The Portland Fire was a great idea just a few years ahead of its time

Dwight Jaynes
NBC Sports Northwest

The Portland Fire?

As I watched Part I of our content- and video-rich documentary series on this city's short-lived WNBA franchise, a few things popped into my head.

That team was a great idea that came along just a little too soon. I see women's basketball in the same way I used to see men's basketball: The colleges built the stars and the pros scooped them up and paid them for their talent. But it took awhile.

The NBA was built on college basketball -- in the days when college players had to stay in school. By the time the great ones got finished with four years of college ball, they were household names. That all changed, of course, when players had the right to skip college or attend for just one season.

But in the beginning, it was about the players making their names, their reputations, in college before cashing the big checks in the pros.

I see the WNBA going through the same process. Women's college basketball is growing and interest is at an all-time high. That's led to a great anticipation for seeing those college stars in the pros. There is no better example of this than Sabrina Ionescu -- who was a mega-star at Oregon before even being drafted by the WNBA.

She is going to be a drawing card. She's going to have a big following all over the country and basketball fans are going to pay to see her play.

Alas, in 2000, when the Portland Fire was born, a great many fans were not as familiar with the women's college game, other than the two or three big-time programs in the country. There were good local teams, even at Portland State and the University of Portland, but the process of building big stars -- the people who sell tickets -- was yet to come, particularly in this part of the country.

Women's college basketball just wasn't getting the exposure then that it does today.

I can recall some fans expecting women to show up for Fire games merely because they were women. You know, support the cause. I understood that, but I also knew it wasn't a sustainable business model.

People expect to get their money's worth. They want to be entertained. And in sports, that so often means winning. An expansion team, the Fire didn't win much, especially in the first two seasons. The team averaged a little more than 8,000 fans per game in Portland, which was about the middle of the pack in the league. I just felt it really never caught on.

How would it do now?

With Oregon and Oregon State churning out WNBA players every season and drawing large crowds for games on campus, it would be a big local favorite. Bigger than the very successful NWSL Thorns, I would guess.

But somebody has to step up who wants to own a Portland franchise. And that could be risky because the league is entering unexplored territory with a new collective bargaining agreement with its players. WNBA stars will be capable of earning more than $500,000 and the average salary is expected to approach $130,000 under the new agreement.

That's a big jump for the players -- and the owners. But if you have several million dollars you'd like to invest in sports, WNBA franchises could be the next big thing.

Especially in Portland.

The Portland Fire was a great idea just a few years ahead of its time originally appeared on NBC Sports Northwest

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