Last week, the Houston Comets announced their plans to shut down operations. They're officially done. WNBA President Donna Orender released a statement on December 2nd with a brief explanation as to why one of the cornerstone teams of the WNBA must close its doors:
“Multiple investors have come forward and expressed significant interest in purchasing the Comets and having them continue to play in Houston in 2009,” said Orender. “However, we made the judgment that we would not be able to complete a transaction with the right ownership group in time for the 2009 season. The WNBA is extremely grateful to the Comets organization, to the city of Houston and to the team’s loyal fans for helping build both the WNBA and the game of women’s basketball.”
For those of us who were following the WNBA from the beginning, we remember how dominant the team was. Cynthia Cooper, Sheryl Swoopes, and Tina Thompson led a rock start Houston line up to win the first 4 WNBA championships from 1997-2000. Cooper was a four-time finals MVP for each of those championships. They were a dynasty and a pillar of the league.
Sheryl Swoopes joined the Seattle Storm for the 2008 season after an 11 year career with the Comets. She released the following statement regarding the folding Houston organization:
"I am saddened by today’s news regarding the Houston Comets. Having been a part of the team, one of the WNBA’s first, for the majority of my career I can’t help but think of the rich basketball history created there with the first four championships. I will always feel a deep connection with the city of Houston and Comets fans and would like to thank them for their support and passion over the years. While this situation is unfortunate, I am focused on and excited about the 2009 WNBA season."
Kevin Pelton of Seattle wrote a great article looking back on the Comets' story. You can find it here.
It's certainly sad, and a little puzzling, to see the strongest team of the league fold only 8 years after they won their last championship. Granted, they haven't been in a championship game since then. The original owner of the team, Les Alexander, sold the franchise to Houston furniture salesman Hilton Koch in early 2007, but Koch apparently couldn't keep the business afloat. It's unclear whether he lacked the appropriate resources to invest in the organization, or if he didn't have the business acumen take advantage of what appears to be a vibrant community of fans in the Houston metro area.
It doesn't help that Koch decided to put up the "For Sale" sign in early August of this year. As the economy has spiraled into a dark, gloomy place across the globe, it's no wonder that an investor was hard to come by. The WNBA has been notoriously tough to navigate financially--the NBA props up its sister league with loads of cash and a number of franchises have folded since the league's launch in 1997 (Charlottle Sting, Cleveland Rockers, Miami Sol, Portland Fire, Houston Comets), not to mention a few relocations (Utah Starzz to San Antonio Silver Stars, Orlando Miracle to Connecticut Sun). Women's professional sports teams and leagues may be the last thing on investors' minds these days. Until the economy starts to turn around, we may see a few more teams experience some rough times as they struggle to fill the seats in the stadium.
I always anxiously await the future of the WNBA, especially as I see organizations like Houston fold. I've got my fingers crossed that Women's Professional Soccer figures out the key to success for running a professional women's athletic league in the US, because Lord knows we need to get it right.