WNBA disbands women's pro basketball team in Houston

NEW YORK Tue Dec 2, 2008 7:39pm EST

NEW YORK Dec 2 (Reuters) - The Houston Comets franchise in the Women's National Basketball Association is disbanding after a new owner could not be found for the league-owned team, the league said on Tuesday.

The Comets, which won the WNBA's first four championships, will suspend operations for the 2009 season and its players will be sent to the league's other teams in a dispersal draft on Dec. 8, the WNBA said. The league will play its 13th season next year with the remaining 13 teams.

Leslie Alexander, owner of the National Basketball Association's Houston Rockets, was the original owner of the Comets until he sold the team to Houston businessman Hilton Koch in January 2007. In August, the WNBA took over the team in an effort to find a new owner.

Several investors had approached the league about buying the Comets, but WNBA Commissioner Donna Orender said the timing was not right.

"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," she said in a statement.

Launched by the NBA in 1997 following the gold-medal performance of the U.S. women's team in the Olympics the year before, the WNBA saw increases in attendance, TV ratings, Internet traffic, corporate sponsorships and merchandise sales in 2008.

Some women's sports leagues, like soccer, have folded, and others have failed to garner a huge following, like softball. After the initial excitement of its first two years, the WNBA has managed to survive both a decline in attendance and television ratings, feeding off its parent.

WNBA officials said no other teams in the league were in trouble and the disbanding of the Comets was not related to the weak U.S. economy. Officials added a WNBA team could return to Houston in the future.

NBA Commissioner David Stern recently told Reuters the men's pro basketball league remains committed to the WNBA. He pointed to a new TV deal starting next season with Walt Disney Co's (DIS.N) ESPN network, that will give the WNBA its first broadcast rights fee, a first for a U.S. women's pro sports league.

The WNBA's TV deal is worth an estimated $30 million. In contrast, the NBA deal from last year was for eight years and $7.5 billion.

Stern said earlier in the year, before the U.S. financial markets collapsed and consumers curtailed spending, that he expected the WNBA would be profitable in 2009 and that it would look to add two teams by 2011. (Reporting by Ben Klayman; Editing by Toni Reinhold)

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