The Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) was a new women’s basketball league that began in 1997, starting with eight teams. Like all new leagues starting out, the WNBA had an expansion phase, promoting their brand and creating new teams to compete for a national championship. Among those teams was the short-lived Portland Fire.
The Portland Fire existed for only three years, in the 2000–2002 seasons competing in the Western Conference. The Fire played at the Rose Garden, now known as the Moda Center.
The Portland Fire are one of two WNBA teams to never make the playoffs, next to the defunct Miami Sol. In their inaugural season, the Fire finished seventh in the West with a 10-22 record and .313 winning percentage. They went 11-21 with a .344 winning percentage in 2001, and went 16-16 in their final season—coming in at fifth place in the West. Their record was 37-59 overall, with zero playoff appearances and zero championships. The Fire averaged only 8,000 fans per game which was small for the league at the time.
Jackie Stiles was selected fourth overall in the 2001 WNBA draft. She averaged 14.9 points per game and was awarded Rookie of the Year. Injuries complicated her career—and she never played again in the league, though she did later play for the Lubbock Hawks of the National Women’s Basketball League and the Canberra Capitals of the Women’s National Basketball League in Australia.
Due to the WNBA turning only five in 2002 when the Fire folded, the league sold ownership of their franchises to the owners of their counterpart NBA teams. Paul Allen opted not to buy the team because the Portland Trail Blazers were struggling—and the WNBA was suffering financial problems league-wide.
Trail Blazers legend Clyde Drexler and Clackamas businessman Terry Emment attempted to buy the franchise, but the deal was never made. Portland has been without a professional women’s basketball team since 2002.
Women’s basketball in the City of Roses started off with the Portland Power, one of the nine founding franchises coming out the the American Basketball League (ABL), which attempted to rival the WNBA at the time.
After the 1996 Olympics were hosted in Atlanta, the ABL was able to recruit multiple gold medalists like Portland native Katy Steding. They won a division title in their 1997-98 season, going 27-17—and winning the West.
The ABL seemed to be doing better than the WNBA. The Power were 9-4—first in their conference before financial issues within the league ruined their chances of winning their first title.
Natalie Williams, the daughter of former NBA star Nate Williams, was the Power’s star player, and was awarded first-team ABL two years in a row in the 1996–97 and the 1997–98 season. Leading the league in scoring and rebounds, the team folded along with the rest of the league in 1998, starting with eight teams and ending with nine.
There have been talks about bringing the Fire back to the Moda Center, but no progress has been made. In December, Trailblazers star Jusuf Nurkic shared his support for a team returning to Portland on Twitter. Kirk Brown, co-founder of DiscoverOrg (now ZoomInfo), also expressed interest in bringing a team back to the WNBA.
There is no doubt that the Portland Fire wouldn’t thrive today without Portland having a large women’s sports fan base, supporting teams like the Portland Thorns who led the National Women’s Soccer League in attendance last year. The Thorns average 14,391 fans a game, more than the next most popular team, the Racing Louisville FC that averages 6,610 per game. Before the pandemic in 2019, the Thorns averaged 20,098 fans per game.
If a WNBA team does come back to Portland, they would need a venue. They could play at the Moda Center, like their NBA counterparts, but there will be potential scheduling conflicts. A good location may be the Veterans Memorial Coliseum, where the Portland Winterhawks Hockey team hosts their games. The Coliseum has a capacity of 10,934.
Not only would Portland provide a solid WNBA fanbase, they would also already have a rivalry with the team up north—four-time WNBA champions, the Seattle Storm—just like the Portland Timbers have a rivalry with the Seattle Sounders, or Thorns has with OL Reign.