ABA Takes To The Court

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NEW YORK: An eight-team women's professional basketball league begins its inaugural forty game season Friday when the New England Blizzard take on the Richmond Rage at the Hartford Civic Center. The American Basketball League follows such ill fated attempts at a pro game for women as the Liberty Basketball Association, a league that never made it past its first exhibition game in 1991. This time around, league organizers say they have the financial backing, and the demographics, to make their game a success. ABL boosters point to statistics showing that basketball is the number one youth sport for girls, with more than 13.5 million regularly playing. That compounded by the fact that women bought almost half of the $3 billion NBA merchandise last year gives the league hope. It certainly provides some inspiration to the NBA, which is launching its own women's league, the WNBA, next summer. But the ABL faces formidable challenges, with no national television exposure, no national ad campaign, and just one major sponsor, Reebok. Still, the success of the U.S. women's Olympic basketball team, which drew sellout crowds in Atlanta, and continually improving television ratings for college games like the NCAA Women's Final Four, have a number of people betting that a league can succeed. "What we saw at the Olympics was the U.S. Women's Dream Team drawing the largest crowds in the history of women's basketball, 35,000 for the final game in the Georgia Dome, which is a lot for a traditionally second-tier sport," says TIME's Sally B. Donnelly. "The ABL is betting that if 35,000 people will come to see a game, many more will watch it on television." For fans who don't believe a game without the men's flash and speed is worth watching, the league is offering its player's skill, teamwork, and finesse. "People are skeptical because the male players have set a certain standard," says Donnelly. "And some people don't believe the women can match up. But the women are playing the same game, just at a different level." Mark Coatney