Interest from the WNBA is at an all time high. Could a team return to Houston?

From 1997 to 2000, legendary players Cynthia Cooper, Tina Thompson and Sheryl Swoops led the Houston Comets to the first four WNBA national titles. The team was a dynasty: to date, it is the only franchise to have won four consecutive championships.

But when the league kicks off on May 6 of this year, it will mark more than a decade since the Houstonians first rooted for a home team.

Comets dissolved in 2008 due to financial problems. Since then, many fans have wondered when the conditions might be right for the WNBA to grow again and what it would take to bring a team back to Bayou City.

As the league reaches an all-time high in popularity, fans and pundits say the time is right.

“If you love women’s basketball and you love women’s basketball history, like me, like so many others,” said Howard Megdal, Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Next: A Women’s Basketball Newsroom“It’s almost a crime that there isn’t a WNBA team in Houston.”

The Comets hunkered down during a decade of WNBA contraction — the league has gone from 16 teams in 2000 to 12 currently.

But it’s a whole different story today: the league, affectionately known as the W among fans, recorded a ten-year viewership last season, and reported record social media engagement and merchandise sales. Ahead of the 26th season in May, the W raised the most capital in its history at $75 million.

“The idea that there would be a significant expansion of the WNBA within two to four years,” Megdal said, “that seems like a perfectly reasonable time frame, as far as I can tell.”

The league hasn’t publicly committed to expanding, but Megdal said it seemed more open to the idea since the capital raise. He watches to see which cities are emerging as viable markets at a time when investment in women’s sport is increasing exponentially.

But if the city hopes to see a WNBA team, Medgal said they need stable property ready to make an investment — including a place to play.

This last point is essential. Last season during the playoffs, the Phoenix Mercury were unable to play on the team’s home ground due to a scheduling conflict with its shared arena, a decision widely criticized by fans. The only W team currently in Texas shares its stadium: the Dallas Wings play on the campus of the University of Texas at Arlington.

In Houston, fans say they want a place to house the Comets’ legacy, as well as a hometown team to cheer on.

“People don’t usually want to travel to Dallas for a WNBA game,” said Gia Quillap, Houston sports photographer and women’s sports enthusiast. “It’s easier to have something closer to home, you know, and to feel like ‘this is my team’.

Cynthia Cooper (14) of the Houston Comets goes up for a layup between Utah Starzz defenders Elena Baranova (28) and Cindy Brown (15) in this file photo from August 16, 1999 in Houston. One of 16 players who formed the core of the WNBA a decade ago, Cooper wrapped up her career in 2003 as one of the game’s leading ladies and was selected to the All-Decade Team of the WNBA.

Quilap moved to Houston right after the Comets disbanded, but developed a love for professional women’s soccer. She now photographs the Houston Dash for the website Keeper’s Notes.

It’s because of his football coverage – and seeing the Dash support the WNBA, including having a Houston-born WNBA star Britney Griner perform the inaugural draw in 2015 – that she has become a fan of professional hoops.

“I think it would mean so much to add women’s sports to such a big city,” Quilap said. “We’re the fourth largest city. We’re able to support a lot of different teams, and I think the WNBA could fit in there.”

Fans like Quilap also point to the prevalence of college women’s basketball in and around Houston as a reason to develop a professional team, noting the positive impact it has on young players to have professionals in the community.

That’s why University of Houston women’s basketball head coach Ronald Hughey said he wants to see a team return to Bayou City. A few years ago, legendary Comets player Tina Thompson visited the team and her players’ faces lit up when she walked into the room.

“Just imagine – this magnitude of one person – if it was a whole team here in Houston, what that would bring,” Hughey said. “Not just for my team, not just for the team at Texas Southern University or the team at Houston Baptist University, but for all those high schools and young girls (to be able) to look up to someone, that would be great. “

At Rice University, head coach Lindsay Edmonds said she would like to take her girls to professional games and get her players involved.

“I think it would be a great opportunity for us to potentially develop a partnership with them,” Edmonds said, “to be able to attend practices, to be able to go and take the team to games and to be able to hopefully build relationships. the low.”

Professional gamers have long been known for their involvement in the community. It’s one of the reasons Donna Finnie, the head coach across town at Houston Baptist University, supports a return of a WNBA team.

“The impact that the individuals on this team could have, whether they’re just going out into the community or as a group, could be huge,” Finnie said. “Not just in schools and the education platform, but for charities and raising awareness of what is happening in our city.”

On top of that, WNBA players have long been known for their activism and support for historically marginalized communities. It was one of the first professional leagues to celebrate the LGBTQ community with pride nights. In 2020, the league dedicated his entire season to social justice thanks to the support of the Say Her Name and Black Lives Matter campaigns.

Some even credit the WNBA for helping U.S. Senator Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., gain national attention in the 2020 election. His successful bid for a seat helped flip control of the U.S. Senate to Democrats that year. He also ousted former WNBA Atlanta Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler, who previously condemned the team’s activism.

League players often cite the composition of the WNBA as part of the reason for their commitment to social justice. the majority of players are black – almost 75% in the 2021 season – and many are openly members of LGBTQ communities. Two players from last year’s championship-winning team are married: Chicago Sky’s Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley.

Just last month, Layshia Clarendon, Minnesota professional goaltender and the league’s first openly non-binary player, announced that she was creating a foundation to help provide access to health care affirming the kind. Clarendon is now one of many individual actors leading his own foundation.

https://twitter.com/Layshiac/status/1508970548663103490

All of these factors – growth in engagement and viewership, a historic $75 million capital raise, the impact a team could have on a community – should make a WNBA team extremely attractive to potential investors. of Houston, Megdal said.

While local coaches, players and fans seem ready to welcome a team back, there is still uncertainty over league expansion. Additionally, while Megdal said Houston is often in the conversation when fans and analysts talk about expansion, it’s also uncertain if the city will emerge as a viable option.

“The economic factors on the ground have to make this a reality,” Medgal said. “But just from an emotional standpoint, the Houston Comets and their legacy should have a place to live in the WNBA.”