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Dreaming Big in Atlanta

A historic moment brought new leadership to the Dream. They have lofty goals of a global following, but first they’ve got to win over Atlanta.

By Bruce Schoenfeld
getty images

One afternoon this month, Larry Gottesdiener sat under some palm trees at a café near his home in Santa Barbara, Calif. He was wearing a black hoodie with “DREAM” stitched across the front in huge red letters. If the outfit seemed garish for a public space, he could be excused. Gottesdiener bought the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream a little more than a year ago. He’s planning to invest $100 million or more to make the team a success.

 

Across the table was Morgan Shaw Parker, the team’s president and COO. Before coming to the Dream in September, Shaw Parker had been the CMO of the Atlanta Falcons. “The NFL to the WNBA,” Gottesdiener said, sounding incredulous. “I mean, who does that?” 

Gottesdiener

Though the two speak frequently and had attended innumerable Zoom meetings together, it was the first time Shaw Parker had visited Gottesdiener in Santa Barbara for one-on-one discussions. Two days before, the Dream had made Rhyne Howard of Kentucky the first pick in the WNBA draft. Now they needed to figure out how Howard fits into the Dream’s marketing plans. 

The team also was seeking a site to build a dedicated practice facility, one that would cater to the specific needs of female athletes — “women’s injuries and women’s mental health, which is different than men’s mental health,” Shaw Parker explained. Her vision and Gottesdiener’s were aligned, but which areas of Atlanta they were targeting remained under discussion.

Shaw ParkerAtlanta Dream

Gottesdiener doesn’t have the public profile of some billionaire owners, but he thinks big. He predicts that the Dream will eventually be known around the world. After all, he explains, women are half the population, yet there are comparatively few professional women’s teams anywhere in the world. Basketball itself is ubiquitous.  

And the Dream aren’t just selling basketball. Two summers ago, the team’s players took what was an unprecedented step into electoral politics for a sports franchise by endorsing a candidate for the U.S. Senate. The act made international news. It also instantly created an identity for a 12-year-old franchise that hadn’t ever had one. 

“We have a special opportunity here,” Gottesdiener says now. He envisions fans everywhere logging in to see Dream games on over-the-top telecasts the team will produce and sell. “It will be our network,” he says.

Shaw Parker leans forward. “But first,” she cautions, “we’ve got to understand and own Atlanta.”

■ ■ ■ ■

The team played its first season, in 2008, at Philips Arena, averaging 8,468 fans a game, and finishing with a 4-30 record. getty images

In the summer of 2020, the WNBA gathered inside what it hoped would be a COVID-free bubble at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. The idea was to try to stage a basketball season.

At the time, America was roiling. It wasn’t just the pandemic. On May 25, George Floyd had been murdered by a Minneapolis police officer. Earlier in the year, Breonna Taylor was killed in her home in Louisville, Ky. They were the latest African Americans to lose their lives at the hands of local law enforcement officials. By summer, the largest protests against racial injustice since the civil rights movement had erupted around the country.

The rosters of the WNBA are composed of around 80% women of color. When teams gathered for the first time since the pandemic had started in March, their conversations quickly led to general agreement that the league needed to participate in the protests. “As players, you want to be part of what’s going on,” says Renee Montgomery, who had been in the league since 2009 and had spent the previous season captaining the Atlanta Dream. “You want to be able to take a stand. And you want to make sure that you’re standing on the right side of things.”

Montgomerygetty images

To the Dream, which had been named after Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech when the team was founded prior to the 2008 season, the idea was even more compelling. One of its co-owners, Kelly Loeffler, had been appointed to the U.S. Senate the previous December and was running in a special election to hold the seat until 2023. In the weeks following Floyd’s death, Loeffler publicly criticized the Black Lives Matter movement in an open letter to WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert. Black Lives Matter, she later told the Fox News commentator Laura Ingraham, was “based on Marxist principles.” It was a threat to “destroy” America.

The Dream’s players were determined to respond with a public gesture. But should it be a direct repudiation of Loeffler, or simply in support of Black Lives Matter? And what form should it take? “A big thing was figuring out how to use our voice and the platform in the best way possible,” says Monique Billings, a power forward on the team.

Montgomery was outside the bubble. In June, she had announced that she would sit out the 2020 season to focus her energy on social reform. Now here was an opportunity to do exactly that. “One of the players reached out to me in an email to say ‘We gotta do something,’” she says. “‘Can you jump on a call?’”

The team reached out to Engelbert, a former Deloitte CEO who was presiding over her first season as commissioner. Eventually, their strategy coalesced around support for Raphael Warnock, with whom Montgomery had developed a friendship. A senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King had presided, Warnock was bidding to be Georgia’s first African American senator — by running against Loeffler. At the time, his standing in the polls was low, only about 9%.

Even before Colin Kaepernick famously took a knee in August 2016, WNBA players had been participating in social activism. This would clearly be a step beyond that. No North American sports franchise had ever overtly endorsed a candidate, not even the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks when they were owned by a sitting U.S. senator, Herb Kohl. Engelbert had no qualms. “I viewed it as strategic,” she says. “It was what we were talking with the players about at the time, which was, ‘Go find candidates that reflect your values and advocate for them. And that’s the way you effect change.’”

On Tuesday, Aug. 4, the Dream’s players came out on the court with T-shirts bearing the message “VOTE WARNOCK.” Players on two other teams, Chicago and Phoenix, showed their support by doing the same. “We knew the risk,” said Tiffany Hayes, a Dream player who had opted out of the bubble but was involved in the decision to wear the shirts. “But we were like, ‘Gotta do what you gotta do.’ It’s you walking into work one day and giving it to your boss — ‘Hey, that’s not OK.’”

The protest gained immediate attention as an astonishingly daring act. “We saw a team getting involved in a political campaign and speaking truth to power,” says Gottesdiener. “What could be more truth-to-power than ‘Vote for the Other Guy?’”

■ ■ ■ ■

Dream guard Tiffany Hayes drives to the basket during a game last season at Gateway Center, a 3,500-seat venue south of downtown in College Park where the team now plays.getty images

commercial real estate developer who owns the $10 billion Northland Investment Corp., which is based in Newton, Mass., Gottesdiener watched the situation in the WNBA bubble with fascination. He had made his fortune by identifying, buying and redeveloping undervalued real estate, first with the Essex Partners vehicle he founded in 1991, and later with Northland.

Now 63, he’d been a basketball fan since childhood. Over the years, he researched the viability of investing in an NBA team, as either a majority or minority owner. He inquired about the Sixers, the Hawks, the Kings, the Thunder, a piece of the Celtics. (He knew little about hockey, but after constructing a development around an arena in Hartford, he inquired about buying the Pittsburgh Penguins and moving them there, an idea that elicited nothing but laughter from NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.)

As Gottesdiener hit middle age, he found himself surrounded by smart, ambitious women. One of them was Suzanne Abair, an openly gay attorney who worked for him at Northland; she now serves as the company’s president and COO and owns a minority share of the Dream. Another was his daughter, Laura, who wrestled against boys and ran cross country at Milton Academy, then walked on to Yale’s crew team. (She later wrote a sports column for the Huffington Post.) He began to see the world through their eyes. When Abair pointed out that her partner was not eligible for Northland benefits, such as insurance, though a husband would have been, Gottesdiener immediately changed the company’s policy.

As he grew wealthier, Gottesdiener began to take stock of life around him. He’d come of age as a shareholder capitalist. “That means you make as much money as you possibly can, without regard for anyone else,” he says. “But at some point, I had to figure out my values. You can keep working, die with your boots on, keep counting. Or you can do something else.” Eventually, he decided that his goals — and by extension Northland’s — would be “to empower women, to promote social justice, and eradicate homelessness.” The last of them was a heavy lift, he acknowledged. But why not aim high?

He contributed to progressive candidates and tried to run his company as benevolently as possible. But as the summer of 2020 unspooled, he realized he couldn’t continue to be passive. “You can’t just try to have a good heart,” he says. “You need to stand up and take a position.” Then he saw the Dream do exactly that.

To Gottesdiener, the T-shirts were an inflection point for the role of sports in American society. They also had created a Donald Sterling moment; clearly, the Dream could not continue under the current ownership. As it happened, he had been talking with Engelbert about another WNBA team, one that turned out to be unavailable. The Dream, it seemed to him, had the advantage of being eminently available. His son, Matthew, who would be appointed Northland’s CEO in February 2021, told Gottesdiener, “Wait, those are your values. If you’re going to do something in that space, this is the team.’”

It turned out that several potential buyers already had inquired. Engelbert was in the process of gathering information and passing it to the owners. But then Gottesdiener stepped back. Who was he, a white, male baby boomer in his seventh decade, to presume he should steward this franchise into the future? “We’re not from Atlanta,” he said. “And the last I looked, I’m not Black. So I came to the conclusion that ‘I’m not the owner that they’re seeking. I’m not the right owner for this team.’”

When Warnock beat Loeffler in a Jan. 5, 2021, runoff election, much of the credit went to the T-shirts. Across social media, the suggestion was made that perhaps Warnock should get sworn in to the Senate in a WNBA hoodie. The election provided the Democrats with their 50th senator and de facto control of Congress, which underscored to Gottesdiener just how powerful sports can be in bringing about social and even political change. But Loeffler still owned 49% of the Dream.

On Jan. 6, insurrectionists stormed the Capitol. “Like the rest of the country, we were traumatized,” Gottesdiener says. The next morning, he called Engelbert. “Just tell me you have a great buyer for the Dream,” he said. “That you’re in good shape.”

There was silence on the line.

■ ■ ■ ■

Atlanta Dream team members responded by publicly supporting Raphael Warnock in his U.S. Senate campaign. That response soon was adopted by teams in Phoenix and Chicago.twitter

The photo commemorating the 2007 announcement that Atlanta would be getting a WNBA expansion team shows seven women and a man standing before a banner tacked to a black curtain. On a lectern is a rudimentary logo — WNBA ATL BRING IT! — that looks like it had been created a few minutes before. Perhaps it’s just coincidence, but the four people grouped to the left of the photo are white. The four to the right are women of color.

Stacey Abrams is one of three women behind the lectern. Now a national political figure, Abrams was nearly elected governor of Georgia two years ago. She helped engineer the voter turnout that turned the state Democratic in 2020. At the time the photo was taken, she was one year into her first elected office as the state representative in House District 89. Beside her, front and center, is Lisa Borders, then the president of Atlanta’s city council. Borders would make an unsuccessful run for mayor of Atlanta. Later, she would serve two years as the president of the WNBA.

To Borders’ right, looking much the same as he does today, is A.J. Robinson. The only man in the picture, Robinson ran several community and trade organizations in downtown Atlanta, which is what he still does. Robinson had convened the task force that was posing in the photo. The Dream’s history starts with him.

Robinson and Donna Orender, who was then the league’s president, had a common friend. “She thinks Atlanta needs a team,” the friend told Robinson. The idea fit Robinson’s mission. “Part of what we do is promote economic development,” he says.

At the time, most WNBA teams were still owned by NBA franchises in the same market. That wouldn’t work in Atlanta, Orender explained to Robinson when they met, because the fractured owners of the NBA’s Hawks were having a hard enough time with their team. “We’re not going there,” Orender said. “We need to just go out and find an owner.” (A few years later, the ownership group would be forced to sell the Hawks because of leaked emails discussing the racial composition of the team’s fan base. An “overwhelming black audience,” one email read, “may have scared away the whites.”)

Eventually, Robinson’s task force found one. Ron Terwilliger, the CEO of the real estate firm Trammell Crow, was a Naval Academy graduate with a Harvard MBA. He had owned an indoor soccer team called the Atlanta Attack and enjoyed the experience. He had money, but no connection to basketball or its audience. Stocked by an expansion draft and a few trades, the Dream lost their first 17 games. They finished 4-30. The team still managed to draw 8,468 fans a game to Philips Arena, where the Hawks played.

Terwilliger lasted two seasons before announcing that he was done with ownership. The WNBA took control of the team, with plans to move it to Tulsa. Instead, a Dream ticket holder named Kathy Betty, who worked as a management consultant, stepped in to keep the team in Atlanta. Almost immediately, she started recruiting Loeffler and Mary Brock, the wife of then-Coca-Cola CEO John Brock. She sold them the Dream after one season, in 2011.

Monique Billings, who was drafted by the Dream in 2018, was among the players involved in the public response to Kelly Loeffler’s criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement. getty images

Loeffler, who is 5 feet, 11 inches tall, was 39 at the time. A senior vice president for a financial services firm, she’d grown up with Title IX . She credited basketball with giving her needed confidence as a high schooler. She invested in the Dream, she says now, to “support women and provide a platform.”

She was under no illusion that making the business work would be easy, but both families had plenty of money — Loeffler’s house is estimated at 15,000 square feet. Robinson would go to Dream games and spend time chatting with Loeffler’s husband, Jeffrey Sprecher, and with John Brock, amiable businessmen who were there to show their support. “I like both of them,” Robinson says now. “But the team was like a hobby for their wives.”

By 2018, the Dream’s attendance had fallen to an average of 4,191, which ranked it second to last in the league. The problem wasn’t competitiveness — the Dream went 23-11 that season and won the Eastern Conference. But from Philips Arena, home games had moved to suburban Gwinnett County for one season, and then to Georgia Tech. Even if you decided you wanted to go see a Dream game, it wasn’t easy to find them.

Loeffler says she and Brock were working hard to turn their games into happenings. At various times, they brought in Usher and 2 Chainz, and Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and the Hawks’ Trae Young. Still, the team barely registered in the community, despite what Loeffler estimates as $20 million of additional investment. “People would ask Mary and I all the time, ‘When is you guys’s season?’” Loeffler says. “They didn’t even know it was in the summer.”

It didn’t help that Loeffler, a visible Republican who had explored a Senate run as early as 2014, had a natural constituency at the far end of the spectrum from the African American and LGBTQ communities that were most likely to support the WNBA. Despite three trips to the finals, the Dream remained apart from the fabric of the city. “In Minnesota, if I went to the grocery store, a lot of people knew about it,” says Montgomery, who played for three of the WNBA’s more successful franchises before coming to Atlanta in 2019. “Because they were so plugged in regarding the team. Once I got to Atlanta, I was going around saying, ‘Do y’all even know the WNBA team here?’”

In late 2019, Montgomery turned 33. Soon after Engelbert was named commissioner, Montgomery came to her for advice on how to segue to the second phase of her career — “‘my next act,’ she called it,” Engelbert says. If possible, Montgomery told her, she wanted to get involved in ownership.

Montgomery didn’t have much capital to contribute, but over the course of three years in Atlanta, she had developed deep ties. She also had credibility as both an athlete and a burgeoning activist; at a Juneteenth pop-up she’d thrown in Centennial Park, she handed out meals to Black Lives Matter protesters. She was African American and an out lesbian. In short, she was everything that Larry Gottesdiener wasn’t.

“I think I have the perfect ownership group for you,” Engelbert told her.

In February 2021, Gottesdiener, Abair and Montgomery bought the Dream from Brock and Loeffler. Because of a nondisclosure agreement, the terms of the sale were unannounced.

At the time, the team had exactly seven front-office employees. Most of its player contracts would expire after the season.

Before selling the team, Loeffler and Brock had negotiated a move to Gateway Arena, a 3,500-seat facility south of downtown in the enclave of College Park — the opposite direction from where most Atlantans go for entertainment. “If you’re going south, you’re going to the airport,” says Atlanta City Council President Doug Shipman. And under COVID restrictions, attendance would be limited into the foreseeable future.

Gottesdiener didn’t care. He wasn’t looking for a quick return; the average length of time that Northland owns one of its development projects, he notes, is 30 years. He was willing to be patient and build from the inside out.

And when the time came to act, Gottesdiener vowed, he would be ready. “I’m not just willing to invest,” he says, eagerly. “I want to invest. That’s what I do.”

■ ■ ■ ■

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert and former University of Kentucky player Rhyne Howard celebrate her top overall selection by the Dream in the draft earlier this month.AP images

At a hip studio space in New York’s Tribeca, Engelbert stepped to the microphone earlier this month and announced that the Dream had chosen Howard. The week before, the club had traded two picks to move into position to be first in the draft. It was a deal engineered by general manager Dan Padover, who won the WNBA’s Executive of the Year award each of the last two seasons before Gottesdiener hired him away from Las Vegas last October. 

Only four of last year’s Dream players have returned, which is actually an asset for a team that hasn’t made the playoffs for three consecutive seasons. “The intriguing part for me,” Padover says, “was coming in to a situation where you could kind of start something from scratch.”

Except it wasn’t from scratch. The past few years have been so negative for the Dream that they’re actually in a far worse position than an expansion team. Around the league, Dream guard Hayes says, “Atlanta is kind of the joke team to play for.” 

Inside the market, those who haven’t heard of the Dream may actually be more open to a sales pitch than those who have. “They have a cloud over the brand,” says Steve Koonin, the CEO of the Atlanta Hawks and State Farm Arena. “How fast they get that cloud to run away, we’ll see. But there’s no doubt there was extraordinary damage done to the brand by the last group.”

PadoverAtlanta Dream

How can the new owners mitigate that? The first step is identifying their customers. “I inherited a team that literally had no idea who their fan base was,” Shaw Parker says. “And what does Marketing 101 tell you? You’ve got to listen. You’ve got to do your research.” Shaw Parker is using analytics to help learn more about who actually comes to games, which isn’t so easy when you have so few ticket buyers in your database. Come back to me in six months, she says, and she’ll know more.

From the outside, figuring out an audience seems easy. Potential Dream fans include women, people of color, the LGBTQ community — and for now, at least, Atlantans living south of downtown in and around College Park. “The question is, how do you create an experience where a fan says, ‘By going to the game, I can actually live my values?’” says City Council President Shipman.

The Dream’s answer is a calendar of promotions across the 2022 schedule. One will honor historically Black colleges and universities, of which Atlanta has more than any other American city. Another will be devoted to women’s health. There will be a gay pride night. “You’ll feel activations inside and outside the arena in a way that you probably wouldn’t with other teams,” Abair says.

Since the new practice facility — and eventually, Gottesdiener promises, a purpose-built WNBA arena — isn’t even at the blueprint stage, the Dream will practice at Core4, a minority-owned multicourt basketball space in the city of Chamblee that will be done up in team colors. That’s a tangible improvement that players will notice, according to Montgomery. So is something as small as distributing additional parking passes, so that a family member can accompany each player out of the arena. “When you know that a team is investing in you and the things you care about, it really changes the way you go about not just a game but the entire season,” Montgomery says. “You want to play for an organization like that.”

WrightAtlanta Dream

Meanwhile, the Dream are busy building two new teams: one on the court, one off of it. Over the past year, the new owners doubled the team’s office space. They doubled and even tripled some of the employees’ salaries. They hired Padover and a new coach, former Las Vegas Aces assistant Tanisha Wright. “It’s about consistency, creating a must-see, must-attend fan experience, maximizing revenue opportunities while maintaining brand integrity — and, of course, winning,” Shaw Parker says. She reports that many of her metrics already are being met: “We’re already seeing a major increase in team media coverage, tickets being purchased and partners investing.”

Shaw Parker, who previously spent a decade at Nike, has created a strategic plan — “a strat plan,” she called it — that encompasses both business and basketball. (When she mentioned it, Gottesdiener grinned. “She’s always coming up with stuff that I’ve never heard of,” he said.)

“We’ve got to repair relationships that were damaged,” she says now. “You can’t just come in and say, ‘We’re going to wave a flag for social justice’ and think that you’re going to build a fan base. It doesn’t work that way.”

■ ■ ■ ■

It’s approaching another election summer in Georgia. Abrams is running for governor. Warnock is running for reelection against, among others, the former Georgia football star Herschel Walker.

By endorsing a political candidate in 2020, the Dream did more to promote the franchise than more than a decade of marketing. Montgomery, Hayes and Billings — three of the four players involved with the 2020 protest who remain affiliated with the team — insist they’re proud of what that accomplished. It isn’t much of a stretch to claim, for example, that Ketanji Brown Jackson couldn’t have become the first Black woman on the Supreme Court without the control of the Senate that Warnock’s election provided.

Yet at the same time, they see VOTE WARNOCK as a moment in time — “a thing that happened,” in Hayes’ words.

AbairAtlanta Dream

How the Dream balance their core product of professional women’s basketball with their political identity may ultimately determine the team’s success. The T-shirts made merely buying a ticket to a Dream game a partisan act, and Shaw Parker describes the prospect of additional endorsements as “definitely a possibility.” But at the same time, Abair stresses that the owners perceive their investment as — foremost — a business opportunity. “This was not a throwaway, philanthropic, ‘We need to go rescue the team in Atlanta,’” she says. “When we modeled this out, we do have a break-even point, and then a point where we begin to turn a profit.”

The current surge of interest in women’s sports will help. Recently, the Dream signed a sponsorship deal with Microsoft, one that would have been unlikely to happen — no matter who owned the team — as recently as a year ago. Shaw Parker noted that partner investments are up 10 times over 2020, which is the last full calendar year of prior ownership.

But even with what Gottesdiener says will be that initial commitment of as much as $100 million “just to dig out of the hole,” there are no guarantees. What the current incarnation of the Dream is attempting to become, “the best franchise in the WNBA and, soon, all of sports,” as Shaw Parker describes it, doesn’t sound so different from what Loeffler and Brock were aspiring to a decade ago. Or Terwilliger before that.

What’s different, perhaps, is the understanding that the payoff won’t come immediately, or even in the next few years. To these owners, just hanging around in the Atlanta market, becoming competitive while gradually growing a fan base, will count as an incremental step forward.

“We’re going to have to work really, really hard to attain relevance,” Shaw Parker concedes. “I believe that it will come if we stand behind our values, but we have to create a community. This is not two or three years, fill the arena, then we’re going to build. This is going to take a long time.”

Bruce Schoenfeld has been a regular contributor to Sports Business Journal since 1998. He is based in Colorado and can be reached at bruce@bruceschoenfeld.com.

Dream Executives

MORGAN SHAW PARKER
President and COO
Previously:
AMB Sports & Entertainment
May 2019-September 2021: CMO
March 2018-May 2019: VP, brand strategy group
September 2016-March 2018: VP, media group
June 2016-October 2016: VP, football communications
Nike
July 2009-June 2016: Director, North America Communications
November 2008-July 2009: Sr. Manager, Corporate Affiliate Communications
August 2007-November 2008: Manager, US Communications
December 2005-August 2007: Manager, Media Relations
Kansas City Chiefs
June 2000-September 2005: On-Air Feature Reporter (KC Chiefs / Wheatland Productions)
January-October 2004: Manager of Community Relations, Corporate Affairs and Media
June 2000-February 2004: Manager, Public and Media Relations
Education:
B.S., business administration, University of Nebraska
M.S., education (emphasis: sports administration/management), University of Kansas
DAN PADOVER
Executive Vice President and General Manager
Previously:
Las Vegas Aces 
December 2018-November 2021: GM
New York Liberty
December 2017-December 2018: VP, basketball operations
April 2016-December 2017: Director, basketball operations
April 2013-April 2016: Manager, basketball operations
April 2012-April 2013: Video coordinator
Education:
B.A., psychology, University of Connecticut
MBA, New York University
TANISHA WRIGHT
Head Coach
Previously:
Las Vegas Aces
2020-21:
Assistant Coach
University of North Carolina-Charlotte
2017-20:
Assistant Coach
WNBA playing career
New York Liberty, 2019
Minnesota Lynx, 2018
New York Liberty, 2015-16
Seattle Storm, 2005-14
Education: Bachelor’s degree, elementary education and training, Penn State University; three-time women’s basketball Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year

Editor’s note: This story is revised from the print edition.

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