For a brief moment, women’s professional basketball had a home in Portland. The Portland Fire played in what was then called the Rose Garden and amassed a loyal following: more than 8,000 fans a night.
That was 20 years ago. The Fire skipped town in 2002, after then-Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen declined to add them to his portfolio of sports franchises.
But now at least two parties are interested in bringing a WNBA team back to Portland, sources familiar with the discussions tell WW.
One of them is a Vancouver, Wash., tech founder named Kirk Brown.
Brown co-founded DiscoverOrg and left the company in 2015 before it changed its name to ZoomInfo after acquiring a competitor in 2019. ZoomInfo, which went public in 2020, offers data and intelligence to help marketing companies increase their sales. Brown remains a shareholder and partial owner, and public databases list him as a billionaire.
A representative confirmed the size of Brown’s fortune, but declined to discuss the specifics of his interest in a WNBA team.
It’s not clear who the other interested party is, but four people familiar with discussions say a second group has also made inquiries regarding the placement of a new team in the Rose Quarter.
The biggest complication: the current occupant—the Blazers.
At first glance, returning professional women’s basketball looks like a shot as clean as a Sabrina Ionescu jumper.
Portland and Oregon have long been powerhouses for women’s sports. The Portland Thorns’ attendance is the envy of every other women’s professional soccer team. The University of Oregon and Oregon State University are annually in the top echelon of women’s college basketball programs. Nike offers major clout.
Jim Etzel, CEO of Sport Oregon, a nonprofit that promotes sports across the state, says Portland is an obvious choice for a WNBA expansion.
“I would think the league would be interested in Portland, and I know potential owners are,” Etzel says. “Do I think that it can be successful here? Yes.”
But if a WNBA team wants to come back, it would need the approval of the Trail Blazers, who currently control the two major sports arenas in Portland.
Rip City Management, an arm of the Blazers’ ownership group Vulcan, is currently under contract with the city to manage and operate both Moda Center and Veterans’ Memorial Coliseum—where a WNBA team would likely play if it returned. That means Rip City ownership—that is, Vulcan—controls all vendors and event scheduling at both venues.
The contract to manage the Coliseum is up for renewal next year. It’s expected to get renewed with little pushback. It’s beneficial for both parties: It guarantees the arena’s not a financial albatross for the city, and the Trail Blazers ensure that events held at Memorial Coliseum don’t interfere with Blazers games and attendance.
But renewal of the Coliseum contract is also the first step in a delicate negotiation over the future of the Blazers in Portland.
Moda Center’s lease is up for renewal in 2025. Built in 1995, it’s one of the oldest arenas in the NBA. Paul Allen’s death in 2018 meant his sister, Jody Allen, became the trustee of his estate, including the Blazers. Rumors that she plans to sell the team have bubbled for the past four years—and sports business experts say the Moda Center lease negotiations will be the first concrete signal of her intentions.
The addition of another professional sports team to the Rose Quarter—competing for Portlanders’ dollars—would further complicate that dance.
Be that as it may, the Blazers tell WW they would welcome a WNBA team.
“It is no surprise to us that there may be parties interested in bringing a WNBA team to the market and, quite frankly, we welcome conversations about bringing a team to the Rose Quarter,” says Dewayne Hankins, president of business operations for the Blazers.
The Blazers did not specify which venue they might offer, if any.
The uncertain future of the Blazers is one reason to wonder how enthusiastic Allen would be about a new basketball team. Another is that Vulcan already had an opportunity to keep the WNBA in Portland—and declined.
In 2002, only three years after the Fire arrived in Portland, WNBA teams were given an ultimatum: be bought out by your NBA counterpart, find a new owner, or fold.
The Fire’s chairman was Paul Allen. He chose not to buy the team. Another ownership deal fell through. The Portland Fire left. It was a short stint, tying as the briefest run ever for a WNBA team.
Fire center Jenny Mowe was playing overseas in China when she got an email in late 2002: No buyer had been found for her team.
“I came back to the States and was like, ‘What happened?’ By then, the team was all dispersed already,” says Mowe. “There was no goodbye party; it was just, ‘Oh, I got redrafted.’”
Mowe says no one ever really knew why Allen didn’t buy the team: “I was told he didn’t want us, that we were a distraction to the Blazers.”
When Mowe came back stateside, she heard that there had, in fact, been a potential buyer: the duo of former Blazer Clyde Drexler and eccentric Clackamas business tycoon Terry Emmert. It fell through.
“Let me put it this way: They threw a lot of money down the drain that we would have given them,” Emmert tells WW. “We offered them a very fair price. How politics works in professional sports leaves a lot to be desired.”
Twenty years later, Portland hasn’t gotten a second shot at a WNBA team.
There are only 12 WNBA franchises, with 12 roster spots apiece. Seven of the teams are independently owned, and the remaining five are owned by their cities’ NBA teams.
The WNBA plays a 36-game season, less than half the length of the NBA’s, and it runs from May through mid-August, when the NBA is largely on hiatus. Memorial Coliseum, with fewer than 13,000 seats, is an attractive arena for a league that averaged 6,500 fans per game in 2019, the last pre-COVID season.
The WNBA has sought to grow its fan base and revenue in recent years, and even fundraised $75 million earlier this month, with contributions coming from sports businesses, team owners and companies such as Nike.
And while a handful of cities and potential owners are hungry for a team—Oakland is a strong contender, as is Houston—WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert has warned that the WNBA needs to build more revenue before it expands.
Sandi Bittler, who was vice president of business affairs for the Fire, says it’s a perfect time to bring back a team.
“We needed a little more time, and we just didn’t get it,” Bittler says. “The Timbers and Thorns have shown there’s enough room in the city for multiple teams.”