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Monday, May 29, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Comets, Liberty open WNBA play

NEW YORK - The WNBA's fourth season begins today with the New York Liberty in Houston to play the three-time defending champion Comets on NBC. The matchup is the closest thing to television heaven the 16-team league has to offer and will kick off a 30-game package NBC, Lifetime and ESPN will share.

The Comets and Liberty played for the championship last season - a series made memorable when New York's Teresa Weatherspoon made a 50-foot shot before the Game 2 buzzer sounded.

"They are champions in every sense," Val Ackerman, the WNBA's president, said of the Comets. "Dynasty is not an inappropriate description."

But that doesn't mean Ackerman is content. She wants to make the WNBA a viable option for summer entertainment, a valuable purchase for advertisers and a worthwhile product for television executives.

"From my vantage point, the quality of play has improved dramatically over the last couple of years," Ackerman said. "There are reasons for that. There were essentially eight expansion teams in our first season (1996). The coaches had to introduce themselves, install new offenses. The players were new to each other. And adjustments had to be made in terms of getting used to the pace and the schedule of the WNBA."

Now that the introductions are over, Ackerman hopes the players will take center stage. And once that happens, maybe a more diverse range of fans - surveys show three-quarters of the fan base is female - will attend games or turn on their televisions.

"Our challenge is even more pronounced because we are televising our games at a time of year when fewer people watch," Ackerman said. "We went into this understanding our work was cut out for us. Nonetheless, as the league develops, some equity in our time slots will appear on NBC and Lifetime and we'll get the appointment viewing you strive for in terms of building an audience."

But there is other work to do. The players still search for a greater share of the money.

Sacramento's Yolanda Griffith, the league's most valuable player last season, had to dicker before getting the league to sign her to a two-year deal - for about $100,000 a year. The league's salary scale ranges from $26,500 (for rookies) to $65,000. Orlando's Andrea Congreaves, Utah's Cindy Brown and Cleveland's Isabelle Fijalkowkski left the WNBA because of contract disputes.

The WNBA announced a three-year partnership with Sears, extended deals with American Express and Buick, and signed a partnership with American General, a financial-services organization. The union for WNBA players estimates the league made $42 million in sponsorships last season, more than enough to cover its payroll and marketing costs (about $7 million).

A four-year collective-bargaining agreement was signed last season, increasing base pay for veterans $2,500 (to $32,500). By 2002 it will be $40,000. The first four players selected in the draft are paid $50,000, the fifth through eighth picks make $44,000 and the other first-round picks make $37,500.

Players earn bonuses for postseason awards. Griffith got $25,000 for being the MVP. Players get $10,000 for making the WNBA's first team. And they receive year-round health and dental benefits, paid maternity leave, $100,000 life-insurance policies and access to a 401(k).

High-profile players such as Lisa Leslie, Rebecca Lobo and Cynthia Cooper have personal-services contracts for $100,000 or more to promote the league.

As for today's opener, a lot has changed since the Liberty walked out of Houston's Compaq Center last September. After losing in the final game of the WNBA Finals, there were but five minutes of disappointment in the locker room before the players began anticipating this season.

Eight months later, the Liberty seems farther away from its goal of a WNBA title than ever before. The Liberty opens its season right where it left off - in Houston - but that is about the only similarity there is to the 1999 Eastern Conference champions.

Yesterday, the Liberty traded for 6-foot-1 forward Tari Phillips, trying to firm up its questionable situation in the frontcourt. In return, the Liberty sent to the Portland Fire guard Carolyn Young, who missed last season with a torn ACL and the birth of her daughter.

"This was a good strategic move for us as we are trying to replace the void at post that Kym Hampton's retirement has caused with an experienced player who we expect to contribute right away," said Liberty General Manager Carol Blazejowski. "We needed someone to help us right away."

Phillips averaged 4.1 points and 2.1 rebounds with Orlando last season, but was a two-time All-Star in the ABL.

She is expected to bolster a depleted corps of frontcourt players. Having tried and failed to play on her battered knee, veteran Hampton retired last week. Forward Lobo, who missed last season with a torn ACL, is sitting out the first half of this season with a reinjured knee.

Australian forward Natalie Porter left training camp because of homesickness. The Liberty yesterday waived free agent forward Alessadra de Santos Oliveira and forward Deisree Francis, its second-round pick. First-round pick Olga Firsova was placed on injured reserve while she continues to learn how to play in the more physical WNBA.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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