As the ABL opened its second season in the cradle of women's basketball, the league brought with it a whiff of peril—and not only to the Blizzard's rotator cuffs. Professional women's basketball in the United States went from no leagues to two leagues overnight, and surely both can't survive. So the ABL, the self-proclaimed "players' league," has tried to infuse its troops with a sense of empowerment by giving them a stake in its success—10%, to be precise, in the form of stock options. Gary Cavalli, the league's CEO, visited several of the nine teams last month to explain the financial strategy and was greeted mostly with vacant stares by his new partners. Getting warmup jacketed, they could grasp. But getting vested?
Finally Cavalli dropped the technical spiel and started telling teams about a friend of his, a men's college basketball coach who was given stock options when he signed on with Nike in the 1970s and now is sitting pretty. "Hold on to the stock," he advised. "Someday it could be worth a lot of money."
The ABL—notwithstanding its modest arenas and marketing budget—is better than the over-hyped, air-conditioned contrivance that is the WNBA. Sunday's game had the feel of real basketball. Inside the Hartford Civic Center players dribbled a standard-looking orange ball; New England guard Jennifer Rizzotti hurled herself all over the floor with a remarkable sense of purpose; and former Celtics star K.C. Jones presided on the Blizzard bench. Outside was a see-your-breath autumn night. Introducing a stock-option plan, committing to a heftier marketing budget of $3 million (still only one fifth of what the WNBA spent last summer), signing 31 of its top 35 players to multiyear contracts and hiring a name coach like Jones for the Blizzard were all moves designed to regain momentum for the ABL.
Shanda Berry, for one, did her part to jump-start her investment vehicle. A 6'3" Blizzard forward, who has an off-season job as a police officer in Montgomery County, Md., Berry racked up 20 points and 10 rebounds against the Glory, which is good in any alphabet. "All summer I heard about the WNBA," Berry said after the game. "People would look at my height and say I should play basketball."
" 'I do,' I'd tell them. 'In the ABL.' "
" 'No,' " she said, parroting words she heard so often, " 'you should play professionally—in the WNBA.' "
"But," Berry always says, "I play in the better league."