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Friday, June 3, 2011
Updated: June 4, 5:12 PM ET
WNBA standing the test of time

By Michelle Smith

Fifteen years ago, the people who planted the seeds that would become the WNBA knew history was not on their side.

Sixteen women's professional leagues had been tried and 16 had failed. In fact, at the same time that the WNBA was ramping up, a direct competitor, called the American Basketball League, was also preparing to debut.

The ABL would last 2½ years. But after a decade and a half, the WNBA still stands. And it stands tall, as it tips off its 15th season tonight with the L.A. Sparks hosting the Minnesota Lynx.

"The WNBA truly is a beacon," said former league president Val Ackerman. "This league has put out some very powerful images about women and the capabilities of women in sports. If you look at the state of women's sports in many other countries, the WNBA is just light-years ahead.

"It's something to be proud of. It's a treasure."

It is also a work in progress, an unfinished product.

The WNBA has lived for 15 years in the reality of the sports landscape, one that can be unforgiving to start-up leagues and niche sports.

Overall league attendance has been consistent, if not overwhelming.

Maya Moore
Maya Moore is just one of the talented young stars in the WNBA. Moore makes her regular-season debut in the WNBA season opener in Los Angeles tonight.

Teams have come and gone and showed up in new cities. The same can be said about sponsors.

Teams -- half of which are run by independent owners rather than NBA teams -- are running lean and mean with smaller rosters and coaching staffs.

Salaries have been held well below what the top players make playing during the winter overseas. Break-even is still the financial goal for many teams.

Network and cable television coverage has waxed and waned and morphed into live Internet streaming for every game on the schedule. Media coverage still pales in comparison to the major men's sports and the league's credibility always seems to be in question with the meat-and-potatoes segment of the mainstream sports audience.

The support of the NBA has undoubtedly helped "the W," as it's called in commissioner David Stern's office, weather the tougher days.

The recent hire of Laurel Richie as the WNBA's third president, a woman with no sports background but a boatload of business and marketing experience, is a nod to what's necessary if the league intends to make it to its 20th birthday.

But there's no denying the basketball. The basketball is simply the best in the world in the women's game.

The league is loaded with American and international stars, playing the game faster and with more skill than ever before.

Young talent is streaming into the league, making rosters increasingly competitive and exclusive.

San Antonio Stars coach Dan Hughes has coached in the league for 10 seasons in Charlotte, Cleveland and San Antonio.

"The league has as good a talent base right now as I've ever seen," Hughes said.

Sheryl Swoopes was one of the first three players to sign with the league back in 1996. Swoopes has signed with Tulsa and is looking to get back into the league at the age of 40 after a two-year absence.

"The talent level today is so much better, so different than it was 14 years ago," Swoopes said.

Rebecca Lobo was also among that first trio -- along with Swoopes and Lisa Leslie.

Lobo is now a television analyst for ESPN broadcasts.

"I couldn't have imagined 15 years, but I can't imagine myself as a 37-year-old either," Lobo said. "For those of us who were there when it started, this is something we didn't think about as kids. I don't even remember dreaming about a women's league. I wanted to play for the Celtics.

"But these rookies have grown up with the league. I'm even more proud of it because I have three young daughters and the thought of the WNBA is just normal for them."

Normal. Assumed. Rightful. Those are the biggest things the WNBA has accomplished in 15 years.

"You have to wonder how many dreams have been realized and continue to be realized because this carrot has been dangled in front of little girls for the past 15 years," said former All-Star Dawn Staley, now coaching at South Carolina. "If the WNBA had not been viable for the last 15 years, the game wouldn't be as good, the players wouldn't be as good because there wouldn't be anything to shoot for."