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Friday, June 14, 2024

The Atlanta Dream’s Rebuild Is Bigger Than Basketball

  • The new owners have made sweeping changes since taking over in 2021.
  • The franchise is at the forefront of the WNBA’s social justice initiatives.
Atlanta Dream

Everything about the Atlanta Dream is loud.

The local gym that hosts team practices has acoustics that allow even quiet conversations to be heard some 100 yards away. Then, of course, the team blasts music on an amplifier.

Their games at the Gateway Center at College Park feature live DJs throughout the contest, local and global hip-hop acts at halftime — like Travis Porter and Waka Flocka Flame — and an often 3,500-strong sellout crowd roaring in the enclosed setting.

And the Dream are loud off the basketball court, too.

In July 2020, former U.S. senator and Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler wrote an open letter to WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert objecting to players wearing “Black Lives Matter” and “Say Her Name” T-shirts during warmups.

When Loeffler refused to sell the team in the ensuing outrage, Atlanta players responded by supporting her political opponent Raphael Warnock in a special election.

Soon thereafter, Loeffler lost the election and sold the team to an ownership group made up of Northland real estate founder and chairman Larry Gottesdiener, Northland president and COO Suzanne Abair, and one-time Dream star Renee Montgomery in February 2021. Montgomery is the first former player to become a co-owner and executive of a WNBA team.

Since then, this franchise — which has existed since 2008 but has never won a WNBA title — has experienced a rebirth.

The energy and excitement can be summed up with a simple mantra Montgomery often repeats around the facilities.

“If it ain’t sexy, if it ain’t lit, it ain’t us.”

Starting From Scratch

The Dream’s swagger is epitomized by the new ownership group’s first hires.

Morgan Shaw Parker, the team’s president and COO, is possibly its biggest fan.

Shaw Parker was formerly the CMO at AMB Sports and Entertainment — the ownership group behind the Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United FC — and had no intention of leaving until September 2021, when an offer from the Dream came across her desk.

“There are not a lot of sports organizations that are built from a purpose-driven perspective. They’re built to win championships, and that’s a very different environment,” she says. “So when I started to peel back the layers with this ownership group and really understood what they wanted to represent and why they purchased the team — I had to look twice at it.

“It really was something that I feel like was built for me.”

For their next two key hires, the owners looked to one of the league’s premier organizations: the Las Vegas Aces.

That’s where they found two-time WNBA Basketball Executive of the Year Dan Padover, who relished the chance to build a team from the ground up after inheriting an Aces squad that already had superstar A’ja Wilson.

“The most appealing opportunities for someone like myself are the ones that can have the biggest impact,” the GM and EVP says. “The impact that I could have on [the Dream] from the beginning was very, very important to me.”

Padover was also encouraged by the other new personnel — including former Las Vegas assistant and former WNBA player Tanisha Wright.

As a first-time head coach, Wright savored the opportunity to put her stamp on Atlanta’s “reset,” as she calls it, and also recognizes the importance of those around her in the organization.

“Who you’re going to be working with, who you’re going to see on a day-to-day when things get tough, who you’re going to be around, those kinds of things matter,” she says.

When the group took over, the Dream had seven full-time employees in its front office. It now has around 30.

“You can’t have seven people doing the job of 30 people. That’s just not going to be sustainable,” Shaw Parker says.

Atlanta’s Next Great Team

The cornerstone of the Dream’s future arrived this season.

Rhyne Howard — the No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 WNBA Draft — is a favorite to take home Rookie of the Year honors.

As impressive as Howard’s on-court performances have been — she leads all rookies in minutes (31.1), points (16.1), assists (2.7), and steals (1.6) — she’s also a perfect fit for the team’s culture.

“Our team’s definitely higher-energy, we’re all about having fun,” she says. “Whenever the crowd’s in it and they’re being so loud we can’t hear, it gets us more worked up and it gets us going even more.

“Like, everybody’s lit, let’s get lit, too.”

The crowds packed into Gateway Center have become the team’s lifeblood.

“Last season we had fans, but it’s just nothing compared to the fans this season,” forward Cheyenne Parker said after defeating the Seattle Storm in Sue Bird’s final trip to Atlanta. “They’ve been immaculate.”

Atlanta, of course, has a rich sports history that has only gotten richer in recent years.

  • Atlanta United won the 2018 MLS Cup in just their second season.
  • The Atlanta Braves won the 2021 World Series.
  • The University of Georgia — about an hour-and-a-half outside the city — won its first football national title since 1980 in January.

While the Dream hope to someday be part of the city’s sports renaissance, for now, they’re content with creating a great entertainment product that matches Atlanta’s energy and grows their fanbase.

“Atlanta is flashy, so always putting out a good product on the court that makes the fans want to come out, want to support us, I think is super-important,” says Wright.

“We want people to have a fun time and then hopefully, when they leave, they tell their friends, ‘Wow, that was a great experience, you have to check this out,’” says senior director of fan experience Dan Goldberger.

Dream On

Even if the Dream don’t make the playoffs — they enter Sunday’s final regular-season game very much on the cusp — Shaw Parker considers the first full season under the new owners a success.

But for this franchise — one whose identity is definitively rooted in activism — advocating for the causes they believe in is just as much a priority as winning an inaugural title.

  • The team found its new owners when players spoke out against intolerance, and the Dream’s name is taken from Atlanta native Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
  • The Dream recently announced a “transformative” partnership with The King Center — the first of its kind in American professional sports.
  • Players’ stand against Loeffler in 2020 gave rise to the WNBA’s Social Justice Council, Commissioner Engelbert told Front Office Sports.

“They were really thoughtful about how they went about it,” she says. “Having Renee [Montgomery] as such a role model in that community, as someone who stands for equity, social justice, and forward progress — and the positivity she brings also — has been great.”

“We understand that we have the opportunity to celebrate history, to celebrate the ideals that our team is named after,” says Montgomery.

Montgomery’s organizational value is more than just her social justice initiatives — she’s also one of the biggest player advocates.

Before her arrival, Atlanta’s players lacked many resources that male athletes would find commonplace.

“Our players should feel like professional athletes at all times,” she says, noting that she didn’t always feel that way as a player. “Those are the things that I really try to key in on. What does a professional athlete need to be their best self?”

It appears that change is imminent in that regard.

As real estate magnates, Gottesdiener and Abair are in the early stages of planning a dedicated training facility for the franchise.

And Shaw Parker is still working to build a world-class organization — with the ultimate goal of providing more legitimacy for the WNBA.

“The long-term goal is to make this organization the best place to work and play in all of sports, not just women’s sports,” she says. “That’s a pretty lofty goal, but we take that very seriously.”

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