PORTLAND, Ore. — Twenty years ago, women's professional basketball bid farewell to Portland. The Portland Fire was Portland's WNBA team for three seasons before the franchise folded after the 2002 season.
The team wasn't very good — they won only 37 of their 96 games — but they were popular, drawing more than 8,000 fans per game to the Rose Garden on game nights, a number that would have ranked second in the WNBA last season.
The reason the popular team closed up shop after three years was because the late Paul Allen, then-owner of the Portland Trail Blazers, didn't want to buy the team. Allen, who was dealing with financial troubles with the Blazers around that time, wasn't interested in purchasing the Fire when the WNBA sold its teams to their NBA counterparts after the 2002 season.
A $3 million effort to buy the team by former Blazers star Clyde Drexler and Oregon businessman Terry Emmert fizzled out, leaving the Fire without an owner or financial backing. The franchise folded and the WNBA left Portland.
The Fire may have left, but the city never lost its desire for a WNBA team. Oregon loves women's sports and has proven it over the years with support for the Portland Thorns and the women's basketball programs at Oregon and Oregon State, among others. Bring a WNBA team back to Portland and the fans would show up.
Now, 20 years later, is the WNBA finally ready to embrace Portland again?
WNBA commissioner visiting Portland
WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert will visit Portland on Monday, Feb. 6 and participate in a panel discussion about women's sports in the state. The panel will feature both women's basketball coaches at Oregon and Oregon State, as well as executives from the Blazers and Portland Thorns. Jenny Nguyen, the owner of The Sports Bra sports bar, will moderate.
According to Wyden's office, the roundtable discussion Monday will center around "how the city can help continue to support the growth of women's sports in the United States." There is an evident undertone for the event, though. Rumors and whispers of potential WNBA expansion into Portland have been bubbling up over the past year. One way for Portland to "support the growth of women's sports in the United States" would be to bring the WNBA back to the Rose City.
Wyden has been pushing for this for some time. He sent letters to Englebert and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver about WNBA expansion into Portland in September and received positive responses from both.
Wyden, who announced Engelbert's visit to Portland, said he's thrilled she's coming. Citing the attendance for the Thorns and Oregon's women's college basketball teams, Wyden called the state "an epicenter for women's sports."
"There's no doubt a WNBA team would be a slam-dunk success in the Moda Center," Wyden said.
In her letter responding to Wyden in September, Englebert said "Portland is a market that we hold in high regard and are actively considering" for expansion. In a statement ahead of her visit to Portland on Monday, the commissioner said Portland's support of women's sports hasn't gone unnoticed.
"We continue to see a huge demand for the WNBA around the country, and the city of Portland is a perfect illustration of this," Englebert said.
Rumors of WNBA to Portland
So, will the WNBA return to Portland? And if so, when?
Engelbert has said in the past year that she wants to add a couple of teams to the league, with a plan for the expansion teams to start playing as early as the 2024 season and no later than 2025. She's been working on a list, narrowing it down last summer from 100 locations to 10 or 12 cities, The Athletic reported last summer. That article listed Portland as one of six markets that seem "most prepared and probable to be on the short list for WNBA expansion."
KGW has confirmed that billionaire Kirk Brown is interested in owning a WNBA team and is leading a bid to bring one to Portland. Brown, a Newberg High School alum who founded a tech company based in Vancouver, Washington, has the support of the city and the Portland Trail Blazers. That support is vital to the WNBA.
"When you talk to Kirk, he gets really excited about the prospect of bringing the WNBA back to Portland. We talk to the league all the time and ask what can we do to help bring this bid here," said Blazers team president Dewayne Hankins, who along with general manager Joe Cronin, will participate in Monday's panel.
Portland checks many of the boxes the league is looking for, including fan support, ownership and infrastructure. The city is definitely in the running for WNBA expansion.
Now all Portland fans can do is wait for an announcement.