This story originally appeared in our September 2012 issue.
The owners of the Atlanta Dream, the city’s five-year-old WNBA franchise, are wondering where everyone is. It’s seven o’clock on a Friday night in late May, thirty minutes before tip-off at the 2012 home opener. Julius Erving—Dr. J himself—is here, a guest of the team, seated front and center. So is Mayor Kasim Reed, ready to help unveil the Dream’s second straight Eastern Conference Championship banner. And then there are the fans. Or more specifically, the seats in Philips Arena’s lower bowl where the fans are supposed to be. “Atlanta sports fans,” says co-owner Kelly Loeffler, a little sarcastic, maybe a little nervous. “They show up halfway through the first quarter.”
“Probably stuck in traffic,” adds co-owner Mary Brock.
With the Dream now deep in their fifth season, Loeffler and Brock are engaged in a quest that can only be described as quixotic: They’re trying to build a successful pro sports franchise in a city that—historically, chronically, maddeningly—can’t muster support for the big league teams it already has. Cue the litany: We’ve lost our hockey team (twice); the Braves are less likely to sell out a playoff game than a midseason series with the Yankees; and speaking of playoffs, the Hawks were a five seed last year, but during the season, total attendance barely surpassed that of the Charlotte Bobcats, who won all of seven games.
What’s to blame for this malaise, this lameness? Is it the heat? The traffic? The fact that we’re a city of transplanted Philadelphians and Chicagoans and New Yorkers? Or could it be that in forty-six years of big-time pro sports, we’ve claimed exactly one world championship? (And let’s face it, the Braves should have won two or three.)
All of this was true when Loeffler and Brock first joined the Dream’s ownership group almost two years ago. But it was also true that, thanks to prominent programs at Georgia Tech, Tennessee, and Duke, Atlanta was in the heart of women’s basketball country. It was true that, even when we didn’t have our own WNBA team, Atlanta’s ratings for the sport on national TV were among the country’s highest. And perhaps most importantly, it was true—and Lord knows, it remains true—that in an age of obscene salaries, juiced athletes, and cynical fans, the purity and passion of women’s basketball is precisely the tonic we need for what ails us.
Now if we could just get off our butts and come out for a game . . .