A Growing Problem

By John Smallwood
Updated: December 10, 2008

PHILADELPHIA — As of last Tuesday morning, the Houston Comets were still on the WNBA Web site in a section encouraging fans to buy 2009 season tickets for all 14 teams.

A click on the Comets logo connected to a link that advertised packages as low as $10 a game for season tickets. There was a phone number to call.

The problem was that late on last Monday, WNBA president Donna Orender had announced the league would shut down the team. By noon the next day, the official announcement was on WNBA.com and the links to the Comets were disabled.

After two rocky seasons of ownership issues and sagging attendance that resulted in the league taking over operations of the team about four months ago, the first jewel of the WNBA is history.

“Multiple investors have come forward and expressed significant interest in purchasing the Comets and having them continue to play in Houston in 2009,” Orender said in a statement on the league’s Web site.

“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 the team’s loyal fans for helping build both the WNBA and the game of women’s basketball.”

As one of the eight original franchises, the Comets arguably are — rather were — one of the most important franchises in the history of women’s professional sports. While the WNBA’s marketing wing might have been pulling for the teams in New York and Los Angeles to set the pace, the Comets won the first four WNBA championships.

Houston players such as Sheryl Swoopes, Cynthia Cooper, Tina Thompson, Kim Perrot and Janeth Arcain helped the fledgling league gain popularity and stay afloat during those crucial early seasons.

Now they are gone, casualties of the thing that is ultimately behind every franchise that fails — sagging profitability.

The players were moved in a dispersal draft on Monday, but 37 other people in the organization are out of work today.

I have mixed feelings about the Comets’ demise. I think it’s clear that I’m a proponent of women’s sports. I’d like to see hard-working female athletes have the same opportunities to earn a living as professionals that men do.

But I understand that “opportunity” is the only thing that should be given. The rest must be earned. Professional sports are about business, financial stability and, ultimately, profits.

Owners are in the business to make money, and if the revenue streams are no longer there to support a moneymaking franchise, then they have every right to close up shop.

The American Basketball League and Women’s United Soccer Association had their opportunities. They failed because they could not adequately sell their product.

Professional sports aren’t collegiate athletics where Title IX guarantees equal opportunity for female athletes.

There are neither educational nor government-funding issues involved in professional sports. It’s up to people involved to make sure a professional women’s league or team stays afloat.

The NBA financially subsidized theWNBA for many years as it worked to find its niche. During the early years, the league had television contracts with NBC, ESPN and Lifetime.

More than any women’s professional league in history, the WNBA was set up to succeed if it could just find an audience for its product. The fact that the league is still around after 12 seasons proves it created a survival niche.

But the Comets’ demise must set off some warning alarms.

After a dozen years, a healthy WNBA should be looking toward expansion, not wondering how one of the premier franchises in league history ceases to exist.

Most WNBA players still go overseas during the winter to play in professional leagues that pay more than their WNBA salaries.

Instead of growing attendance, the challenge is to stabilize things so the current levels don’t fall. Only a few franchises turn profits.

The folding of the Comets brings back into question the viability of women’s professional team sports in the United States.

The quality of play in women’s basketball, soccer, softball and virtually every sport is light-years beyond the level when this “Golden Age” of women’s sports began after the success of the U.S. women’s teams at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

The last 12 years have represented the greatest opportunity in history for women’s professional sports to gain a foothold in the American market. The change, however, has not been dramatic.

The WNBA is still the only legitimate professional women’s team sports league in America, and its long-term survival remains debatable.

If the four-time WNBA champion Houston Comets can suddenly burn out of existence, is anything assured about the future of women’s professional sports?