The flashing yellow lights on Madison Square Garden's marquee tell of a new show in the Big Apple: THE GARDEN WELCOMES THE WOMEN'S PROFESSIONAL BASKETBALL LEAGUE AND THE NEW YORK STARS. HOME OPENER NOV. 17. The Stars, who in 1978-79 lost $350,000 playing off-off Broadway at a 3,000-seat gym in New Rochelle, N.Y., this season will have 11 games in the Garden, six of them in WBL-NBA doubleheaders with the Knicks. "With rental costs of $300,000 we don't expect to make money," says Stars President Ed Reisdorf, "but the Garden is the sports Mecca of New York and the world. We are no longer a secret." By the end of the season, that last sentence could apply to the entire league.
In its second year the WBL will have six new teams; a revised three-division alignment; national TV coverage of its season opener, All-Star game and final playoff series; clubs budgeting $40,000 for promotion, a sorely overlooked area last season; and dates in such major arenas as the Garden, Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis, Hofheinz Pavilion in Houston and the Superdome in New Orleans, where 30,000 fans, the largest crowd ever to see a women's athletic event, are expected for the league's opener between the hometown Pride and the Stars.
In the revamped alignment, New York, the New Jersey Gems, the Washington Metros (formerly the Dayton Rockettes) and the new Philadelphia Fox are in the Eastern Division. The strongest division, the Midwest, includes the Chicago Hustle, Iowa Cornets, Minnesota Fillies, Milwaukee Does and an expansion club, the St. Louis Streak. The new Western Division consists of the defending champion Houston Angels and four first-year teams: the Anaheim-based California Dreams, the San Francisco Pioneers, the Dallas Diamonds and the Pride. The new franchises cost $100,000 each, an increase of $50,000 from last year, and the WBL's second wave of owners, stronger financially than their predecessors, aren't counting on quick profits. "I expect to lose $100,000 a year for the next three seasons," says Dallas' Judson Phillips, a McDonald's franchiser. Despite the prospect of losses all over the league—a club needs an average attendance of 3,235 to break even; last season the WBL drew 3,000 per game—the WBL bosses seem optimistic. Chicago President John Geraty recently turned down $1 million for the Hustle franchise, predicting it would be worth $4 million in three years.
Officiating and coaching, shortcomings last season, should improve with the addition of 12 former NBA refs and five familiar NBA names among the coaches. Ex-Knicks Guard Dean (the Dream) Meminger will direct the Stars. Butch Van Breda Kolff, the colorful former coach of five NBA clubs; Knicks Assistant Coach Nat Frazier; retired player David Wohl; and former Bucks and Bulls head man Larry Costello will coach New Orleans, Washington, Philadelphia and Milwaukee, respectively. A top AIAW coach, Wayland Baptist's Dean Weese, will lead the Dallas Diamonds. All 14 WBL coaches are male. "Women just haven't got the necessary experience yet for head-coaching jobs," says Minnesota President Gordon Nevers. That's the league's standard line, but in reality women have shunned the pros because of better pay and newfound security in college coaching.
While female coaches have been reluctant to make the move, the wait-and-see attitude of the best women players has changed. The WBL is still without Carol (Blaze) Blazejowski, the former Montclair (N.J.) State bomber—3,199 points in four seasons—who wants to participate in the 1980 Olympics, and Ann Meyers, who in a recent tryout with the NBA Pacers proved that a 5'9" woman cannot compete with a 6'5" man or even a 5'9" man. But some other stars have signed. Ex-Olympians Nancy Dunkle, Gail Marquis and Charlotte Lewis have joined California, New York and Iowa, respectively. Mary Sharf, a 1977 All-America at Immaculata, will play for California; Heidi Nestor, late of UCLA, has signed with Milwaukee; and San Francisco has landed a dynamite drawing card in 5'8½" Cardi Hicks, who last year played in Holland, where she scored 28 points a game and mastered the dunk.
Coach Frank LaPorte claims Hicks is better than Blaze and Meyers. If that's true, the Pioneers will be tough, but Houston and California are favored in the West. The Hustle has the edge in the Midwest, with '79 runner-up, Iowa, and Minnesota challenging. In the East, the Stars have the stars—Althea Gwyn, Marquis and No. 1 draft pick Pearl Moore, the alltime (men's and women's) collegiate scorer, 4,061 points, for Francis Marion College of Florence, S.C. As a player, Meminger was on championship teams in high school, college and the pros. He is now looking to complete "the golden circle." He may attain his goal, considering that no one in the league will be surprised if, come next April, the Garden's marquee reads: STARS WIN WBL TITLE.
Reports by John Papanek, Bruce Newman, Roy S. Johnson, Nancy Williamson.