ABOVE PHOTO; The WABA hopes to be a successful compliment to the WNBA.
By Chris Murray
For the Chris Murray Report
When Sonya Nichols was a collegiate basketball player at James Madison during the mid-1990s, she struggled with knee injuries and didn’t have much of a chance to showcase her skills so that she could have the opportunity to play professional basketball.
Nichols didn’t get any calls from the European professional leagues, the newly formed WNBA or the former American Basketball League when her knees were better. Not having a venue to showcase her talents was something that would stick with her even beyond her playing days.
“After my collegiate career when my knees were ready to go, I didn’t have a platform to play,” Nichols said. “I took that personally. I knew that one day that I would like to be a part of helping women who are displaced and not able to go overseas or not interested in going overseas, for that matter, to be in some type of league that’s available for us just to showcase and demonstrate the talent we have because we didn’t’ make it to that next level for one reason or another.”
As the chief executive officer of the newly formed Women’s American Basketball Association, Nichols wants to give women basketball players that opportunity to play at the professional level. The league; which is a part of the American Basketball Association, which is based in Indianapolis; is scheduled to begin play in April, 2014.
Chief operating officer and Philadelphia sports agent Sporty Smith, who will be the owner of the WABA’s Philadelphia Love, said the new league hopes that to have 24 teams competing by the league begins play next year.
Smith said the league will draw players and coaches from the collegiate ranks, former WNBAers, players who play in Europe, but more importantly teams will have players who are from same town as the franchise. He said it’s going to be players who were local high school and collegiate stars in their particular towns.
“The difference between us and the WNBA is that a lot of the players that would be on those teams would be local and so they’ll have their families readily available to watch them play,” Smith said.
According to the WABA’s website, there are currently nine teams in the league now. The New Jersey Express, which will play out of Newark, The New England Stormers (Boston), The Hampton Roads Lightning (Norfolk, Va.) and the Philadelphia Love—teams that would make up the Northeast Divisions.
In the Midwest, there’s only team so far and that’s the Chicago Lady Steam. In the South, there will be the Lake City Kingdom Riderettes (Lake Charles, La.); The Lady Cadets of Fayetteville, NC; The Lady Roadrunners of Columbus, Ga. ;and the McAllen Queens of McAllen, Tex.
Going into big and small markets is also part of the new league’s strategy for growth.
“That’s an opportunity for us,” Nichols said. “That’s pretty much the standard model of the ABA since it’s inception. We’re going take a page from their book and really tap in those markets. People in those towns want to come out and support a professional team because they don’t have them.”
While giving women’s basketball players another venue to play professional basketball sounds like a good idea, the WABA will have to convince an audience in an over saturated sports market that their league will be as good as the WNBA, which has its own struggles in trying to increase its fan base in its 17 years of existence.
With the addition of new WNBA players like Elena Delle Donne of the Chicago Sky, Skyler Diggins who plays for the Tulsa Shock and of course, Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner, who dominated women’s college basketball with her size and ability to dunk, interest in the WNBA is actually growing.
Attendance, WNBA merchandise and TV ratings on ESPN 2 have gone up this year thanks to Griner, Delle Donne and Diggins. In the season opener featuring all three players, ESPN 2 had it highest regular-season ratings in nine years.
Nichols said the recent success of the WNBA and the popularity of women’s college bodes well for her upstart league.
“People are very interested in women’s sports now, “ Nichols said. “Those three players of that caliber have really sparked an interest. …We definitely feel that we’ll be able to stay in it and we will sustain just as the WNBA has.”
One of the things that could help the WABA is having a television deal to broadcast their games. To that end, Nichols said that she has worked out a deal to televise their games with the New York-based Urban Broadcasting Company, which is scheduled to launch in the fall and is supposed to reach 40 million homes on Comcast, Time Warner and Dish Network.
Nichols said the new league is also in negotiations with another network, but will not announce anything until a deal is done.
Meanwhile, Nichols and Smith are also trying to find arenas to play their games. If they’re going not to going to play at places like the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia or New York’s Madison Squarer Garden, collegiate arenas are the venue of choice.
For his team, Smith has found a practice facility in Northeast Philadelphia. He said he is negotiating with local colleges for a regular place to play their games.
As for players salaries, the WABA will not be doling out millions right off the top, Smith said that will happen as the leagues grows and continues to get sponsorship. The league minimum for players will be $50 per game.
Both Nichols and Smith said the main thrust of their marketing strategy locally is to be involved in community service efforts by partnering with local charities and also having activities such as children’s dance groups perform at halftime.