The Atlanta Glory was a short-lived women’s basketball team that competed in the American Basketball League for two seasons in the mid-1990’s. The team split its home games between two downtown Atlanta college campuses, playing most dates at the brand new 5,700-seat arena at Morehouse College, built for the 1996 Olympic Games.
Teresa Edwards, a Cairo, Georgia native, former UGA Bulldog, and four-time U.S. Olympic basketball medalist, was the Glory’s featured attraction. But despite Edwards’ presence, the Glory struggled to find a following in Atlanta. During the ABL’s 1996-97 inaugural season, the Glory’s average attendance of 2,780 fans was 2nd lowest in the league. The team also missed the playoffs with an 18-22 record.
Edwards took on double duty as the Glory’s player-coach for the second ABL season in the winter of 1997-98. The team went backwards to 15-29, missing the playoffs again. Announced attendance picked up 40% to 3,898 per game, but that wasn’t enough to save the Glory from the axe. All teams in the single-entity ABL were centrally owned by the league itself. With the league bleeding cash at an alarming pace, the ABL contracted the Atlanta franchise shortly after the 1997-98 season concluded.
The ABL launched a 3rd season in November 1998, but ran out of money one month later and folded on December 22, 1998.
Women’s pro hoops returned to Atlanta in 2008 with the formation of the Atlanta Dream of the WNBA.
The Colorado Xplosion were the Denver franchise in the women’s American Basketball League, which lasted for two-and-a-half seasons from 1996 to 1998. After the 1996 Olympics, two rival women’s leagues sprung up. The bootstrap ABL launched first, played in the winter time, offered the best pay, and initially signed many of the best Olympic-caliber women’s players. The NBA-backed Women’s National Basketball Association had David Stern’s marketing machine behind it, richer owners and better television and media deals. In less than three years, the WNBA and the generally challenging marketplace for women’s pro sports drove the ABL to bankruptcy in December 1998.
But it was fun while it lasted. The Xplosion were a pretty strong club. In the ABL’s inaugural season, they had the second best record in the regular season at 25-15, but were bounced in the first round of the playoff by the Richmond Rage. During their second season, the Xplosion regressed a bit, barely making the playoffs at 21-23. Once again, they lost in the first round, this time to the Long Beach Stingrays. Season three saw the Xplosion off to slow start and in last place in their division at 5-8 when the ABL abruptly shut down on December 22, 1998, having run out of money to continue operations.
Top players included two-time ABL All-Stars Debbie Black and Crystal Robinson. Black, although the shortest player in the league at 5′ 3″, was a tenacious rebounder, who ranked among the league’s top 15 total rebounders during the first two seasons. She also was the ABL’s all-time steals leader and ranked third in assists for the two full seasons the league completed. Robinson led the Xplosion in scoring both seasons was among the league’s top three-point threats.
The Xplosion player who got the most national media attention was 6′ 5″ Sylvia Crawley, who executed a blindfolded dunk at the 1998 ABL All-Star Game to win what was billed as the first ever slam dunk contest for women.
The Xplosion split their home games between McNichols Arena and the smaller Denver Coliseum in each of their season. Attendance was pretty consistent through the team’s brief run, holding a steady average of just under 4,000 per game. A February 1st, 1998 game at McNichols against the New England Blizzard set the club’s all-time mark with 13,489 fans on hand.
November-December 1998: Phoenix Home Life Insurance
The New England Blizzard were a very popular women’s basketball franchise in the short-lived American Basketball League (1996-1998). The Blizzard finished in last place for two of their three seasons of play, but this didn’t seem to diminish the team’s appeal. New England led the ABL in attendance every season, including a peak of 8,857 per game in 1997-98, which was more than double the league-wide average.
Notable players included guard Carolyn Jones, who led the ABL in scoring (21.2 ppg) in 1996-97, and former UCONN stars Jennifer Rizzotti and Kara Wolters. Players like Rizzotti and Wolters were emblematic of the ABL’s noble – some would say indulgent – attitude towards player salaries and benefits. Rizzotti inked a 3-year, $450,000 deal on the eve of the ABL’s final season. Wolters got 3 years at $200,000 per season as a rookie out of UCONN in 1997. Across the league, ABL salaries averaged $80,000 per year in 1997-98, which was more than double the average pay in the rival Women’s National Basketball Association, which debuted in the summer of 1997. As a result, the ABL attracted better players overall, but the NBA-backed WNBA spent much more on marketing and earned better television deals and far larger crowds.
During their debut season, the Blizzard played the majority of their games (12) at the Springfield (MA) Civic Center. In Springfield, the Blizzard were a typical ABL club, averaging 3,406 fans for a dozen home dates, right on par with the league-wide average. But in Hartford, the team was tremendously popular, drafting off the popularity and traditions of the celebrated UCONN college program and pulling an average of 7,412 fans for eight home games. This included a league-record crowd of 11,873 for a January 25, 1997 game against the San Jose Lasers at the Hartford Civic Center. Heading into the 1997-98 season, the Blizzard flipped the script, scheduling sixteen home dates in Hartford and only six in Springfield.
Hartford was also home to one’s of the ABL’s most emotionally and financially engaged boosters: Robert Fiondella, chairman of Hartford-based Phoenix Home Life Insurance and also of the Greater Hartford Chamber of Commerce. The ABL found the sponsorship market for women’s pro basketball to be especially challenging, but Phoenix Home Life was an exception, signing on as one of the league’s first national corporate partners in October 1996.
In April 1997, Fiondella and Phoenix Home Life invested an additional $3 million to acquire a 20% equity interest in the ABL, as well as an option to purchase operating rights to the Blizzard franchise. Under the ABL’s single entity structure, all franchises and player contracts were owned by the league, but the sale of operating rights allowed local investors to manage a team’s front office operations and retain all local revenue. Combined with a simultaneous $3 million infusion from Silicon Valley venture capitalist Joe Lacob for league equity and operating rights to the San Jose Lasers franchise, the ABL was able to offset most if not all of it’s reported $4M – $6M operating loss on the league’s inaugural season.
For the 1997-98 season, the Blizzard hired Basketball Hall-of-Famer and former Boston Celtics head coach K.C. Jones to coach the team. Under Jones, the team improved from the last place finish of 1997 to earn the ABL’s fourth and final playoff spot in 1998 with a 24-20 record. The San Jose Lasers swept the Blizzard in a best-of-three series in the first round of the 1998 ABL playoffs.
In November of 1998, Phoenix Home Life Insurance finally exercised its 18-month old option to buy the operating rights to the New England Blizzard. The Sports Business Journal reported that the undisclosed option price was believed to be north of $1.5 million. The timing proved unfortunate for Phoenix, as the league ran out of money barely a month later. On December 21, the league’s board of directors voted to shut down the league immediately – barely one-third of the way through the league’s third season – and file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
At the time the ABL folded, the Blizzard had a 3-10 last place record in their third season and a league-high 4,800 season ticket holders. Of the ABL’s more than 1,000 bankruptcy creditors, Phoenix Home Life Insurance was the largest, owed more than $6 million as the guarantor of a league bank loan.
Professional women’s basketball returned to Connecticut in 2003 with the transfer of the WNBA’s Orlando Miracle franchise to the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville. The franchise was re-branded the Connecticut Sun. Former Blizzard sales executive and General Manager Chris Sienko has been the Sun’s Vice President and General Manager for the past eleven seasons.
The Richmond Rage were a women’s professional basketball team that lasted for just one season in the American Basketball League. The ABL was formed in 1995 with plans for a fall 1996 launch, hoping to draft off of the platform of the 1996 Atlanta summer Olympics and to get the jump on the WNBA, a rival startup backed by the National Basketball Association.
The Rage had a terrifically talented roster, including former University of Virginia star and Olympic gold medalist Dawn Staley (guard), and forward Adrienne Goodson of Old Dominion. Staley and Goodson would both earn 1st Team All-ABL honors, while 6′ 4″ center Taj McWilliams was named 2nd team All-League.
One curiosity on the Rage roster was the presence of U.S. Olympic track & field legend Jackie Joyner-Kersee. The 34-year old medaled in her fourth and final summer Olympics in Atlanta in 1996 just months before the American Basketball League made its debut. Kersee was an All-Pac 10 performer at UCLA in the early 1980’s, but hadn’t played competitive basketball in over a decade when she signed with the Rage in 1996. Kersee made 17 appearances off the bench during the 1996-97 season, but her skills had eroded and she averaged just 0.9 points per game at forward.
Despite the individual talent, the Rage didn’t really put it all together in the regular season, finishing with a modest 21-19 record. But the Rage caught fire for the playoffs, and upset the Western Conference champion Colorado Xplosion to earn a championship series date with the ABL’s best team, the Columbus Quest. Richmond took a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five series, but was unable to close out the Quest. Columbus took Games 4 & 5 on back-to-back nights on March 9th and 10th, 1997 to win the ABL’s first championship title.
Off the court, the Rage averaged 3,139 fans per game for 20 home dates split between the Richmond Coliseum and the Robins Center at the University of Richmond. That ranked 6th out of the ABL’s 8 teams, but wasn’t far off the league average of 3,536 per game. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the ABL lost an estimated $500,000 – $600,000 operating the Rage in Richmond during its first season.
The ABL was a single-entity organization, which meant that all teams and player contracts were owned centrally by the league. In July 1997, with ticket sales for the second season lagging in Richmond and the league in dire need of more alluring media markets for sponsors and television partners, the ABL moved the Rage franchise to Philadelphia.
The Philadelphia Rage never regained the form of their first season in Virginia, falling to last place in 1997-98 with a 13-31 record. The league’s third season in 1998-99 was cut off abruptly when the ABL shut down three days before Christmas in 1998 and later declared bankruptcy.
Rare program from the second – and, as it turned out, final – All-Star game for the short-lived American Basketball League (1996-1998), played at Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando in January 1998.
The game itself was something of a dud. The West All-Stars led 54-27 at the half and ran away with the game in a 102-73 laugher. Shalonda Enis (15 pts.) of the Seattle Reign earned MVP honors, but the real star of the weekend was 6′ 5″ forward Sylvia Crawley of the Colorado Xplosion. Crawley won what was billed as the first ever women’s slam dunk contest during the halftime festivities, besting 6′ 7″ Kara Wolters of the New England Blizzard with a successful blindfolded, one-handed dunk on her first try. Crawley had been dunking in practice since her freshman year at the University of North Carolina, but had never dunked in a professional game.
Before the game, American Basketball League CEO Gary Cavalli told the media of his hope that the ABL’s next All-Star Game would be an inter-league exhibition against the stars of its bigger and richer rival, the Women’s National Basketball Association. But there would be no more ABL All-Star Games. The troubled league ran out of money 11 months later and folded on December 22, 1998.