This Day in History: The ABL Tips Off

Twenty-one years ago today, history was made in San Jose.

A group of folks on the West Coast started a professional women’s basketball league, known as the ABL (American Basketball League). The league’s first game took place on the evening of October 18, 1996, at 7:30 p.m. at the San Jose Event Center.

It was a game that few outside of the league’s office in Palo Alto ever thought would happen. All previous women’s basketball leagues in the U.S. had failed, often without playing a single game. Some had labored in obscurity with largely unknown players. Others had gone down in flames, with few fans and huge debts.

The ABL took advantage of the growing popularity of the women’s game, increased exposure on national television, booming participation in youth sports by girls and young women, and the appeal of the Olympic gold-medal-winning 1996 U.S. women’s team. The time was right.

I was one of those West Coast “yahoos” who started the ABL. The league’s other co-founders were Anne Cribbs, an Olympic swimming gold medalist who was my business partner in a PR/advertising agency in Palo Alto, and Steve Hams, an executive with Hewlett-Packard.

The three of us had a lot in common—daughters who liked to play basketball, an entrepreneurial spirit, season tickets for Stanford women’s basketball, and the belief that a women’s league not only was needed, but could succeed in the U.S.

Against all odds, we managed to raise seed money from investors in Atlanta, Georgia, and from the Phoenix Mutual Life Insurance Company in Hartford, Connecticut (and later from current Warriors' owner Joe Lacob), negotiate TV contracts with Fox Sports Net and BET, and recruit the top players in the world.

The players were skeptical at first, as none of us had any real history in women’s basketball, other than my efforts to publicize the college version of the game as sports information director at Stanford. But we won them over by promising the things they wanted most: real salaries that would allow them to stay in the U.S. all year rather than having to play overseas; a voice in league policies; a schedule that would be played during the regular basketball season; and accessibility, honesty and transparency from the league founders.

That first game between the San Jose Lasers and the Atlanta Glory culminated almost two years of faith, hope, love, anxiety and hard work. In that inaugural 1996-97 season, we had eight teams—the other six were located in Colorado (Denver), Columbus, New England (Hartford), Richmond, Portland, and Seattle—and most of the players from that great ’96 Olympic Team.

By year two, another league had started, this one funded by the NBA. Long resistant to the idea of a women’s league, but unwilling to cede control over professional basketball in this country, the owners of the NBA were, frankly, embarrassed that someone else had been willing to buck the odds and make it work in the U.S.

When the WNBA started, most people believed the ABL’s days were numbered, and unfortunately, they were proven correct. We simply couldn’t compete with the NBA’s deep pockets and the league’s leverage with the TV networks and corporate sponsors.

Though the ABL’s life was short (three years), it was a pioneer in the sport of women’s basketball and in giving players a real voice in their league—not just in rules of play, but in things like benefits and maternity leave. I still get letters from fans of the ABL and invitations to speak about its development, because “you guys did it right.” As the New York Times headline read on the day we folded, “Nice Try, No Reward.”

So many great people were involved in the league, people whose passion for the game and commitment to the cause were extraordinary. Their post-ABL careers are an indication of their abilities and their character.

Co-founder Anne Cribbs became the president of BASOC (Bay Area Sports Organizing Committee) and led the efforts to bring the Olympics to Northern California. Rich Nichols, our VP for Administration and Legal Affairs, became one of the most respected sports lawyers in the world. Tracey Williams, our director of player personnel, became a successful college basketball coach and chief recruiter for North Carolina. Pam Batalis, the energetic general manager of the New England Blizzard, became a top executive at Learfield Sports. Columbus head coach Brian Agler, who led the Quest to two ABL titles, went on to coach WNBA championship teams in Seattle and Los Angeles.

Of the dozens of great ABL players, Stanford’s former NCAA Player of the Year Jennifer Azzi of the Lasers went on to stardom in the WNBA and success as a head coach at the University of San Francisco. Teresa Edwards of the Atlanta Glory became the first women’s basketball player to compete in five Olympics (she won four gold medals). Katie Smith from the league champion Quest went on to the WNBA, where she became the all-time leading scorer in women’s basketball; she is now the head coach of the New York Liberty. Dawn Staley of the Richmond Rage became a terrific college coach and last year directed South Carolina to the NCAA Championship.

And that's just a small sample.

It was a unique group of people, united by a common dream. Today, the rival WNBA lives on. The league’s TV ratings and crowds have declined since the late ‘90s, when the drama of two competing leagues sparked more coverage and exposure. The games are still played in the summer, when the NBA teams aren’t using the gym, and the low salaries still force most players to go overseas to supplement their income. So it’s far from perfect.

But at least the U.S. has a stable professional basketball league that provides opportunities and exposure for women. It’s an accomplishment worth celebrating.

And the ABL had a lot to do with making it happen.

Gary Cavalli - Bowl and League co-founder, author, speaker 

Gary Cavalli, the former Sports Information Director and Associate Athletic Director at Stanford University, was co-founder and executive director of the college football bowl game played in the Bay Area, and previously was co-founder and President of the American Basketball League.

Get in touch//@cavalli49//gacavalli49@gmail.com

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