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WNBA at critical juncture

Admit it, the Women's National Basketball Association has been around so long, you've lost track of the number of seasons. How many is it now, three? Maybe four?

Try five.

Midway through its fifth season, the WNBA is the nation's longest-running women's professional basketball league, a sturdy exception after 20 years of predictable failures.

The WNBA survives, therefore it succeeds.

The league will revel in that success, and its world-class talent pool, this weekend in Orlando, site of the league's third annual All-Star game Monday at TD Waterhouse Centre. The game is sold out and will be televised on ESPN.

But if the WNBA hopes to do more than merely survive, it must meet some difficult challenges. The league faces declining attendance and television ratings and growing unrest among veterans over distribution of the $11-million payroll.

"We're very happy to be having a fifth birthday," league president Val Ackerman said before the 2001 season. "We're involved in a real-life game of Survivor, where the fans are the ones casting the votes. We face some challenges, but I feel like we've proven we can play the game."

Founded in 1996 as an opportunistic extension of the success and popularity of the U.S. Olympic team that won a gold medal in Atlanta, the WNBA was a smash in its first two seasons. Backed by the money and marketing clout of the NBA, it quickly outclassed the rival American Basketball League. Attendance far exceeded expectations, television ratings more than held their own and players were giddy about the chance to play on American soil instead of in leagues overseas.

But the novelty seems to have worn off.

"The entire women's pro sports landscape is at a critical juncture," Jay Gladden, a University of Massachusetts sports management expert, told BusinessWeek recently. "The fundamental questions are: Can the WNBA carve a niche for itself? Is the niche large enough to sustain them?"

The WNBA set an overall attendance record of 2.5-million in 2000, thanks in part to the expansion from 12 teams to 16. But average attendance has dropped from a high of 10,869 per game in 1998 to 8,526 this season, as of last week.

New York and Washington are the most successful markets, drawing more than 14,000 fans per game. But franchises in Charlotte, Salt Lake City and Seattle average fewer than 6,000. Orlando, an expansion franchise in 1999, is averaging 7,546, down from 9,801 in its inaugural season.

"Maybe some of the teams aren't in the right markets, and I think the league is going to look at that," said Utah guard Jennifer Azzi, an Olympian who joined the WNBA after the ABL folded. "There's a lot of places I think would be receptive to it."

Though expansion plans are on indefinite hold, there are large markets _ Chicago, San Francisco and Boston _ that might be more suitable. Meanwhile, puzzled marketing directors are searching for ways to maintain their small but loyal fan base _ crowds are 75-percent female _ and attract new fans.

"At the end of the season, we have to really sit down and analyze this," Joe Maloof, owner of the Sacramento Kings and Monarchs, told the Sacramento Bee. "We're putting a strong effort behind it. We have sales people strictly for the Monarchs. But this is a league-wide issue, and I'm like everyone else: I don't know what the answer is."

Though television broadcasts reach 167 countries in 23 languages, ratings have declined, from a high of 1.9 on NBC in the inaugural season to 1.3 this season before Saturday's Los Angeles-Washington game, with one rating point equaling about 1.08-million households. Ratings on cable partners ESPN and Lifetime are about 0.5, with one rating point equaling about 800,000 households.

Beyond finding ways to "grow the audience," the WNBA also must avoid a labor dispute. While players are pleased with the conditions _ a collective bargaining agreement in 1999 brought year-round health insurance and 401(k) and maternity benefits _ and prompt paychecks in the WNBA, there is unrest about the league's $11-million payroll.

Unlike major men's leagues, in which players negotiate contracts with franchise owners, the WNBA controls player salaries. There is no free agency and players have little leverage in negotiations. When the collective bargaining agreement runs out in 2002, at issue will be a payroll structure that emphasizes draft position over performance.

"We are currently unprofitable, but there is a long-term goal to become profitable and that's very much the expectation of the NBA owners that are backing the league, the WNBA and all of us who are operating it as well," Ackerman said.

_ Information from other news organizations was used in this report.

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