Atlanta was on the verge of losing its women’s pro basketball team four months ago. Ron Terwilliger was bailing out as the owner after only two seasons, and the WNBA was considering moving the money-losing franchise to Tulsa or disbanding it.
Up to the line stepped Kathy Betty, a woman who had been looking for a new purpose in life after losing her husband and both in-laws.
Garry Betty, the former CEO of Atlanta-based Earthlink whom she had been married to for 14 years, had succumbed to cancer. A businesswoman in her own right, Betty spent much of her career as a financial consultant before becoming a “caregiver” during the spate of family illnesses.
“I knew I wouldn’t retire and stay at home,” Betty, 53, said after getting her spirit back following the emotionally wrenching time.
What she didn’t know is that a proposition to buy the Atlanta Dream would fall into her lap.
The Atlanta committee charged with finding a local owner to replace Terwilliger was given only a few months by the WNBA, so Betty had to make a quick decision. Trained as an accountant, Betty pored over the finances — not a pretty picture — and decided she was up to the challenge.
“I love start-ups,” she said during a recent interview.
To be honest, this is more of a rescue, in my view. But Betty and I don’t see eye-to-eye.
I’ve covered sports business, on and off, for many years and I know making money in minor team sports here is harder than hitting a game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer. There are a least seven competing reasons: Falcons, Braves (Turner Field and Gwinnett), Hawks, Thrashers, Dawgs and Jackets.
Despite the overwhelming competition, “I believe we can make money,” Betty said in disagreement. “There should be a business model that works.”
If there is, she appears to have the tenacity to find it. Being a rare woman owner of a pro sports team in a bustling city that enjoys basketball should help her cause. So will lining up key sponsorship commitments, which she is doing. She can count on lease-to-own retailer Aaron’s Inc., which has agreed to a sponsorship deal after it took a look at buying the team before Betty made the leap.
Betty has enough business savvy to know she needs a top-notch operator of the team, especially since her background is not in the sports business. She’s not afraid of long hours and hard work, and she appears to be a good listener after getting advice to keep front-office costs as low as possible.
Still, Betty has some tough financial obstacles to overcome, which is why she’s looking for other investors to join her. She would not disclose the troubling financial numbers, but I’m told the Dream lost about $3 million last season.
Attendance dropped to 7,500 per game last season, from 8,500 during the Dream’s inaugural season. That means the team enjoyed a very short honeymoon period, even though there was a dramatic improvement on the court — not a good sign.
Just to break even, the team will need to average about 8,500 paying fans per game. That will not be easy. Veteran sports reporters and editors I talked with doubted that it could be done, given all the competition from the major sports.
Journalists, however, are skeptical by training. Please, Ms. Betty, prove us wrong.
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