The Houston Comets were the WNBA’s first dynasty, and their impact resonates to this day long after the franchise ceased to be.
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, dynasties get fans talking. They get us invested in our sports. The 1990s Chicago Bulls were so transcendent that they spurred a 10-part ESPN documentary more than two decades after their last championship. In the early 2000s, UConn women’s basketball’s three-peat resulted in three of the highest-rated championship games in the history of the women’s NCAA Tournament. The game that ended their quest for a five-peat in 2017 is one of the most famous women’s basketball games of all time.
When you take a dynasty and put it right at the inception of a sports league, its impact becomes astronomical. For that reason, the Houston Comets — a franchise that folded in 2008 — remain quite possibly the most important team ever to grace a WNBA court.
The Comets won the first four championships in WNBA history from 1997 to 2000. Just as importantly, their Big Three of Cynthia Cooper, Sheryl Swoopes, and Tina Thompson gave a fledgling league star power and a compelling reason to watch.
“I thought the Comets made basketball cool,” Cooper told Boardroom. “It won over all of — or most of — the male naysayers that [said] women’s professional basketball wasn’t fun to watch.”
After edging the Liberty for the best record in the league in the WNBA’s inaugural season, the Comets ran the WNBA for the next three years, going 80-14 in the regular season and losing just three total postseason games.
The Comets never reached the finals again after 2000, but for a generation of young ballers, they were superstars and are now legends.
Assembling the Team
The WNBA wasn’t expected to survive in a sports landscape that was even more male-dominated than it is now. Skeptics called it a gimmick. Some posited that it wouldn’t last more than a season.
But newly crowned commissioner Val Ackerman had a plan and giving H-Town a local star was part of it.
Sheryl Swoopes was a star at Texas Tech. Surely she’d drum up excitement as the face of Houston’s franchise; the same was true for USC icon Lisa Leslie and the Los Angeles Sparks. And Rebecca Lobo (UConn) and the New York Liberty.
With Swoopes in tow, Houston also got Cynthia Cooper in the initial player allocation — a process in which 16 total players were assigned to each of the eight founding franchises. Then came the elite draft where the Comets added Wanda Guyton and Janeth Arcain. Both were starters on the inaugural 1997 squad, but the next real pickup came in the college draft, when Houston nabbed Tina Thompson out of USC.
Together, Cooper, Swoopes, and Thompson became the WNBA’s first Big Three.
After averaging 9,703 fans per game in their first season, the Comets brought in 12,602 fans per contest in 1998 — a number that jumped to 14,824 in the postseason. That outpaced the overall league attendance growth, which increased from 9.684 to 10,869 from 1997 to ’98.
It’s tough to grow an audience solely by what happens on the court. You also need to reach people who aren’t already tuning in. Swoopes had the advantage of becoming an established brand with one major endorsement before the Houston Comets were even established. Nike launched the Air Swoopes in 1995, making her the first women’s basketball player to ever have her own signature shoe. It put her on par with Michael Jordan as the only players at the time to have a Nike sneaker named after them.
In 1998, Nike teamed up with Cooper for a series of signature shoes under the Air C14 moniker, including the popular Air Max Shake ‘Em Ups.
“Nike was instrumental in not just giving signature shoes to two women but also promoting the WNBA and promoting their female athletes,” Cooper said. “Nike was really at the forefront of the early success of the WNBA.”
Cooper and Swoopes (along with Leslie) also appeared in the iconic Nike “Little Rascals” WNBA ads. And Coop got her own Bud Light commercial after winning the first-ever WNBA MVP award in ’97.
Raising the League
The Comets’ dynasty wouldn’t have had a lasting impact if it didn’t also raise the profile of the entire league. The most obvious instance came in the 1999 WNBA Finals when Houston was mere seconds away from winning the championship. Trailing 67-65 with 2.4 seconds left, Teresa Witherspoon of the Liberty caught an inbounds pass, took three dribbles, and drained the game-winner from beyond half-court. To this day, it is probably the most famous shot in the history of the league and the greatest moment in Liberty history, even though Houston wrapped up the series in the next game.
But while the Liberty were the Comets’ championship victims in three of their four title runs, Houston also had a rising foe out west: Leslie’s Sparks didn’t start as fast as the Comets, but by 2000 had assembled a team every bit as good. She was the star, leading LA to a 28-4 season in 2000, besting Houston by a game for first place in the Western Conference.
Though the Comets ultimately beat the Sparks in the conference finals that year, it was clear that Leslie, flanked by DeLisha Milton-Jones and Mwadi Mabika, were emerging as the new team to beat.
The Sparks won the next two WNBA championships in 2001 and 2002, and appeared in the finals in 2003. Had head coach Michael Cooper not left midseason in 2004, they might have avoided a late-season stumble and made it back. Instead, what could have been the second WNBA dynasty was halted.
The Comets’ Impact
Perhaps the most significant impact a dynasty can have is on the players that come after it. It’s easy to say that a great team or an All-Star inspires young people in the local market — it’s another to see those young people become pros themselves.
Nneka Ogwumike grew up going to Comets games. Elena Delle Donne bought Swoopes’ shoes and tried to emulate her game. As Delle Donne told Boardroom, “I’d watch her and lace up my shoes and go outside to the backyard and start trying to be Sheryl.”
Cooper says she still hears from current players and offers her help. As head coach of Texas Southern, building up the next generation of women basketball players is literally in her job description.
“We talk about how I can help them,” she said. “I tell them my journey, tell them what I did in crucial moments, and different things to help me stay focused and driven and on top of my game. And then I sit back and turn on the television and watch them perform.”
The Future of the W
The WNBA hasn’t had a show as big as the Houston Comets since their dynasty. Still, the league has thrived, particularly over the last few years. While most leagues took ratings hits during the pandemic, the WNBA was able to offset losses with some strong indicators. For one, the WNBA’s season opener last year had more viewers than any game in eight years. The WNBA Finals were up 19% in 2020 compared to 2019, and in between, ESPN added 13 additional league games to its slate.
The WNBA rode the momentum into 2021, increasing viewership by 74% in the early going compared to last year and 49% compared to 2019, the last normally structured season.
There may not be a Big Three, but there’s plenty of star power with more on the way. While the established veteran stars like Diana Taurasi, Tina Charles, Brittney Griner, Sylvia Fowles, and Sue Bird are still producing at a high level, a new guard led by Breanna Stewart, Jonquel Jones, A’ja Wilson, Sabrina Ionescu is ready to take over.
In a couple of years, NaLyssa Smith, Paige Bueckers, Azzi Fudd, Caitlin Clark, and Aliyah Boston will join the fold.
Will any combination of the above players team up to form the next WNBA dynasty? Time will tell. It always does — but the task could be made harder if the league decides to expand.
Depending on how you look at it, that parity is the up or downside to success. But no matter what, the talent level in the W has never been higher.
And that gives us all the reason in the world to celebrate how it all started.