, but I think she's dead wrong here. If anything, the negativity came from the other direction. When we were getting started and launching the league, and throughout our first season, we constantly had to deal with negative comments, accusations, and false rumors circulated both publicly and privately by everyone connected with the WNBA.

According to the WNBA folks, we were never going to throw the ball up, never play a game, never get any players, never get a tv contract, never get a sponsor, never be able to make payroll, never survive our first season, etc. We heard that from their officials, announcers, and coaches. We had this reported to us by players we recruited, tv networks, sponsors we solicited...over and over again. This continued throughout our second and third seasons--in WNBA comments to the media and in recruiting pitches to graduating seniors. It was almost comical how, in WNBA publications and TV coverage, they pretended that the ABL didn't exist. For many years, their published histories and timelines on the evolution of women's basketball omitted any reference to the ABL. When player bios were shown on the TV screen or described by their analysts, no references to the ABL were made. In recent years, thankfully, we've somehow re-appeared.

As for our own publicity and marketing materials, we had no choice but to contrast ourselves to the WNBA. Remember, we didn't have the benefit of the NBA's money, leverage, marketing machine, TV exposure, etc. We were fighting to stay alive against the proverbial 900 lb. Gorilla. So, yes, in contrasting ourselves to the WNBA, we did point out the key differences--that we paid the players more, that we played in basketball season, that our players didn't have to go overseas to make a living. Those were the facts. If that's being negative about the WNBA, I guess I plead guilty.

How much did it hurt the league to lose Nikki McCray and Dawn Staley? How intensely did you and the league try to keep them?

It hurt a lot. Interestingly, I think losing Dawn was more of a blow to us. Nikki was our MVP the first year, and right up until the last minute, Tracy Williams (our personnel director) and I were doing everything in our power to keep her in the fold and thought she was going to stay with us. Ultimately, she was won over by the glamour of the NBA's marketing machine. She was really taken by the opportunity to become one of their marquee players and benefit from all the promotion.

Yet after Nikki bolted, we went on to have a tremendous recruiting year, and in head to head competition with the WNBA, essentially got all of the top players coming out of college that year--Kate Starbird, Kara Wolters, etc. We got something like 12 of the top 14 players. That really lessened the impact of Nikki's deparature.

Losing Dawn was tougher to swallow. We were going into our third year and we were struggling to stay afloat. We had moved a team to her home town, Philadelphia. We had given her input in coaching and GM decisions. Both Tracy Williams and I spent a lot of time with her. But when it came down to it, her agents essentially cut us off. We didn't even get an audience with them. It was a huge blow to the league.

Putting aside any issues about competition with the WNBA... what was the biggest obstacle the ABL faced? Are there decisions you made that you would make differently if you had the chance to do it again?

Initially, the biggest obstacle was the general perception that it couldn't be done. The numerous failures of other pro leagues, the skepticism of the media and the basketball establishment, and the fact that we were on the West Coast, outside of the traditional pro sports mainstream, made everything much more difficult. We had to work very hard to gain credibility with the players, coaches, and media. We had to deliver everything we promised, and then some. It was a constant struggle to prove ourselves. Then, just when we were starting to turn the corner after our first year, along came the WNBA. Suddenly, we found ourselves in a bidding war for players, unable to lock in sponsors and TV networks, playing a game on an uneven playing field.

We never had enough money. We were able to raise about 30 million dollars from investors and league sponsors, but it came in gradually over time. We were always on the edge financially, and never had the war chest we needed to effectively promote the league. Our tiny advertising and promotion budget was a small fraction of the WNBA's.

Certainly, there were things I'd do differently if we had the chance to do it over. There were some bad hiring decisions. I think we paid the players too much. There were some opportunities that we turned down early in the game, because of fairness and equity issues, that in retrospect we probably should have accepted.

As the ABL was winding down, there was talk of an antitrust action against the WNBA. Why did you decide not to proceed with that?

In the league's bankruptcy reorganization plan, there was a provision for a potential antitrust suit against the NBA. Some pretty knowledgeable, high-powered lawyers in New York thought we had a very good case. But given the NBA's deep pockets and cadre of lawyers, it probably would have required several years and millions of dollars to pursue.

At that point, having given four extremely stressful years to the ABL and gone through the painful process of closing down the league, I was ready to move on with my life. So I resigned from the ABL estate's governing board and told them I didn't want to be actively involved in a lawsuit; my only involvement would be as a witness. I believe they did hire a firm to conduct an investigation and explore the merits of an anti-trust suit. I was told they found many indications of questionable or actionable behavior, but no smoking gun. Without enough money or manpower to conduct a prospective lawsuit, and without a clear indication they would win, the governing board decided to drop it.

The ABL played in the traditional season and used the 29.5 ball. Were these decisions and others part of a conscious strategy to market women's pro basketball as "real basketball"? Why was it important to do that?

In the beginning, we had a core group of founding players, including Teresa Edwards, Jennifer Azzi, Dawn Staley and others from the '96 Olympic Team. They gave us input as to the size of the ball, the three-point line, the type of coaches we should pursue, length of the season, etc. We felt it was important to have the players' input and involvement in launching the league, making the right decisions. In doing so, we gained credibility and support from players throughout the country. That was really the basis for our success we enjoyed and the strong bond we had with our players.

The ABL tried to be a "players' league" in part by paying its players more and giving its players an equity interest in the league. You've said that, in retrospect, you may have paid too much, but do you still think it could work to give pro players some financial ownership in their league?

Absolutely. I see no reason why players can't own part of a league whose existence and financial success is dependent upon their talent and commitment.

You told Bob Ley on "Outside the Lines" that the ABL lost some sponsorship deals due to some perception that women's pro hoops was a lesbian game. Would you say that was a major hurdle? Did the league have any strategy or policy for dealing with the issue of orientation?

I don't think I put it in those terms. There were a few potential sponsors and investors who made some revealing comments to me in the course of evaluating their prospective involvement with the ABL. I'm not sure how big of a factor it was, but it was very clear to me that the race and sexual orientation of our players was a determining factor in at least a couple of instances. I'd have to say that it was pretty eye-opening to me, in traveling around this country as a representative of a women's basketball league, to see how much prejudice still exists.

Our policy was basically to welcome all players and coaches without any regard to their orientation. The same was true for our fans. We needed all the support we could get. We realized that the gay community was part of the fan base for women's basketball, and we promoted our league to that audience. I think several of our teams advertised in the gay media.

Teresa Edwards was in some ways the face of the ABL, both during its existence and for several years afterward, when she refused to play in the WNBA. How would you characterize Teresa's role in the ABL? Are you still in touch with her?

There are few people in this world I respect more than Teresa Edwards. She was, in many ways, the heart and soul of the league. She and Jennifer Azzi, in my mind, were the two who really stood out. They went way above and beyond the call. I stayed in touch with Teresa for a few years after the league folded, but I haven't seen or spoken to her in awhile. She'll always have a special place in my heart. My daughter, Alyssa, actually did a report on Teresa to her fourth-grade class a few years ago.

Is there any still-existing ABL community among former players, coaches, or execs?

There's an incredibly strong bond between all of those who were involved. It was an amazing experience. For many of our players, coaches and GMs, it was the highlight of their career. We tried to do something very special. Ultimately, we didn't succeed, but we did push the bar a little higher, advanced the cause of women's sports in this country, and had a very positive impact on a lot of people's lives.

I'm still see the other two co-founders, Steve Hams and Anne Cribbs. Anne and I are on some sports marketing boards together, and Steve and I coach against each other in school and YMCA girls' basketball. I'm in touch regularly with several other former ABL administrators--Rich Nichols, our general counsel, Tracy Williams, our player personnel director, Carla Peyton, our licensing guru, Dean Jutilla, our PR director, and a few of our general managers--Linda Weston and Karen Bryant.

One of the neatest things that happened to me recently was a call I got call from Karen Bryant. She was our GM for the Seattle Reign and is now the GM of the WNBA champion Seattle Storm. It was the day before the deciding Game 3 of the WNBA championship series between Seattle and Connecticut. She said that she and Chris Sienko (the GM of the Connecticut Sun, who was our GM for the New England Blizzard) were together talking about the ABL. She said they were thinking back on how much the league had meant to them, how the ABL had given them their start and was the beginning of the evolution of women's basketball in the USA. She said that she just wanted to call and say they were thinking about me.

I was really touched. I'd been following the WNBA playoffs and was very happy that two of our GMs and one of our coaches (Anne Donovan) were in the playoffs. It was great that Karen and Anne took home the trophy.

I should say parenthetically that I still follow our players in the WNBA. I read the box scores every day to see how they're doing. It was great to see Sheri Sam, Taj McWilliams, Debbie Black, etc. in the finals. And it's great to see Katie Smith, Yolanda Griffith, Adrienne Goodson, Shannon Johnson, Dawn Staley, Crystal Robinson, and so many other ex-ABL players doing so well.

In early 2003, the WNBA seemed to be in dire straights, due in part to the labor dispute. Now, the league seems on firmer ground. Do you think the WNBA will survive long term? If not, do you think another league would replace it? Do you have any suggestions for what the WNBA could do better?

I think the players gave in on most of the key issues because they had no leverage. The WNBA is all they have in this country, and, understandably, they don't want to lose it.

As to the long term survival of the league, a lot of it depends on how long David Stern will subsidize it. I don't share Val's optimism about profitability. I think one of the downsides to playing in the summer is that there is a threshold of how many fans will go indoors to watch a sport that's not in season. They started at about 9,000 fans per game, got up as high as 10,000, and now have slipped back in the last few years to about 8,500. And let's be honest, we all know those numbers are inflated. I went to a game in Sacramento a few years ago, and actually counted the crowd. There were less than 2,500 people there, and the next day the announced crowd was over 5,000.

Having said that, I'm rooting for them to make it. Some have suggested that those of us who started the ABL want the WNBA to fail. That's not true. We wanted there to be a women's pro league in this country, and we hoped it would be our league. Since that didn't happen, I'm really pulling for the WNBA.

We need a league in this country--our players deserve to have a league in this country--and the WNBA is the best chance we've got. If they don't make it, I think it will be very difficult for another league to do it. What investor, sponsor or TV network will be willing to take a chance on another pro league if one backed by the NBA doesn't survive?

As for suggestions, I think they're doing a very good job. I think they expanded a little too fast, the quality suffered, some of the markets couldn't support a team, and I think they learned from that. Because of the threshold in fans I mentioned above, I think they have to find other sources of revenue--more sponsors, more merchandising, etc.--and they seem to be doing that very well. They've made it for eight years now. I congratulate them, and I wish them well.

There has been off-and-on talk about a WNBA franchise in the Bay Area. Do you think that's a good idea? Would it work best in San Jose, San Francisco, or the East Bay? Would you have any interest in helping make that happen?

I think there's a strong fan base in the Bay Area because of the success of the Stanford team and the ABL's experience with the San Jose Lasers. I think the peninsula would be the best bet, but there are advantages to partnering with the NBA team in the East Bay, utlizing the facility, taking advantage of the team's resources, etc. I have no interest in being involved. I've been down that road, and I was fortunate enough to come out of it with my family, my health, my integrity and my sense of humor intact. I'd just be a fan.

You now serve as Executive Director in the Emerald Bowl. Are you still involved in the development of women's sports, or do you hope to be again in the future?

At this point, my only active involvment is as a youth sports coach. I coach my 11-year old daughter's basketball teams at her school and at the local YMCA. I do participate in panels, speak at local universities, and try to serve as an ambassador for women's sports. I give talks occasionally at the Stanford Business School, Stanford Law School and University of San Francisco on sports management, women's sports, and related issues, and may do more teaching in the future.

I'm very happy running the Emerald Bowl and doing some other advertising and PR projects. Ironically, Mel Greenberg called me just last week and and said that a number of people had suggeted that I'd be a great candidate to replace Val Ackerman. I told Mel that Osama Bin Laden has a better chance of being president of the United States than I have of being president of the WNBA.