Wednesday, April 15, 2009
In 2002, the Portland Fire of the WNBA folded.
Up until October 2002, the WNBA was pretty much a lemonade stand for the NBA. The teams - and pretty much everything else - were run by the NBA and the NBA teams in the counterpart cities. 2003 would be the first year of divestiture. It would be the first year when WNBA teams could be owned by someone other than the NBA counterpart franchise. This decision was made by the NBA's board of directors.
NBA teams got first dibs on the WNBA franchises. They could simply decide to own both an NBA and a WNBA franchise. If they didn't wish to own the WNBA franchise, it could seek new ownership.
This led to a lot of shuffling. Utah washed its hands and the Starzz fled to San Antonio. Orlando didn't want to buy in, either, and the Mohegan Indian tribe in Connecticut purchased the Miracle - women's basketball was big in Connecticut and the casino could have an ongoing summer sports event.
At the time, the owner of the Portland Trail Blazers was Paul Allen. Allen claimed that he was losing millions with the Blazers. Since NBA franchises are not required to open the books to the public, no claim of insolvency can ever be verified. However, he was taking major hits in his other businesses, and the Portland Fire was losing money every year.
Not that you would know by looking at the turnstiles. Portland drew well from 2000 to 2002, with about 8,000 a game listed. The truth, however, is in the details - every franchise from the NFL down lies about its total attendance, and the real question is how much was Portland blowing up the numbers? (Unofficial sources say the Dream blows up its attendance by about 10-15 percent; the Shock blow theirs up by about 40 percent.)
Furthermore, all indications were that women's basketball fans living in the Oregon area didn't look down on the Fire or somehow reject them. Fire fans seemed to be willing to wait the length of time it took for the franchise to become competitive.
The problem was a simple one. Paul Allen didn't want to own the Portland Fire. No one stepped up to claim ownership, either in Portland or elsewhere. That was the end of the Portland Fire. The Portland Fire would be the only team in WNBA history never to go to the playoffs.
Gavin Shearer makes the case that the best places for the WNBA to move are what are called "Creative Class" cities after the book by Richard Florida - cities which tend to attract creative people willing to take a chance on new things. Portland was one of those cities, ranking #6 on Richard Florida's first Creative Class list.
The question of why such a city never came up with a new owner is a mystery to me. The rise and fall of the Portland Fire might be one of those unsolved mysteries. Maybe the WNBA asked too much of a potential owner. Maybe Portland has only one franchise - the Trail Blazers - and loves them Forsaking All Others. Maybe because Portland only has one pro franchise it could be the case that the loyalty of Portland sports fans is split in all sorts of directions. Mabye "Creative Class" cities just don't like sports all that much, and that conservative cities are the best ones for long-term franchise growth.
Who knows? Maybe, someday, women's basketball will come back to Portland, Oregon. The first team was never there for very long, so it would be almost like Portland getting a team for the very first time. Maybe someday, there will be another Fire in Portland.