How an Atlanta basketball team went from Republican hands to LGBTQ ownership


Last summer, at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests sweeping the nation, the Atlanta Dream players united against an off-field opponent: Kelly Loeffler, then U.S. Senator from Georgia and co-owner of the team. .

Loeffler, a Republican, had publicly and repeatedly mocked the WNBA for dedicating his season to social justice issues, and in response, Dream players and other teams in the league wore jerseys endorsing Raphael Warnock , a Democrat who then toppled Loeffler in one of two contentious second-round elections in January 2020. It was around this time that talks to sell the team, which had long been in the market and had attracted many potential buyers have started to gain momentum.

Less than two months later, the boards of governors of the WNBA and the NBA unanimously approved the sale of the Atlanta Dream to a group of investors of three members: Larry Gottesdiener, president of the company of Northland real estate investment and now majority owner of the team; Suzanne Abair, President and Chief Operating Officer of Northland; and two-time WNBA champion Renee Montgomery, who became the first former player to become both a WNBA team owner and manager.

Renée Montgomery with Suzanne Abair and Larry Gottesdiener. Courtesy of Atlanta Dream

After stepping down from the 2020 season to focus on social justice issues, Montgomery, who said she was inspired by LeBron James’ role in the “More Than a Vote” campaign, acknowledged the ‘rare and unique opportunity to have a stake in an ownership group that matched her own values, which prompted her to announce her retirement after 11 seasons.

“You can’t be a player and an owner at the same time, and for me it was a pretty quick decision, because I understood it was a big moment that I basically wanted to capitalize on,” Montgomery told NBC News. . “I felt like women’s basketball was changing.

Although there had been no official announcements that the Atlanta Dream was looking for a new owner, Montgomery had “heard the rumblings” from various sources and contacted WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert, who introduced her to Abair and Gottesdiener, who were in talks with the league over acquiring a squad.

“At Northland, we essentially focus our philanthropic initiatives around three elements: ending racism, empowering women and ending homelessness,” said Abair. “If you look at these three issues, I think it’s very easy to see that there is a clear alignment in both the progressive nature of the Northland organization and the core values ​​of the WNBA.”

With a similar set of core values, the trio bonded around a common desire to invest in professional and college women’s sports – which they say continues to be underestimated and underrated – and in minority communities in the Greater Atlanta area.

“We really do think there is a need for investors like us to do a number of things: uplift the league, basically bring deep-pocketed investors to the league, build model franchises, respect our players as players. ‘athletes and people. ”Abair said, adding that there is a“ need to change that narrative ”that women’s sports are not worth investing in.

“I would say having Renee as the third member of the owning team has been really incredibly valuable to Larry and I – just to get that former player’s perspective,” Abair continued. “Renee knows the market from a different perspective than ours, and I think the three of us focusing on different aspects as we start to build the organization has been a really good mix. “

Montgomery echoed those sentiments, adding that she understands the “inner workings of the league” and therefore can “do more player-friendly things” during times of travel and free agency. She also thanked Abair and Gottesdiener for bringing best practices from their work at Northland to their business relationship with the team.

“And then, to take it further, I don’t need to keep kicking and screaming to talk about social justice or to lean on the Atlanta community because they are so into business belonging. to minority, small-owned businesses, “Montgomery said.” How can we be part of the community? How can we be part of the culture? ‘ They’re stuck, so any ideas we all have together will always be going to the community first. Obviously we want to be great on the pitch – and it will come, but we want to make sure we’ve been doing our part since. the front office. ”

As a result of their acquisition of the Atlanta Dream, Abair and Montgomery also became among the first openly LGBTQ people to own and operate a large professional sports franchise in the United States, helping to pave the way for an industry that has historically lacked queer representation on and off the field (although the WNBA has a long list of absent players). It is a responsibility that the two women, who know what it is like not to be seen or portrayed, do not take lightly.

“I think it’s important for community members, especially the younger ones, to see it and know that if you’re a member of the LGBTQ community, you can do great things,” Abair said. “There is a tremendous opportunity for you everywhere, and I think if you see it you can be, or you can believe it. I think just being visible to members of the community is really important, whether it’s as a female business owner in the real estate industry or as the owner of a professional female sports team.

For Montgomery, “representation is the foundation I stand on in everything I do,” she said with natural fervor. “So when I’m in a room and it’s a project I’m creating, I want to make sure there’s representation all around – black women, Latin women, LGBTQ. [people]. I want to make sure that in all the things I do, there are voices out there that can add to it. Because, for me, when you have different people from different backgrounds, you have different contributions, and that’s how you build a great brand, a great company.

When they officially acquired the squad in early March, Gottesdiener, Abair and Montgomery were within six weeks of the start of training camp. Describing the next month and a half of preparation as “a total sprint,” Abair said the group faced a steep learning curve as they worked diligently to familiarize themselves with the inner workings of the team and the team. strict, league-mandated Covid-19 protocols.

But as the direction of the front office has changed, the new co-owners have been keen to reaffirm their determination to honor the same spirit that brought women’s basketball to the fore last year – and recently earned the Atlanta Dream. ESPN’s “Sports Humanitarian Team of the Year Award.”

“It’s not like this is a one-size-fits-all goal for the players, and we will continue to honor that spirit and commitment around causes that players and others in the organization care deeply about,” said Abair. “We have to live up to our name. We are the Atlanta Dream, named after Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Our goal is to build an organization that honors the legacy of our name by standing up to respond to the urgency of the present, whatever the political landscape. “

“With the civil unrest that occurred in 2020, I think a lot of people have opened their eyes not just to social justice but to women’s sport,” Montgomery added. “A lot of people were introduced to the WNBA in 2020 in the sense that they didn’t know the culture of the league, the players in the league, what we stood for. I was really happy to see people starting to dig deeper into the WNBA players and storylines, and now we have new fans.

Despite the change in leadership in the United States Senate, Montgomery said the country’s current socio-political situation continues to be a priority for the entire organization, particularly as state and federal governments embrace laws on increasingly sensitive issues such as the right to vote and abortion.

With no intention of rehashing the past, the co-owners reported that with their acquisition of the Dream, they were committed to creating a “flagship WNBA franchise”, partnering with other community organizations and winning. both on and off the field.

“It means building an organization on both the business side and the basketball side with a winning culture,” said Abair. “When we talk about winning on the pitch, we mean [something] that lives up to our name… that our players are visible in the community and that we are fundamentally a valued member of the Atlanta and Greater Atlanta market, like other professional sports teams in the market. [We mean] occupy our own space and have our own brand and really elevate professional women’s sport in a relatively crowded sports market.

In the end, it comes down to “not being afraid to take a stand on issues, even though it might not be the most popular thing, but you do it because you think it’s right.” , said Abair.

“I would be lying if I said that I didn’t want to create a dynasty here, where every year we compete, and it’s a surprise if we don’t… And then, in the same breath, our goal is to to be that North Star in the WNBA, ”Montgomery added. “Suzanne emailed all the players at the start of the season asking, ‘What questions are you passionate about? What do you want us to look at? “We want to be able to adapt to the players we have. … But we really want to be that organization that looks at social justice, that looks at empowering women. These are the pillars on which we stand.

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