Forward progress

is not a phrase identified with women's basketball, but it appears to fit when it comes to the WNBA, which launches its 12th season tomorrow.

Several years ago, when teams began falling by the wayside and attendance dropped, naysayers predicted the WNBA would soon join women's soccer and softball on the list of failed efforts.

But things appear to be moving along quite nicely, even if the WNBA doesn't come close to approaching its NBA big brother in terms of exposure, and millions of dollars in revenue and salary.

A new nine-year TV deal with ESPN that begins next season includes the first rights fee that will enable franchises to obtain added revenue, according to several WNBA general managers.

The addition of the Atlanta Dream this summer brings the WNBA to 14 teams, just two below its all-time high of 16.

And that number could be be regained, according to NBA commissioner David Stern, who promises two more teams by 2011.

Half the league ownership is no longer affiliated with NBA teams. The newer, independent breed is highlighted by the Mohegan Indian Tribe, which operates the casino-entertainment complex Mohegan Sun on the Thames River between Norwich and New London, Conn., and owns the Connecticut Sun.

The Los Angeles Sparks were acquired last summer by two businesswomen who had been longtime season-ticket holders.

On the day Katherine Goodman and Carla Christofferson were introduced in Los Angeles, it was also revealed that perennial MVP candidate Lisa Leslie was pregnant and would miss the season.

A few months later, former Tennessee star Chamique Holdsclaw announced her retirement, and the Sparks went on to tie the Minnesota Lynx for the league's worst record.

The futility was rewarded, however, in the draft lottery with the No. 1 pick. Now that Leslie is back at full strength and rookie Candace Parker enters fresh off two straight NCAA titles at Tennessee, most expect Los Angeles to duplicate the Detroit Shock's worst-to-first reversal to a title in 2003.

"Everyone says it's going to be L.A., so I guess now we're just nothing," quipped Phoenix general manager Ann Meyers-Drysdale, whose Mercury won their first title last summer, and were led by former Connecticut star Diana Taurasi and former Rutgers all-American Cappie Pondexter, the MVP of the playoffs.

Former La Salle coach Paul Westhead left the Mercury to return to the NBA after the season, but his high-octane offense is expected to continue under new coach Corey Gaines.

Fueling what is expected to be the most competitive season ever is the deep influx of collegiate talent, led by Parker and a slew of all-Americans whose teams advanced to the NCAA Elite Eight.