Game not over for WNBA, even as Houston Comets shut down
The Houston Comets announced they would cease operations immediately
The team won four-straight championships between 1997 and 2000
Commissioner Donna Orender says this does not signal the end of the WNBA
Van Chancellor loved the victory parades, the cheering and screaming of the thousands of fans who would line several blocks of downtown Houston a day or so after his team had won a WNBA title. It was such a thrill that Chancellor, the coach of the Houston Comets from their inception in 1997 until January 2007, would motivate his team each year by saying, "Let's ride that fire truck one more time." The Comets, led by Cynthia Cooper, Tina Thompson and Sheryl Swoopes, rode the fire truck four straight years from 1997 to 2000, establishing the fledgling WNBA's first and -- so far -- only dynasty. "We had an excitement there in '97, '98, '99 and 2000 that I can't explain," said Chancellor. "It was unbelievable."
But now the cheering, the fans, the excitement, the team itself is just a memory. After a fruitless four-month search to secure new ownership for the franchise, the WNBA announced on Tuesday that the Comets would disband. "It's a real sad day," said Chancellor, who left the Comets before the 2007 season to become the coach of the LSU women's team. "You feel for the fans, you feel for the city and the players. The Comets will never be forgotten in Houston, but they are no longer a part of the city. That's tough."
It's tough, but in this business, as in most businesses, there is little room for sentimentality, even for icons. Circumstances change. Look at GM, one of the league's marketing partners a decade ago. The company that lavished Cooper, the league's first MVP, with a 1997 Buick Regal GS is now struggling to avoid financial collapse.
Houston downward spiraled. After making the playoffs for the seventh-straight time in 2003, the Comets made it just once in the last five years. The crowds of 13,000 that saw them play at the Summit (later called the Compaq Center) dwindled when the team moved to the Toyota Center in 2004, and shrunk further when the team owner Hilton Koch, a local businessman who bought the team from Rockets owner Leslie Alexander in January 2007, moved it to the 7,200-seat Reliant Arena for the 2008 season. "I don't know why the crowds got smaller," Chancellor said. "Maybe it's because they stopped winning championships."
In August the WNBA took over the team from Koch, who was apparently in over his head. According to the Houston Chronicle, a letter sent out to potential investors by Houston Mayor Bill White and Harris County Judge Ed Emmett that month noted that Koch "has not been able to devote the resources needed to maintain the Comets' tradition of success."
Last month the league was in negotiations with a group of potential buyers, but "at the zero hour, they elected not to proceed," said league commissioner Donna Orender. "That put us in a tough spot." With just four months to the 2009 draft, the league decided to pull the plug on the team and schedule a dispersal draft for Dec. 8.
"The Houston franchise was one of the building blocks of the league," Orender said. "It created attention and success. But based on where it was the last couple of years in terms of its business model, you know what? The next step is to move on. I don't want to in any way diminish the impact of the fans, their feelings, how important they are to this league. But we have to be able to build this league on business fundamentals."
Orender dismisses the idea that the Comets' demise is a reflection of the current economic crisis. "The Comets having to suspend operations is more a function of recent history there than anything to do with the current economy," she said.
Moreover, it's not an indication that the league as a whole is in trouble. The WNBA has a lot of reasons to be optimistic, even in the current climate. According to Orender, TV ratings were up last season, as was league-wide attendance, merchandise sales, Web site traffic and sponsorships. Individual team revenue was up in 10 (of now 13) markets this past season. Next year will see the start of a new long-term TV deal with ESPN that will pay the league rights fees, for the first time. "We have more momentum where we sit 12 years in than we had before," Orender said.
Something that particularly excites her is the growing talent base around the country. "It's interesting... some of the best talent in the country right now is coming out of Houston. This talent has been inspired by the league. We're seeing the fruits of that. And that takes time."
Orender realizes that the grim economy may affect fans and sponsors in unpredictable ways. "We all have concerns," she said. "We have concerns in the good times, we have heightened concerns in the times that aren't so good. But we have a confidence in the league's ability to deliver connections with consumers at a price point that makes sense for companies. We're trying to focus on that."
Orender adds that she has been "pleasantly pleased" with some of her new sponsorship prospects. "But let's face it, we all have to dig in and work hard," she says. "For the WNBA that's nothing new. That's business as usual."
Kelli Anderson can be reached at email@example.com.