The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, March 3, 2021
What the Atlanta Dream sale tells us about WNBA ownership — Cathy Engelbert talks about the sale — Must-click women's basketball links
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The conclusion of the Kelly Loeffler/Atlanta Dream ownership saga could scarcely have provided a more satisfying resolution.
But there are significant lessons from it that extend well beyond the Hollywood ending itself.
For those of you who didn’t hear: Loeffler and co-owner Mary Brock sold the Dream to a group led, financially, by real estate mogul Larry Gottesdiener, and with Renee Montgomery in a significant public-facing role as part of the ownership team. It’s been well-covered, but will never stop being astounding to consider: Loeffler attacked the humanity of her own players, who organized against her in-season, helped topple her in an election, and ultimately forced her to sell to a group that includes one of the most vocal members of that group.
Hollywood might not buy it, that’s the level of karmic retribution we’re talking about here.
Cathy Engelbert, in a challenge unlike any we’ve seen any commissioner in any sport handle, brought this in for a landing, too. She alluded to it in her opening statement, but consider what you didn’t hear along the way: there was no player revolt. There was no public conflict between Dream ownership and the coaching staff. There was no potential work stoppage related to this, or an effort from Loeffler to stifle the player revolt that led to any bad headlines.
“I also want to take this time to thank the WNBA players, particularly the Dream players,” Engelbert said. “They were put in a difficult position. I was proud of the way they handled the situation. They stood for their values and demonstrated professionalism, they served as role models for advocacy and continue to do so. So, huge respect.”
Huge respect indeed. And Gottesdiener said all the right things in his introductory press conference as well, while his FEC election giving history indicates that there probably won’t be a political problem associated with his ownership of a team in an expressly progressive league.
But between the purchase of the Dream and the avalanche of new ownership investors across the NWSL, there appears to be a dawning realization akin to what I first started hearing when Lyon purchased the Reign: women’s sports franchises cost WHAT? That little?
An understanding of how little, in sports franchise terms, it takes to buy into an NWSL or WNBA team is now permeating the moneyed world.
Why does this matter? Well, as we’ve discussed here, there simply aren’t enough WNBA teams. 12 teams, with 11-12 players, means that pro-quality players don’t get the chance to even compete for a roster spot every year. The pipeline is getting more robust, adding to the problem with each passing season.
When Engelbert has spoken about expansion, it is always within the confines of finding the right ownership group to take on a new team, which is logical: the league is in the business of making sure the business is thriving, rather than maximizing player opportunity regardless of financial realities.
That said: the chances of finding people to do that in other markets — the Bay Area is a longtime potential target, for instance — has gone up significantly.
That increased interest also gives Engelbert and the league owners a chance to be pickier, too. To choose their business partners makes it less likely we’ll see anything like a Loeffler situation ever again.
It matters in Atlanta, and soon, it could matter in markets we haven’t yet seen for the WNBA.
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This week in women’s basketball
Like this focus from Chantel Jennings here, on how top #NCAAW teams do against one another.
Over at The New York Times I looked at the intersection of Erica Wheeler and Betnijah Laney’s story, through their time playing for C. Vivian Stringer.
This was INCREDIBLY hard but I loved every moment of delving into #NCAAW history.
Pepper Persley’s latest pod features Brandi Poole of the Connecticut Sun, who I will remind you ABSOLUTELY deserves a WNBA head coaching gig.
And Atlanta Dream owner Renee Montgomery (nope, that won’t ever get old) talks to her co-owner Suzanne Abair, among others, on the latest Remotely Renee.
Tweet of the Week
If memory serves, Candace has ALSO won a championship.
Five at The IX: Cathy Engelbert meets the press
Excerpts here from the talk introducing the new owners of the Atlanta Dream, with cameo from Renee Montgomery!
CATHY ENGELBERT: …You saw the news an hour or so ago. Today does mark a new beginning for the Atlanta Dream organization, and I’m thrilled to welcome Larry and also Suzanne Abair, who will be an owner, as well, in the WNBA family, and of course I want to congratulate Renee Montgomery on her new role with the team as an owner and an executive.
I think it’s great that Renee has stepped up as she has retired from playing the game to continue having an impact on the game. So, I know I’ve seen her strong work ethic, I’ve seen her advocacy and knowledge of the game, and that’s surely going to be a huge asset to Larry and Suzanne and a huge benefit to the team.
I’ve had the opportunity to speak with Larry and Suzanne several times throughout this process. We’ve discussed what this represents, the importance of having an ownership group who shares the values of the W and what we stand for. I was pleased with what I heard from them, but I’ll let Larry and Renee share more insight into their vision and perspective shortly.
I also want to take this time to thank the WNBA players, particularly the Dream players. They were put in a difficult position. I was proud of the way they handled the situation. They stood for their values and demonstrated professionalism, they served as role models for advocacy and continue to do so. So, huge respect.
But today is about the future. It’s a very exciting time to be part of the WNBA as we continue to think about our transformation. I like to talk about sales and marketing, expanding the fan base, innovating around the fan base. So, I think Larry and Renee are coming in at such a great time for the league. We had an exciting free agency period. On the court our game has never been better. We have the greatest players in the world. Their skill sets, their athleticism, their passion, unlike ever before.
Beyond the game, the WNBA and the WNBA players will continue to be at the forefront of advocating for social justice and change and really about impact, and I think you’ve seen they are more culturally relevant today than ever before, and thank you to all of you. I don’t want to ever have a call without thanking you for your coverage of the WNBA and the WNBA players because as we head into our historic 25th season, we look forward to great momentum, especially coming off last season.
Q.Commissioner Engelbert, I just want to get a sense of how much influence you and the league office you had in perpetuating this action, and more to the point, was there any sort of scenario in which the prior status quo was at all tenable or was this essentially something that was going to have to happen before this next season?
CATHY ENGELBERT: So, as is conventional, the sale of the team was led by the former ownership group. As is the case with the sale of any team, the league serves as a facilitator and in some respects we serve to provide as much information to the parties as they find helpful. Part of our role and my role was to present the vision of the league, which I did to Larry and Suzanne, answer questions and really get a sense of how passionate a potential buyer is about the team, the league, how interested they are. And then of course there’s an extensive league approval process once an agreement in principle is reached between the ownership groups, which we just concluded, which is why we announced this today. That’s kind of the role the WNBA played and myself.
Q. Cathy, did the controversy surrounding what happened with the former U.S. Senator, did that affect the business at all, and did it affect any valuation of the Dream? Obviously, the PR stuff, people maybe, I don’t know if that affected the valuation at all. There is a price range of around $10 to $20 million, about what WNBA franchises are worth. Did it fall in between that price range? Did it fall in between that number?
CATHY ENGELBERT: So first, related to the prior ownership group, Mary Brock and Kelly Loeffler were the first women professional sports owners in Georgia, and they did make significant contributions and we thank them for that. For instance, I didn’t really even know this because I wasn’t around back then, but in two of the first three seasons the Dream reached the WNBA Finals; they advanced to the semifinals as recently as 2018. I think the current roster has some very talented players.
As I mentioned, that’s in the past now. We’re looking towards the future and a new beginning for the Dream players and quite frankly the WNBA. So on the valuation question, obviously terms are confidential, but we’re looking forward to continuing the transformation that I talked around and around all the elements of the WNBA so that we can add value and valuations to all of our franchises going forward so that our owners feel really good not only about the social justice and the platforms and the basketball but also about their investment, so we continue to work hard on that angle, as well.
Q. I understand you don’t want to release the terms of the sale, but could you just sort of comment on the team’s relative valuation compared to its purchase in 2011, this 10-year span? Is it up a significant percent? Is it twice as valuable? Can you give us some idea?
CATHY ENGELBERT: Yeah, I’ll take that. Again, the terms are confidential. I would say as I mentioned through all of our transformation efforts, we’re trying to drive values higher of franchises. I actually don’t even know what happened back in 2011. I wasn’t here. I haven’t studied that. But what I’m really working on is the underlying valuations of these franchises to drive them to a higher level for all of our owners, and so I think we’re on that transformation journey right now. We’re not done yet, but that’s a big part of my goal is to get the valuation of not only the WNBA but women’s sports to a level that is equitable and fair and reflects the amazing play that you see out on the court and the amazing things that the WNBA players do off the court.
Q.For both Cathy and Renee, I guess for Cathy, it seemed like the way Renee said her in terms of her decision about becoming an owner of the team that she couldn’t be an owner as an active player, so I was curious to clarify if that was the case, and Renee, from your end, if that was the case, would you have decided to play again this season if this opportunity hadn’t come along and how difficult a decision was that for you to decide, hey — if that was kind of a decision you were making, to decide that hey, it is the time for me to end my career and this is the way right way to do it?
CATHY ENGELBERT: Yeah, I’ll start and turn it over to Renee, which is the most important part of the question, but yeah, as an active player you cannot also be an owner of a WNBA team. Renee, over to you for the second part.
RENEE MONTGOMERY: Yeah, like I said, just last year I was talking to Diana about I’m a player, I feel you but I’m a player and you guys are going to catch me slipping up all the time when I say we and we’re talking about the players, and the reason I say that is because I feel like I’m always going to be a player. And so yes, I think that I still could be able to play if I wanted to, but I recognize this opportunity. The same way I’ve recognized that when I opted out in 2020 that there was something happening here, and when I talked to Suzanne and Larry, I really got it. Like this is what I need to be doing in the sense of there’s people here that see the same thing as I do. There’s Atlanta that’s primed for this type of movement, and we’re all excited about it, and so for me, I just — I wanted to be that more than athlete. It sounds cliche, but being more than an athlete does mean being in these type of situations.
So I cried, but I’m not leaving the game in the sense of — I wasn’t necessarily crying because I was so sad, I was crying thinking about all the memories that I’ve had as a player, and then I already kind of knew then what was next, so I was crying out of excitement. As I told you guys, I’ve been emotional lately. This is big, not just for me but for my family in West Virginia, for my fiancee, for women, Atlanta, the city of Atlanta. We’re rolling right now in the city, and so this is just going to add to that momentum, so that makes me emotional.