Saturday, December 13, 2008

Some local sports thoughts

Not that you'd know by watching, reading or listening to the local sports media, but there really is some local sports news worth mentioning aside from high school football playoffs, the Rockets (whose loss to the Los Angeles Clippers - seriously? - earlier this evening puts them at a good-but-not-great 15-9 for the season so far), and the Texans (who are struggling to match their 8-8 campaign of a year ago):

Bowl matchups have been set, and the University of Houston Cougars, coming off their 7-5 regular season campaign, will face off against Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth on New Year's Eve.

I'm normally not a big fan of same-season rematches in college football, but in this case I'll make an exception. As I've said before, last September's "home" game against Air Force, which was moved to Dallas because of Hurricane Ike and was played before a couple of thousand people in poor weather conditions, should have simply been canceled. The Cougars now get an opportunity to redeem themselves against the Falcons, this time hopefully in front of a better crowd and under more ideal playing conditions. Time to give my aunt and uncle in Plano a call and see if they have room for me in their New Year's Eve plans...

Rice, meanwhile, will stay in town and play Western Michigan in the Texas Bowl, which is their second bowl appearance in three seasons. The Rice Owls have won nine games for the first time since 1953, when they won the Southwest Conference and defeated Alabama in the Cotton Bowl, 28-6, in a game that featured this memorable, um, play.

Last week, it was announced that the Houston Comets would cease operations.

The Comets, who began life as the "sister" franchise of the Houston Rockets, won four consecutive WNBA titles from 1997 through 2000 and became the first true dynasty in womens' professional sports. However, the Comets couldn't sustain their winning momentum: they lost in the first round of the WNBA playoffs after the 2001, '02 and '03 seasons, and suffered their first losing season in franchise history in 2004. They managed to make it past the first round of the playoffs in 2005, but got swept in the conference finals that season and were one-and-done in the playoffs once again in 2006.

Crowds dwindled, and Rockets owner Leslie Alexander decided to unload the team after the 2006 season. Head Coach Van Chancellor, who had been with the team since its inception, saw the writing on the wall and resigned in January 2007, just weeks before furniture dealer Hilton Koch purchased the franchise. Koch, who aspires to be to I-45 South what Jim "Mattress Mac" McIngvale is to I-45 North, probably meant well, but he had no experience in owning a professional sports franchise and was unable to reverse the team's sagging fortunes. After a disappointing 2007 season - the Comets' second losing season in team history - Koch announced that the team would leave Toyota Center and play the 2008 season in Reliant Arena, adjacent to Reliant Stadium.

That was the nail in the coffin for the Comets. Reliant Arena is a dilapidated, 34-year-old facility whose main purpose is to serve as a venue for livestock judging and cutting horse competitions during the annual Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. In spite of its location next to a gleaming new NFL stadium, it is simply not a venue that is familiar to local sports fans. Kuff, rather presciently, expressed his concern about the situation after attending a Comets game last May.

(Quite frankly, Reliant Arena seems to be the place where local sports franchises go to die; the Houston Hotshots indoor soccer team was reasonably successful in the mid-1990s but folded in 2001 after moving from Compaq Center to Reliant Arena.)

Koch, realizing that his investment was a loser, sold the franchise back to the WNBA last August. The WNBA could not find another buyer for the team, and folded the franchise last week.

There is some concern that the failure of the Comets could be a "canary in the coal mine" for the WNBA in particular and womens' sports in general. I'm not prepared to go that far just yet - the Comets' demise could be due entirely to local issues such as lackluster fan support in a fairweather sports town or erratic ownership - but as the nation's economic crisis continues to worsen, it's no stretch to say that "niche" leagues like the WNBA could be in trouble.

While I'm sad to see the team go, I must admit that I could just never get into the WNBA. This isn't because I don't like womens basketball - I follow the Lady Cougars and plan to see some of their games at Hofheinz this season - but I've just never gotten interested in the professional version of the game. Apparently, too many other Houstonians felt the same way.

More bad news: the Houston Dynamo are trading my favorite player to Toronto.

To be fair, Dwayne De Rosario is a Canadian national and never made secret his desire to end his career with the Toronto franchise. But he, along with Brian Ching, were the face of the Houston Dynamo for these last three seasons and he was a big reason for the team's success, which included back-to-back MLS titles in 2006 and 2007.

Reading the reaction of local soccer fans, a lot of people seem to think that, while De Rosario's departure was inevitable and that his departure gives the Dynamo more room under MLS salary cap restrictions, what the Dynamo got from FC Toronto in return - a young defender and some money - wasn't worth the trade. A few others view the trade more ominously: that Dynamo management are upset about the lack of a stadium deal here in Houston and are jettisoning their star players as they prepare to relocate the team.

I'm not sure that I believe that De Rosario's departure has anything to do with the ongoing stadium issue, but I do believe that, the longer we go without a finalized stadium deal, the more likely it seems that the Dynamo might look for greener pastures in other cities. I'm not convinced that the Dynamo really need their own stadium here in Houston - Robertson Stadium is a perfectly fine soccer venue - but the MLS wants soccer-specific venues for their teams, and after endless months of talk no real progress seems to have been made on that front.

Anyway, now I have to get a new Dynamo t-shirt; the one I have right now has De Rosario's name on the back of it.

And finally: if the Texans do manage to defeat the Tennessee Titans at Reliant Stadium tomorrow, I hereby promise to stop talking about how much they suck.

At least for the rest of this season.

I will say this for the Texans, however: with Vince Young riding the Titans' bench, and Reggie Bush having a lackluster, injury-plagued season in New Orleans, the team's decision to draft Mario Williams ahead of these two players keeps looking better and better.

UPDATE: I hereby make good on my promise: the Houston Texans no longer suck. On the other hand, Titan coach Jeff Fisher's bizarre playcalling on 4th-and-three (i.e. throwing a deep pass when the Titans were already within game-winning field goal range) really did suck.

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