By Chris Murray
For the Chris Murray Report
When Sonya Nichols was a basketball player at James Madison in the mid-1990s, she struggled with knee injuries and didn’t have much of a chance to showcase her skills enough to get an 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. Not having a venue to showcase her talents was something that still sticks with her.
“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 Indianapolis-based American Basketball Association, is scheduled to begin play in April, 2014.
WABA chief operations officer and Philadelphia sports agent Sporty Smith will be the owner of the WABA’s Philadelphia Philly Love. The league hopes to have 24 teams in place by the time play begins next April, he said.
Former WNBAers, collegiate players, players who have spent time in the European leagues and coaches from those ranks will make up the WABA, Smith said.
But what makes this league different is that it will also offer local stars, women who played for local colleges and high schools that might have name recognition in the cities in which the league has teams, the chance to show they’ve still got it, Smith said.
“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.
There are currently nine teams in the league, according to the WABA’s website. These teams are: The New Jersey Express, which will play out of Newark, N.J.; The New England Stormers, which will play out of Boston; The Hampton Roads Lightning (Norfolk, Va.); and the Philadelphia Love. Once the league is fully formed these teams will make up the Northeast Division.
The Midwest Division is comprised of only one team so far, the Chicago Lady Steam. The South Division will be made up of 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 markets big and small is an important part of the new league’s strategy for growth.
“That’s an opportunity for us,” Sonya 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 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 basketball bode 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 in places like the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia or New York’s Madison Square Garden, collegiate arenas will be 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 player salaries, the WABA will not be doling out millions right away. Smith said that will happen as the league 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 local marketing strategy is to be involved in community service efforts by partnering with local charities and also having community organizations such as children’s dance groups perform at halftime.
“Our service projects will garner a lot of attention,” Nichols said. “Some of the community service initiatives that we have include tutoring, women’s shelters and other projects that we’re working on now.”
In the spirit of the old men’s ABA from the 1970s, Nichols said there will be some interesting wrinkles such as the red, white and blue basketball and points to award outstanding defense and hustle as a way of making the game fun for fans.
For example, if a team makes a steal near their own basket, a team will get two points for the steal and two or three additional points if they hit a two-point bucket or a three-pointer.
“If you play good basketball, they’ll keep coming back,” Nichols said.
ABA CEO Joe Newman the thing he likes about the new league is that it opens a door of opportunities for people who want to be employed in the sport.
“It’s an opportunity to do what they’ve dreamed about in their careers and that is to play at the professional level,” Newman said. “It’s also off the court to develop the potential middle managers and marketing people, press media people and community people, and radio and TV people who will pursue what they studied in college… It’s a place to achieve your dreams.”