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Outside the bus window a weak winter sun shone on a landscape reduced to the sepia tones of an antique photograph. Desiccated drifts of old snow lined the eastern edge of I-35, and puffs of dust kicked up by a gusty wind raced across the bare cornfields. Only a grain elevator here and there broke the line of the horizon.
The Minnesota Fillies were on their way south to Des Moines to play the Iowa Cornets, with much more at stake than just the lead in the Midwest Division of the professional Women's Basketball League. Coach Terry Kunze played Mastermind with Guard Janet Timperman from Kentucky and reserve Forward Sue Wahl-Bye from St. Cloud, the Fillies' only homebred. Forward Kathy DeBoer read Bill Russell's Second Wind. Center Marie Kocurek sat alone, looking out the window, impassive. Donna Wilson, Katrina (K.O.) Owens and Patty Montgomery chattered, breaking into laughter now and then. Gordon Nevers, the Fillies' owner and president, settled down to his customary backgammon game with Point Guard Scooter DeLorme.
Nevers had reason to believe that the worst of his troubles were over, that the fortunes of his team had at last turned for the better. Minnesota's most recent appearance at the Met Center in Bloomington, a 105-71 win over the Chicago Hustle, had drawn a crowd of 4,917, the largest ever for a Fillies home game, and now KMSP-TV in Minneapolis had consented to broadcast the Fillies' game against the Cornets the next day. Furthermore, the timing of the telecast was perfect—2 o'clock on a cold Sunday afternoon, with nothing up against it except a charity telethon, the CBS Sports Spectacular and a lousy movie. Nevers felt as confident as he had in months.
Gouging a space in the public consciousness for a new sport requires a little luck and a lot of money, the money being for the purpose of buying time until the luck comes along. The odds against an owner's finances holding up until good fortune arrives are so high that, by comparison, pork belly futures are a giltedged investment. The WBL is well into its second season and still waiting. Though it will probably survive this season, it has suffered a number of setbacks. Two of the 14 teams with which the league began the season—the Washington Metros and the Philadelphia Fox—folded because of little attendance and no money. Two other franchises that were foundering at midseason, the Dallas Diamonds and the Milwaukee Does, were deemed worth saving. New ownership and new money were found for both. WBL Commissioner Bill Byrne concedes that a "couple" more teams will probably change hands by spring. He even concedes that the folding of a franchise or two is not inconceivable. But he points to San Francisco, St. Louis and New Jersey as teams that are solid and are gaining in both attendance and media attention. "There has never been a new league that didn't have problems," says Byrne. "But we're here to stay now. We've stabilized."
None of which is to say that any owner anticipates making money this year. "If I owned a team, I'd expect nothing before five years," says Byrne. Nevertheless, discussions are under way in Denver, Boston/Hartford, Phoenix and Tampa, which Byrne predicts will lead to at least two new franchises next season. The cost of a WBL franchise is now $500,000, up from $50,000 in the league's first year and from $100,000 as recently as last September. The average attendance for a WBL game in early February was 2,700. Byrne claims that by averaging 3,500 over an entire schedule, most of the teams could at least break even.
The key, as always, is television, not for its money at this point but for exposure. Whenever a WBL team has had television coverage, the franchise has prospered, relatively speaking. The Chicago Hustle, whose home games are aired live by WGN-TV, lost less money than any of the league's other franchises last year and is setting the pace again this time around.
Nevers and his co-owners lost about $270,000 on the Fillies last year, and the situation had not looked a great deal brighter this year until KMSP-TV finally agreed to do the game against the Cornets in Des Moines.
Of course, Nevers and one of his partners, Dick Higgins, had to make all the hookup arrangements for the telecast themselves, and they had to personally solicit every sponsor for the show's 22 commercial spots, but they had managed somehow. From Nevers' point of view, it was worth the effort and more, because the Fillies were finally going to get the kind of exposure that would show the people of Minneapolis-St. Paul that women's pro basketball is good sport and good entertainment, that the team deserves their support and that henceforth they should come to games at the Met Center by the thousands instead of the customary hundreds.
So ran Nevers' scenario. "This telecast is the best opportunity we've had to improve our chances of succeeding in the Twin Cities market," he said. "We have tried to interest television several times. We had sponsors lined up and we offered the stations plenty of money, but we couldn't get on TV. The broadcasters were concerned about whether we had something people want to watch."
At 1:10 p.m. on that January Sunday at Veterans Auditorium in Des Moines, Kunze banged on the locker-room door and entered. "If we're going to win our division," he said, "we've got to beat Iowa. Donna, you have Bolin. Push her to the left when she gets the ball. I don't want her to get a jumper going right." Kunze was directing his instructions at Forward Donna Wilson, the player he calls "our link to quickness." Wilson was to guard Molly Bolin, a 5'9" product of Iowa high school and college basketball, a phenomenal shooter who the previous season had set a single-game record of 53 points—against the Fillies.