There have been three American Basketball Leagues, two for men and the most recent for women. The first, organized in 1926 by George Preston Marshall, was made up of existing professional teams that had been playing exhibition games. Marshall owned one of these teams, the Washington Palace Five. The Original Celtics, the outstanding team of the day, refused to join because they were making more money touring than they could by playing in the league. After being blacklisted by the ABL, however, the Celtics did enter the league during the 192627 season. They won 19 of 20 games to win the second-half title, and they easily won the 192728 ABL championship.
The Celtics' dominance hurt ABL attendance, and the league finally decided to break up the team. Three of the top players ended up with the Cleveland Rosenblums, who won almost as easily as the Celtics had, and the ABL suspended operations in 1929. In 1933, the league was revived and continued operating through the 194546 season, when the Basketball Association of America was organized.
The second ABL was the brainchild of Abe Saperstein, founder-owner of the Harlem Globetrotters. Saperstein's league had franchises in Chicago, Cleveland, Hawaii, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and Washington. The ABL introduced the idea of the three-point shot, taken from a distance of 30 feet or more from the basket. Saperstein was the ABL's commissioner and its only major backer. Most of the teams faced financial problems from the very beginning. The Washington franchise moved to Long Island midway through the season, and the Los Angeles franchise folded. Cleveland won the 196162 championship. That was the only ABL championship. The league disbanded before completing its second season.
Anticipating a surge in interest in women's basketball following the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Steve Hams announced plans for the women's American Basketball League in September 1995. The original business plan called for a 12-team league that would begin play in October of 1996, two months after the close of the Atlanta Olympics.
The league's promotional efforts were hurt by the announcement in April 1996 that the National Basketball Association was planning to establish its own women's professional league, to begin play in the summer of 1997. The announcement cost the ABL a potential sponsorship arrangement with Nike. It may also have made it more difficult for the new league to get national television coverage. Talks with ESPN fell through, and the ABL had to settle for contracts with the Prime Sports Network, SportsChannel, and Black Entertainment Television (BET).
Despite those difficulties, the ABL began play as scheduled, though with only eight teams: the Atlanta Glory, Columbus Quest, New England Blizzard (based in Hartford, Connecticut), and Richmond Rage in the Eastern Division; the Colorado Xplosion (Denver), Portland Power, San Jose Lasers, and Seattle Reign in the Western Division. The league signed most of the 12 members of the U.S. women's team that had won the Olympic Gold Medal. Reebok, Nissan, Lady Foot Locker, and the Phoenix Insurance Group came aboard as sponsors.
The lack of parity hurt attendance as the first season went on. Columbus easily won in the East with a 319 record, and Colorado was the only Western Division team to finish with a winning record. In the four-team playoffs, Columbus beat San Jose handily while Richmond upset Colorado in a two-game sweep. Columbus went on to win three of the five games in the finals to take the league's first championship. Despite the championship, Columbus averaged only 2,682 fans per game, lowest in the league. New England led with an average of 5,008. The ABL average was 3,536 per game, considerably lower than the 5,000 that league officials had projected and hoped for.
For the 199798 season, the ABL moved the Richmond team to Philadelphia and added a ninth franchise, the Long Beach Sting Ray. Meanwhile, the Fox television network had purchased both Prime and SportsChannel to set up what was called Fox Sports Net. ABL officials evidently believed that this meant national broadcasts of their games. In fact, the new network simply offered the same type of regional coverage that Prime and SportsChannel had offered. The league announced that the season opener would be seen on all Fox outlets, but it was actually sent to only seven of the network's 19 regions, and the game wasn't seen at all in the nation's four biggest television markets.
The ABL's playoffs were expanded to include two wild card teams, as well as the top two finishers in each division. Columbus and Portland, as division champions, received first-round byes. San Jose beat New England in two straight games and Long Beach defeated Colorado, two out of three, in the opening round. Columbus beat San Jose and Long Beach upset Portland in the semifinals. The five-game final proved exciting, as Long Beach won the two opening games at home and Columbus then won three in a row at home to claim the championship.
Shortly after the end of its second season, the ABL announced that the Atlanta franchise would be dissolved and its players sent to two new teams, the Chicago Condors and the Nashville Noise. Going into the 19992000 season, ABL prospects seemed quite hopeful. CBS agreed to televise two playoff games and the league also announced a new contract with Fox Sports Net designed to expand regular-season coverage. The NBA's lockout of its players in a contract dispute seemed to offer the ABL a chance to draw basketball-hungry fans to its games.
However, problems were looming. The ABL did poorly in its competition with the WNBA to sign draft choices and, about six weeks before the season opened, the league announced that the Long Beach franchise was going to be dissolved. An intensive advertising and promotion effort aimed at NBA fans didn't do much to increase attendance. On December 22, 1999, the ABL announced that it was suspending operations and would file for protection under Chapter 11 of the federal bankruptcy code.