Basketball on a wooden floor

Pro Women’s Basketball Is Nothing New

Release Date: May 19, 2024

Category: Basketball | Blog

This week, the WNBA opened its 28th season. Women’s basketball has become big business and a huge draw for Olympic viewers. 24 million fans watched the NCAA women’s championship final on television. Caitlin Clark’s debut game for the Indiana Fever was the most watched WNBA game since 2001, peaking at 2.3 million viewers. Since it joined the Olympic program in 1976, women’s basketball has become a hot ticket. (For a good read on the 1976 USA women’s basketball team, get a copy of Inaugural Ballers: The True Story of the First US Women’s Basketball Team by our friend Andrew Maraniss).

The WNBA was not, however, the first women’s professional basketball league in the United States.

Back in the fall 1978, just two years after the American women won a surprise silver medal in Montreal, the Women’s Professional Basketball League (WBL) was born. Players from the U.S. Olympic squad were featured throughout the eight teams, including Trish Roberts and Nancy Lieberman. Soviet star Uljana Semjonova was drafted by the Iowa Cornets but ultimately never played in the league. Nancy Dunkle served as a player-coach for the California Dream. Eighty players joined the league for salaries ranging from $3,600 to $12,000 for the season (about $17,300 to $57,700 in 2024 dollars).

Not all of the members of the 1976 US team jumped at the chance to play professional basketball. For the first season, Lusia Harris declined to play for the Houston Angels. Carol Blazejowski and Ann Meyers opted to keep their amateur eligibility intact for the 1980 Olympics. Sports promoter and founder of the league, Bill Byrne, pushed on.

On December 9, 1978, the Milwaukee Does tipped off against the Chicago Hustle in front of 8000 spectators for the first game of the league. The first star of the league was “Machine Gun” Molly Bolin playing for the Iowa Cornets. Before joining the WBL, Bolin had never before played five on five basketball. She played a six-on-six format unique to Iowa high schools. The Cornets and the Houston Angels played for the league championships. The teams split the first four games. In the fifth and deciding game, Houston beat Iowa 110-104.

Fewer than 6000 fans turned out to see the championship finals. Lack of spectators and little media interest plagued the league. The Dayton Rockettes, Washington Metros, and Philadelphia Fox folded before the second season. The league lost the Milwaukee Doe, 1979 champion Iowa Cornets, and 1980 champion New York Stars the following year. During the third season, the California Dream ceased operations mid-season. The Dallas Diamonds received a last minute reprieve when the original owner abandoned the team.

Mismanagement, unpaid salaries, and player walkouts hampered the league. League founder Bill Byrne hoped the 1980 Moscow Olympics would reignite interest in women’s basketball and spark higher attendance at games. The U.S.-led boycott ended that dream.

The third season ended in April 1981. Despite multiple owners’ meetings and promises of new star players, the league could not survive. Teams lost an average of $350,000 and the league quietly folded that summer.

Bill Byrne tried again in 1984 to create a women’s professional basketball league. The Women’s American Basketball Association debuted with six teams, recycling some old names like the Dallas Diamonds. Nancy Lieberman led the Diamonds to the championships. Despite more money invested in this venture, the league folded after one season.

Finally, in 1996, the NBA supported the formation of a women’s league. The WNBA played its first game on June 21, 1997.  Former WBA player Nancy Liebermann became the first coach of the Detroit Shock. Carol Blazejowski became executive vice-president and general manager of the New York Liberty. The WNBA has struggled with low attendance and lack of media attention, but fans and supporters are hopeful for the 2024 season. With excitement building around Caitlin Clark and the Olympics, women’s professional basketball may see its biggest growth ever.

–Alison Brown

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