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One Last Shot

[whitespace] WNBA dolls
Out of Their League: Uniformed playmates Christie, Teresa, Kira and Barbie are WNBA players created by Mattel, an example of the type of national sponsorship the ABL says it couldn't get.

An attorney investigating on behalf of the recently folded American Basketball League--home of the SJ Lasers--suspects foul play by the WNBA

By Cecily Barnes

MAYBE THE AMERICAN Basketball League failed for all the reasons that people have surmised--because it existed on a shoestring budget, grappled with a sexist stereotype and fought the uphill battle faced by every new sports league. But maybe it failed because of something else. Perhaps the league didn't die but instead was murdered. This is the theory recently adopted by Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who attended New England Blizzard games (Connecticut's ABL team) "from time to time." Now he's out to get the bad guy, which in this case has been identified as the National Basketball Association.

During an early afternoon phone interview from his snow-sunk office in Connecticut, Blumenthal explains why he suspects the NBA is culpable for the ABL's premature death.

"The NBA may have misused its economic weight and power to exclude the ABL from financial rights--like corporate sponsorships or TV broadcast rights," Blumenthal says. "[These] were important to its survival and success."

He refers, of course, to the choice by national TV stations to showcase the WNBA season while denying the ABL. Most people shrugged--of course a league run by the NBA would have an easier time striking a deal. But Blumenthal's fledgling investigation suggests that simple competition might not be the only reason the WNBA landed TV contracts and corporate sponsorships and the ABL didn't. Exclusivity agreements might have been involved, the subpoena suggests.

Blumenthal won't reveal any damning evidence that he either has or expects to obtain. But the 16-page subpoena sent to the NBA offers some clues.

Issued on Jan. 7, the legal document demands that the NBA take until Feb. 3 to produce paper trails of all its discussions regarding the WNBA and its competition. High on the request list were NBA conversations with TV stations and corporate sponsors. What Blumenthal seems to be looking for are attempts by the NBA to strike exclusive deals with the basketball puppet masters.

"There's evidence that the NBA used sharp economic elbows to exclude the ABL, a well-positioned competitor, from fair play--including access to essential financial rights like TV and product sponsorship," Blumenthal wrote in a press release.

Without national television, and the high-dollar advertisers that come with it, most people agree the ABL didn't stand a chance of survival.

Mark Levine, who is vice president of development for the San Jose Sharks, says the league's absence from national TV--due to lawless NBA activity or any other reason--is by far the greatest factor in its failure.

"If the ABL had been able to get themselves a national TV contract, with that would have come national sponsors," he says. "Local sponsors in general are looking for the same kind of credibility. If you were able to say, 'You're going to miss the boat if you don't get involved because this person and this person have signed on,' that reduces their uncertainty."

But because the national TV deal never came, the big advertisers never came--and many local advertisers held back too, although there were some. The ABL's desired chain reaction never got sparked. If the ABL's inability to secure national TV can be traced back to the NBA, then it could be argued that the NBA is also responsible for the ABL's ultimate failure.

RICHARD BLUMENTHAL reluctantly speculates on the possible outcomes of his investigation, which, he reminds, is just an investigation at this point.

"Some antitrust action is one potential outcome, and there is certainly a possibility of financial redress to individuals or entities that may have been harmed, like season ticket holders, players or financial backers," he says. "Whether the league itself could be restored, I certainly wouldn't want to speculate at this point."

Others felt freer to speculate.

"If that happened it would be a miracle," says Angela Beck, former coach of the San Jose Lasers. "My reality is I'm sitting here without a job and I need to get one. I'm not going to sit and wait."

Concerning the possibility of getting back wages, that would be great, Beck says, but she's not holding her breath.

Besides compensation and lofty dreams of a reborn league, the potential lawsuit aims to rebuke competition killers.

In a formal statement, ABL co-founder and CEO Gary Cavalli praised the investigation but said he obviously would have preferred a fair playing field in the first place.

"While these developments are somewhat gratifying, in that they may explain some of the difficulties we encountered, they are also very troubling," he wrote. "It would be a real tragedy if the NBA, one of the most powerful organizations in the world, unfairly used its economic muscle to help sabotage a pioneering women's league."

SPORTS FANS WHO remember the USFL's anti-trust lawsuit against the NFL may think the ABL's chances for financial redress look grim. Although the 1986 jury ruled in favor of the USFL--finding that the NFL violated antitrust laws--only three lousy dollars were handed out as compensation for the league's suffering. Judge Peter K. Leisure, who presided over the case, had written the following instructions for jurors: "Just because you may have found the fact of some damage resulting from a given unlawful act, that does not mean that you are required to award a dollar amount of damages resulting from that act."

Blumenthal responds dryly to mention of this case, clearly not thrilled with the association. When asked to explain the difference between the two, the attorney general becomes clearly agitated.

"It's very different, very different facts and very different questions of law," he begins. "At this point we have an ongoing investigation, and I'm not going to compare this case to any other case."

Few people in the ABL seem to be holding their breath for a downpour of cash from the investigation. With one less women's basketball league to choose from, many former ABL players have either flown overseas to play ball or set their sights on the WNBA.

"We've got a player in Switzerland, one in France, Italy, Greece, Germany, Poland, Portugal," Beck says.

And losing talented American basketball players to European teams is exactly what the ABL hoped to prevent.

"We're back to square one, why we started the [ABL] in the first place," she says. "Now players have to play two to three months in the WNBA and then go overseas for six to eight months to keep in shape. It's hard to keep team unity that way."

If the NBA was trying to stamp out competition, it seems to have worked at least for the time being.

UNLIKE THE WNBA'S players, who worked in "adjusted conditions," women in the ABL dribbled regulation-size balls, raced against 25-second shot clocks (as opposed to 30 seconds in the WNBA) and worked up regulation-size drops of sweat in a full 42-game season. "When you cheered on the San Jose Lasers, you cheered on a professional women's team, period. I think it was a crushing blow, because we owned our game," Beck asserts.

At this point, Beck and others remain in mourning for the league. "They [the ABL] did over and above and beyond what they could for the female athlete--stock options, 401K, anything they could," Lasers coach Beck laments. "The reality of it is, maybe it was too much too soon."

Before the league folded, coach Beck had signed on as the keynote speaker for a women's breakfast honoring former Mayor Susan Hammer. When the event rolled around last week, Beck stood before hundreds of women and apologized. The group, she joked, had expected a speech from a basketball coach and instead they were getting one from a woman who was unemployed. This was OK, she went on, because Hammer and Lasers star Jennifer Azzi were unemployed too.

By phone after the breakfast, Beck ticked off four possibilities for her future, in this order: coach for the WNBA, consult, return to college basketball or write a book about the ABL. But hopes for an ABL resurgence didn't even make the bottom of Beck's list.

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From the January 21-27, 1999 issue of Metro.

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