Women basketball players have seen teams fold before

If the Portland Fire are extinguished, many women's pro basketball players can say they've seen it happen before.

'It's like seeing the handwriting on the wall again,' says Trisonya Thompson Abraham, agent for several WNBA players, including Fire centers Sylvia Crawley and Alisa Burras.

Abraham and others are reminded of the American Basketball League and its Portland Power, which folded in 1998.

'Players are seeing the same turn of events,' Abraham says.

The WNBA is requiring that each team have an owner; NBA owners collectively had been paying salaries and benefits.

Blazer owner Paul Allen has been reluctant to assume control of the Fire, which suffered stagnant attendance and lost more than $1 million last season.

Sandi Bittler, Fire vice president of business operations, says the team needs an owner in place by the end of the month.

'Am I optimistic? Probably not,' she says.

While Bittler has been searching for local ownership, the Fire staff has presented budget proposals, cost projections and management plans to Blazer President Bob Whitsitt. Whitsitt reports to the Seattle-based Allen, who recently folded his Action Sports Cable Network in Portland.

'It's Paul's decision,' Bittler said.

Allen has other businesses in trouble, including Charter Communications, a cable television system in St. Louis.

Cynthia Brumfield, president of the cable analysis firm Broadband Intelligence in Bethesda, Md., calls Charter 'one of the most troubled cable companies there is, aside from Adelphia,' which recently filed for bankruptcy.

'Their stock has dropped by 96 percent over the last year, they've had escalating investigations of their accounting practices, and their basic subscriber count is dropping at a pretty rapid rate,' Brumfield says.

Shareholders, she notes, are putting the blame on Allen, the majority shareholder.

Brumfield says institutional investors are shying away from Charter because Allen has shown little interest in his own large investment. She says one institutional investor, at a conference this week, called Allen 'an invisible man.' Others have questioned whether he's lost interest in the company altogether.

The WNBA has had it rough of late, too. Two teams have disbanded, although Miami and Orlando could relocate. Utah moved to San Antonio after Jazz owner Larry Miller essentially gave up on trying to break even.

The league and its players have stopped negotiating on a new collective bargaining agreement because of the turmoil in ownership changes.

'I hear there's quite a few teams up in the air,' Abraham says.

The Fire have missed the playoffs and lost money in all three of their seasons. Last season, they went 16-16 and drew 8,041 fans per game, under the league average of 9,228, and many believe that the numbers have been inflated by complimentary tickets.

Abraham had pushed for better veteran salaries but now says players should back off that stance.

'The climate has changed,' she says.

Miami and Orlando players 'have nowhere to go. Players are saying, 'We'll take what we're getting. What can we do?' They better take what they can get, or teams will start folding.

'I pray to God Portland keeps a team,' Abraham says. 'I live here, and all my players play here. In lieu of what happens with the (troubled) Trail Blazers, the Portland Fire is a positive for the city. It'd be nice to keep one flower in the garden full of weeds.'

Andy Giegerich contributed to this report.

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