The Best Team You’ve Never Seen

The Atlanta Dream have produced two conference titles, two Olympians, five years of riveting basketball—and far too many empty seats
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 . . .
When the Dream came to town in 2008, at the dawn of the Great Recession, their founding owner was banking on a sport that had long dwelled in off-hour time slots on fringe cable networks, in a league in which five teams had folded in six years. Ron Terwilliger, who had made his fortune in real estate development, thought it would be fun to own another professional sports team (he had previously owned the Atlanta Attack indoor soccer team, which moved to Kansas City after just two years in the early 1990s). The WNBA was targeting middle-class and upper-middle-class black families—a strong demo here. “But I was realistic about women’s sports,” he says. “I saw it as a possibility, not a probability.” In their inaugural season, the Dream stumbled to a 4–30 record. Before the second year was over, average attendance had dropped by 15 percent and Terwilliger announced he was out as owner. The WNBA stepped in to take control of a team that had no staff, no sponsors, and no place to practice—and, according to the AJC, was losing $3 million a year. It then began the process of shipping the whole mess to Tulsa, which was hungry for its first professional sports franchise.

But despite the lousy attendance, the Dream made the playoffs in only their second year—a startling turnaround engineered by coach of the year Marynell Meadors and rookie of the year Angel McCoughtry. The league found a local owner in Kathy Betty, who ran a management consulting firm and had been a season ticket holder since day one. Along the way, the Dream made new believers out of those who came to a game, where the strength and speed and ferocity of the players, who run for the full four quarters, was a welcome contrast to their male counterparts, who seemed to dog it between dunks.

In the summer of 2010, Betty was a guest in Arthur Blank’s Georgia Dome suite for a Manchester United exhibition game. It was there she bumped into Kelly Loeffler.

Loeffler embodied the WNBA ethos. She had grown up on a farm in central Illinois, shy and pigeon-toed, braces on her legs to fix a gimpy hip, and a patch from surgery to correct a lazy left eye. At a skinny teenage five foot eleven, her nickname had been “Newborn Calf,” because she toppled over so frequently. But on the basketball court in high school, she learned coordination and gathered confidence, which carried her through a career as a business exec in male-dominated industries, first at Toyota, then on Wall Street, before she arrived in Atlanta in 2002. When she met Betty, Loeffler was vice president of investor relations and corporate communications for ICE, a multibillion-dollar online commodities exchange. She wasn’t yet forty years old.

As far as Betty was concerned, Loeffler was a perfect fit for the team, except for one small detail: Loeffler didn’t even know Atlanta had a WNBA team. “Come to a game,” Betty told her. “You might come back an owner.” Weeks later, Loeffler and her husband, ICE CEO Jeff Sprecher, were in the front row at Philips for the finals against Seattle, standing and exchanging high fives with complete strangers.

Also seated courtside were John Brock, CEO and chairman of Coca-Cola Enterprises, and his wife, Mary. Unbeknownst to Loeffler, Betty had made the same pitch to Mary, a philanthropist who sat on the Board of Advisors at Emory and who, along with her husband, gave millions to Georgia Tech for scholarships and biomedical research. At age sixty, Mary had grown up before Title IX and had not played team sports. But she saw what the league stood for and the potential of the Dream as a model for aspiring Atlanta girls.

Loeffler in particular was galvanized by the challenge of making the Dream work as a business. After all, she had built her life on risk, using proceeds from a mortgage on inherited family land to help pay for her MBA, and taking a chance on ICE when it was just two years old. Not to mention the leap of dating and eventually marrying the boss.

When Loeffler and Brock decided to join Betty as owners, the Dream were every bit as big a gamble. In three years, they had never turned a profit. Overall attendance, despite the team’s success, had declined by 25 percent. But when she looked closer and set aside comp tickets, Loeffler saw that ticket sales were actually increasing. Even when the team lowered ticket prices for the 2011 season, revenues continued to grow as total attendance ticked up for the first time in the Dream’s history. And national TV viewership on ESPN2 was also trending up, with the WNBA five years into an eight-year deal with ABC, ESPN, and ESPN2—the first-ever agreement that paid rights fees to the teams in a U.S. women’s professional sports league rather than requiring the teams to pay for coverage.

But more than the numbers, Loeffler sees and feels the change. She and Brock are courtside for every home game. (Betty gave up her ownership at the end of 2011.) Once the game starts, Loeffler is either pumping her fist and high-fiving the fans behind her, shouting encouragement to her team (“Nice look!” “Good shot!” “Stay on her, Lindsey!”), or expressing her opinions to the refs (“C’mon! Call it both ways! Un-freaking-believable!”). During time-outs, Loeffler will sit, take a sip of Sprecher’s beer—“Oh, thank God!”—and scribble ideas on the back of her ticket, like less smoke from pyrotechnics or more energetic music. At home, she’ll watch tape of the games, win or lose, taking notes that she will share with the coach. “Kelly’s worse than I am” about obsessing over games, says Coach Meadors. “She’ll text me at night, ‘You watching the replay?’ But she understands the game.”
At one of the first games in WNBA history, back in 1997, a twelve-year-old girl named Lindsey Harding sat in the sold-out Houston Compaq Center to watch the Comets take the court. The lights went down and the announcer’s voice dipped, drawing out the ooooo in Cynthia Cooper, who strutted onto the floor in her pristine uniform, pumping her open palms into the air, lifting the throng. “The showmanship,” Harding says, still in awe. “These were women acting just like the men.” She had been a promising young track star, but that day, plans changed.

Today Harding is a guard for the Dream. In some ways, she personifies not only the WNBA athlete, but how they have to think differently than the men in the NBA. Harding went to Duke, where she became the all-time assist leader, won the Naismith Award for national player of the year in 2007, and had her jersey retired. But while the NBA allows players to turn pro after only a year of college, the WNBA—or W, for short—requires its athletes to be at least twenty-two years old or four years out of high school. When Harding was announced as the number one pick of the 2007 WNBA draft, she already held a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a certificate in markets and management, along with minors in theater and women’s studies. Indeed, a full 90 percent of current WNBA players have graduated from a four-year institution, compared to 21 percent in the NBA.

Of course, the women will need those degrees more than the men will. The average annual NBA salary is now more than $5 million, and the superstars make upwards of $20 million. The men’s minimum is $490,180. Meanwhile, the salary cap for an entire WNBA team is $878,000. Though neither Harding nor the Dream will divulge her salary, as a six-year league veteran and an all-star, it’s safe to assume she makes somewhere between the WNBA average of around $72,000 and the league maximum of $105,000 (former Hawk Joe Johnson made more than $272,000 per game last year). However, unlike the NBA, the women’s league must provide its players with housing and the use of a car if they want it. So, where Hawks back-up center Zaza Pachulia lives in a $1.98 million Londonberry mansion, Harding commutes from her two-bedroom apartment in Midtown.

In the off-seasons, WNBA players cross the ocean to play, where the rivalries are more intense and the salaries higher. Harding spent her first four winters playing in Russia, Lithuania, and Turkey. In Europe and Asia, American stars can command $400,000 to $600,000 for seven months, and the megastars like L.A.’s Candace Parker or Phoenix’s Diana Taurasi will make close to $1 million.

Still, the typical overseas contract is closer to a WNBA salary, and there is more demand for taller players than for average-height guards (Harding is five foot eight). So to spare her body, Harding turned down offers from overseas and stayed in Atlanta last winter. When she wasn’t training, she suited up for publicity and outreach events. She sat in on meetings with potential sponsors, tried to absorb marketing strategy from Brock and Loeffler, and networked through the owners with other community and business leaders. In April a Dream teammate, Alison Bales, cut her basketball career short to enroll in medical school. Harding is also starting to think about life after basketball. Two years ago, she spent part of her off-season in Los Angeles, taking acting classes. She hopes to leverage her WNBA stardom into a career in motivational speaking. Or she might go back to school to get her MBA and follow in the footsteps of Loeffler, who along with Brock, has become almost as big an influence as Cynthia Cooper. “We look up to them,” says the twenty-eight-year-old. “They are women who had to fight through barriers too.”
Seat 21 of section 103, row AA in Philips Arena offers the same trip-a-referee access enjoyed by Jack Nicholson in L.A. and Spike Lee in New York, close enough to feel the breeze as the players thunder past. For the Dream’s seventeen home games each year, seat 21 is occupied by Christine Hunsaker. Well, at least the vicinity.

“C’mon, girls!” shouts Hunsaker through a rolled-up roster card as she paces the sideline. “Let’s go, Dream!” By halftime she will have lost most of her voice.

Hunsaker has been courtside for almost every season of the WNBA’s existence. When the league was founded in 1997, she was head of cremation services for an international funeral company in Houston. She held season tickets for the Comets and was at the same game where Harding found her calling. Too slow to play even in high school, Hunsaker had been a lifelong fan of women’s basketball, particularly the fast-break-and-press style popularized by legendary University of Tennessee coach Pat Summitt. But even Hunsaker was surprised by the speed and relentlessness of the professionals. Led by the “Big Three”—Sheryl Swoopes, Cynthia Cooper, and Tina Thompson—the Comets were especially impressive, winning the first four league championships.

In those days, a WNBA game averaged more than 10,000 fans. But by the time Hunsaker was transferred to Atlanta in 2000, the novelty of the new league, founded in the afterglow of America’s gold medal in the sport in the 1996 Olympics, had started to wear off. Attendance now averaged around 7,000. With no team yet in Atlanta, Hunsaker held on to her seats in Houston, cashing in her business airline miles as often as she could to catch a game in person. The team folded in 2008, the same year the Dream formed.

She was on the floor for every air ball of the dismal 4–30 campaign, a season that still drew 8,400 fans per game. Yet as she watched the Dream reverse their performance, the seats around her steadily emptied. Last year average attendance was less than 6,500—third to last in the league.

Like Loeffler, she is not shy about giving the refs an earful. When an Atlanta player crashes to the floor, shaking the hardwood, Hunsaker pauses to listen for a whistle that never sounds. “Hey, ref!” she hollers. “Where’s the foul?!” Two weeks ago, she accosted a referee by her first name and was almost ejected from the arena. This time, as the official jogs by, Hunsaker reluctantly takes her seat.

Moments later, Dream guard Tiffany Hayes intercepts a pass, dribbling the length of the court. Hunsaker is back on her feet. The five-foot-ten guard pulls up, then drives into the opposing frontcourt, a wall of defenders before her. The rookie is thrown to the floor. Her teammates pick her up and pat her backside as Hunsaker applauds. “My seventy-eight-year-old father sat here in awe of how hard they play,” she says. “After the game, he told me, ‘That’s the most fun I’ve had. Those ladies could teach the NBA a thing or two. The guys just lay on each other for three quarters.’ If Atlanta just came to one game, they’d be hooked.”

The Dream give away as many as 600 tickets per game, most to youth organizations and sponsors, like Coca-Cola. First Game on Us is a program through which any toe-dipper can go to the Dream website and request up to four free tickets. Ten dollars will reserve the cheapest seat, still on the second level (the top of the bowl is curtained off for WNBA games to pack the fans and help muffle the echo). Season ticket holders get two free tickets per paid seat. And for $105 per game, Hunsaker gets to chide officials, glad-hand the owners, and even meet visiting league president Laurel Richie, who hugged the superfan before tonight’s game and told her, “You are the power behind the WNBA.”

There’s a scrum for a loose ball, and a Dream player is again on the ground. This time Hunsaker looks past the ref toward the opposing player she deems responsible, DeLisha Milton-Jones.

“C’mon, DeLisha!”

The six-foot-one, 185-pound forward puts her hands on her hips and turns to Hunsaker. “Relax,” she says.
The Griffin High School Lady Bears are clustered together on the bleachers in their matching Dream T-shirts—a patch of white cloth in a multicolored quilt of a hundred other fans who’ve come to the school gym to watch the pros dribble and shoot on their hometown hardwood.

Take the Show on the Road is a program started by the Dream two years ago, in which the team buses to schools outside the city and charges $15 to $25 for admission to the open practice, the subsequent autograph and photo session, and a ticket to a game of their choice—with $5 of every ticket going back to support the school’s athletic program.

Today, as the women run drills, Harding is sidelined, working with the trainer on her injured right foot. McCoughtry, currently the league’s leading scorer, is watching courtside with her sore knee mummified in tape. Perhaps that’s why the Lady Bears are having so much trouble paying attention, visiting with one another, glued to their smartphones. All except one.

Xandria Hosely is a senior. She’s been playing basketball year-round since she was in third grade. Always a fan of the NBA and the Miami Heat, she had never heard of the Dream before her coach took her team to Atlanta for a game last season. Since then, Hosely’s been hooked. Her mom bought her two season tickets for this year, and the seventeen-year-old drives herself and a friend twenty-four miles north to Philips, where they catch the action from section 112. Hosely’s favorite player is her Dream counterpart, center Aneika Henry. Today Hosely watches the muscular, six-foot-three Henry practice her turnaround jumper. The teen heard that Henry can dunk (she can), and she hopes to finally see it. “I want to be a center in the WNBA,” Hosely says.

At five foot seven, being a frontcourt player in college is a stretch. But Hosely’s coach, Veronica Lee, says that the girl has the drive and determination to make it—no matter what she aspires to. Ever since her team came back from their Philips Arena field trip last year, Lee says that Hosely has been the one showing the extra work to emulate the moves and intensity of the professionals. With Hosely’s good grades, she has the work ethic to succeed, says Lee. Studies show that 66 percent of black female student athletes graduate college, compared to 46 percent of those who don’t participate in athletics. And 82 percent of all female executives played organized sports after elementary school.

As the minutes expire, the Lady Bears scatter, many headed for the concession stand or off somewhere to socialize. Bit by bit, the cluster disintegrates until Hosely is the only white shirt left, elbows on her knees, hands cupping her chin, fixated with the Dream on the court mere feet in front of her.
Friday night in mid-June at Philips Arena. To this point in the season, the Dream have struggled to find momentum on the court, middling around .500, and tonight the one-loss Sparks are visiting from Los Angeles.

Wherever they travel, their superstar, Candace Parker, always attracts a few extra L.A. jerseys to the home crowd. In the South, she draws a few more in the blazing orange of her alma mater Tennessee Volunteers. But judging by the din punctuating each Dream score, the Atlanta faithful appear to have shown up to defend their turf.

And the team responds. Led by Harding’s relentless defense and agile passing and McCoughtry’s tenacity to the basket, the Dream jump out to an early nineteen-point lead and never look back. On the front row, Loeffler is on her feet, animated as ever, energized by every steal and fast-break layup. Midway through the second half, the scoreboard above center court flashes the attendance: 8,872. The crowd erupts in raucous self-congratulation.

The night will be an anomaly. After cruising to a statement 92–59 win over the Sparks, the Dream will continue to grope for consistency, not helped by nagging injuries to both Harding and McCoughtry. The number 8,872 will also be an outlier. Despite ownership’s early projections that 2012 ticket sales and sponsorship dollars would be up by more than 10 percent from 2010, before the season breaks for four weeks in mid-July due to the Olympics, the Dream’s average attendance will come to 5,966—lower than any season prior.

But for tonight, with the scrubs subbed in to dribble away the final minutes of a decisive upset, Loeffler can clap and spin to hear the roar and see the broad strokes of powder blue and red in the stands, and she can imagine what might be.