Women's pro basketball: down at halftime, but attempting a comeback

The professional Women's Basketball League, organized three years ago, collapsed in November. Since then, phone lines have been disconnected at league headquarters and those involved appear to have disappeared.

The WBL was never widely publicized. No one in the league was ever able to claim celebrity status. The WBL's top players such as Ann Meyers, Nancy Lieberman, and Molly Bolin (who often scored 40 or more points a game) are still relatively unknown.

A player better known than those ''stars,'' due to her Dannon yogurt commercial with her twin sister, is Faye Young. The fact that she is more recognizable to the public through her TV ads than her three years as a basketball pro may be an indication that the WBL never achieved a very high profile.

Still, news of the demise of women's pro basketball, if not greatly exaggerated, may at least be premature. A new women's pro league is being formed , Ms. Young says, although few details are known about it at this point.

Young is now head coach of the women's basketball team at Manhattan College. Many former players either have followed a similar path, have gone overseas to play, or have chosen to pursue new interests. Still others are playing exhibition games awaiting the resurgence of the league.

According to Young, one of the old league's major problems was poor management. ''The league needed more credible people in management,'' she says. ''Often the owners didn't have enough money to put into it. The league needed more backing from corporations.''

Many teams were unable to pay their players on time, even though the average salary for the 36-game season was only about $10,000.

At the end of the first season, no team made a profit - or even came close to breaking even. The Chicago Hustle franchise lost the least amount of money, $250 ,000.

Despite the losses, owners remained optimistic about the league's chances. Lacking funds, however, many appeared put little time and money into advertising the sport.

Before running its course, the league grew from eight to 14 teams in the 1979 -80 season. Two of those, Washington and Philadelphia, folded in midseason and four more disbanded before starting the WBL's final campaign. Two of the four were the previous year's championship finalists, New York and Iowa. The only franchises still in operation when the league finally collapsed were Nebraska (the 1981 champion), Chicago, and New Orleans.

The WBL attracted very few spectators. The official average attendance was about 2,700 in 1979-80. Crowds in the hundreds were never unusual. One problem was finding suitable playing sites. Some teams played in out-of-the-way high school gymnasiums, while others got lost in major arenas.

Had the 1980 Olympics not been boycotted, women's basketball would have had some time in the spotlight. Some sports experts say the WBL might have profited from that exposure, as fans followed skilled players from amateur to professional play.

''The public still doesn't have the right attitude about women's basketball, '' says Young. ''Players and the league are still up against traditional viewpoints.''

Women, she says, play a different style of basketball that emphasizes grace and finesse more than power and speed. In her opinion, the public's attitude will take time to change. Eventually, she sees a new league succeeding sometime in the future.

''It's good for the WBL to take this break,'' Young says. ''Now there's time to evaluate what happened, so when the league reappears it will be more successful.''

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