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

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Last summer, at the height of the nation’s protests against Black Lives Matter, the Atlanta Dream players stood united against an extrajudicial opponent: Kelly Loeffler, then a US Senator from Georgia and co-owner of the team.

Loeffler, a Republican, had publicly and repeatedly ridiculed the WNBA for dedicating its season to social justice, one of two controversial runoff elections in January 2020. At that time, the long-standing team’s sales pitches with several interested parties came to a head.

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

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

After choosing 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, realized the rare and unique opportunity to Participating in an owner group that was in line with their own values, which led them to announce their retirement after 11 seasons.

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

Although there was no official announcement that the Atlanta Dream was looking for a new owner, Montgomery had “heard the rumble” from various sources and reached out to WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert, who introduced her to Abair and ministers who had worked with the league over the Acquisition of a team.

“At Northland, we focus our philanthropic initiatives on three main areas: eradicating racism, empowering women and ending homelessness,” Abair said. “When you look at these three issues, I think it’s very easy to see that both the progressive nature of the Northland organization and the core values ​​of the WNBA are clearly aligned.”

With a number of similar core values, the trio share a shared desire to invest in women’s professional and college sports – which, they say, continues to be undervalued and underestimated – and in the minority communities in the greater Atlanta area.

“We really believe that investors like us have to do a number of things: raise the league, bring essentially well-funded investors into the league, build model franchises, respect our players as athletes and people,” Abair said, adding added that there is “a need to change this narrative” that is not worth investing in in women’s sports.

“I’d say it was incredibly valuable to both Larry and me to have Renee as the third member of the owners’ team – just to have that ex-player’s perspective,” Abair continued. “Renee knows the market from a different perspective than we do, and I think that all three of us focus on different aspects as we start building the organization is a really nice mix.”

Montgomery echoed these sentiments, adding that she understood the “inner workings of the league” and therefore “can do more player-friendly things” in times of travel and freelance agency work. She also praised Abair and worshipers for bringing best practices from their work at Northland into their relationships with the team.

“And then, to go a step further, I don’t have to kick and yell at them to talk about social justice or lean into the Atlanta community for being so minority business, small … business “Said Montgomery. “’How can we be part of the community? How can we be part of the culture? ‘ You’re locked up, so any ideas we all have in common are always meant for the community first. Of course we want to be great on the pitch – and that will come, but we want to make sure we do our part from the front office. “

By acquiring the Atlanta Dream, Abair and Montgomery also became among the first openly LGBTQ individuals to own and operate a large professional sports franchise in the United States, and helped pave the way in an industry where it was in has lacked queer representation in the past and is out of the field (although the WNBA has a long list of players). It is a responsibility that both women who know what it feels like not to be seen or represented do not take lightly.

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

For Montgomery, “Representation is the foundation I stand on in everything I do,” she said with a natural ardor. “So when I’m in a room and it’s a project I’m creating, I want to make sure it’s everywhere – black women, Latin women, LGBTQ [people]. I want to make sure that in everything I do, there are voices that can add to it. Because when you have different people from different walks of life, for me you have diverse inputs and that’s how you build a great brand, a great company. “

When they officially acquired the team in early March, Gottesdiener, Abair and Montgomery were less than six weeks away from the start of the training camp. Describing the next month and a half of preparation as “a total sprint”, Abair said the group had a steep learning curve ahead of them as they worked diligently to learn about the insides of the team and the rigorous, league-mandated Covid-19 Logs.

But while the leadership of the Front Office has changed, the new co-owners wanted to reaffirm their commitment to honor the same spirit that brought women’s basketball into focus last year – and most recently the Sports Humanitarian Team of. “The Atlanta Dream ESPN has received the annual award.”

“It’s not that this was a one-off goal for the players and we will continue to honor that spirit and dedication to causes that are very important to the players and others in the organization,” said Abair. “We have to live up to our name. We are the Atlanta Dream, named after Martin Luther King’s famous speech “I Have a Dream”. Our goal is to build an organization that honors our name’s legacy by addressing today’s urgency, whatever the political landscape. “

“With the unrest of 2020, I think a lot of people opened up not only to social justice but also to women’s sports,” added Montgomery. “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 stand for. I was really excited to see that people started to delve deeper into the players and storylines of the WNBA, and now we have new fans. “

Despite the change in leadership in the United States Senate, Montgomery said the current socio-political situation in the country remains a top priority for the entire organization, especially as state and federal governments pass laws on increasingly difficult issues such as voting rights and abortion.

With no intention of rehashing the past, the co-owners have signaled that by acquiring the Dream they have committed to creating a “flagship franchise in the WNBA,” working with other organizations in the community and both on and on from the court.

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

At the end of the day, it comes down to “not being afraid to take a stand on issues, even if it might not be the most popular, but you do it because you see fit,” Abair said.

“I would be lying if I said that I don’t want to start a dynasty here where we are in the race every year, and it will be a surprise if we are not … And then in the same breath our goal should be this northern star in be the WNBA, ”added Montgomery. “Suzanne emailed all the players at the beginning of the season asking them, ‘What topics are important to you? What should we lean on? ‘ We want to be able to adapt to the players we have. … But we really only want to be this organization that works for social justice, that works for the empowerment of women. These are the pillars on which we stand. “

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