Commentary

Comets will be missed, but the WNBA will go on

Originally Published: December 1, 2008
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

The news was unfortunate but not unexpected. In talking to WNBA President Donna Orender at the league finals, there wasn't much of a sense that the Houston Comets could be saved.

Cynthia Cooper
In August 2000, Cynthia Cooper, left, and teammate Tina Thompson celebrated the Comets' fourth WNBA title.

So when the official announcement came Monday, it wasn't a shock. Yes, the Comets were one of the original WNBA teams, a four-time league champion and a cornerstone for the league in its infancy. But the team also was looking for new ownership during one of this country's worst economic periods.

As the old adage goes, the Comets were in the wrong place at the wrong time. But it's important not to forget that a decade ago, they were in the right place at the right time. And the WNBA benefited because of it.

Now, the players who are available will be distributed in a dispersal draft next week. The organization's biggest star, Tina Thompson, is an unrestricted free agent and will decide where she wants to play next -- if she wants to continue in the league.

Of course, one of the first things people might think about the Comets' demise is this: Does this mean the impending end of the WNBA?

No, it doesn't. Houston is a franchise that lost its way at the worst possible time. Rockets owner Leslie Alexander sold the team to Hilton Koch in 2007, but that handoff did not survive longer than a year. Koch, who bought the team with the best of intentions, was soon in over his head financially, and the league could not find a new buyer.

Bad news? Of course. But the NBA is still vested enough in the WNBA, and that -- along with the energy and hard work of the independent owners -- will keep the league going.

The WNBA's business model has adapted since the league's inception in 1997, when it started as a completely dependent "little sister" organization to the NBA. The switch to allowing non-NBA-affiliated owners in late 2002 was a natural progression, and that has allowed people outside the NBA realm who are really passionate about the WNBA to become active leaders in the league's present and future.

One of the most insightful comments about the non-NBA ownership model came from Los Angeles Sparks co-owner Kathy Goodman, a former movie company executive. She told USA Today in 2007 that it was comparable to a big-studio mentality versus an independent-studio mindset.

"The economic decisions you make are different," said Goodman, who owns the Sparks along with Carla Christofferson. "The scale of potential profit and potential loss is different. Our view was, the teams that have been successful in the WNBA are the ones that have dedicated management for their women's team."

Both ownership models can work, though, as long as they have staffs that understand they are selling to a different market than the NBA, sell the product in creative ways, and keep close ties to their fans by listening to their suggestions and complaints.

That said, we all know the economy isn't going to get fixed overnight. The WNBA, like every other sports league, is going to face some struggles not necessarily anticipated even a year ago. It's still possible there could be other WNBA franchises that hit rough waters and don't make it.

"The anticipation is, things will happen," Orender told me. "The teams you have, you want to make as strong as they can be and learn what a good business model is in each area -- and build on that."

What had worked in Houston stopped working well enough. And this just isn't a good time for an ailing business to look for rescue.

Yes, it's sad about Houston. I was there in August 1997 when the Comets won the first WNBA title and Cynthia Cooper -- who had been in "basketball exile" overseas for 11 years -- got the chance to bask in front of a full house in her own country. It was one of the most memorable moments of my journalism career, just seeing Cooper's face that day.

I saw the Comets repeat the next year. Then persevere -- despite guard Kim Perrot's death from cancer -- in winning a third title. Then a fourth championship came from the "big four" of Houston: Cooper, Thompson, Sheryl Swoopes and Janeth Arcain. And, sure, it was impossible at that time to picture that, eight years later, this would be a franchise to close up shop.

Still, the league will start its 13th season this coming summer, and it has a few genuinely marketable stars who can reach beyond the women's hoops audience, led by L.A.'s Candace Parker.

I don't think that the league is doomed or that it can't survive more shakeups and moves. In fact, I think they are bound to come.

Nobody with any sense ever thought this endeavor -- a women's pro basketball league in the United States -- was going to be easy. And it hasn't been. Hell, nothing in women's sports ever is.

But there are enough positives about the league to keep it going even through the most painful times -- like saying goodbye to team that mattered so much.

Mechelle Voepel is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.