New WNBA owner has tough financial game to win

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.

Kathy Betty

Kathy Betty

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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13 comments Add your comment

Bob Hope

December 15th, 2009
7:59 am

Never underestimate the power of women. She will do great.

GirlPower

December 15th, 2009
9:26 am

Watching the Dream is much better than watching the spoiled prima donnas from the NBA. All men do is run up and down the court dunking or shooting 3s…..no strategy involved whatsoever…

petrel

December 15th, 2009
10:25 am

The best-kept secret in Atlanta might be the Atlanta Dream. Great sport, great players, great fans. I’ll definitely be there this season.

Van Jones

December 15th, 2009
10:41 am

She has a dream, that one day… it won’t turn into a nightmare! Good luck.

David

December 15th, 2009
1:05 pm

This woman is going to lose her shirt. Her business training tells her this is a losing proposition.
She might prove a point for women, but this is just taking your money and throwing it out the window.
The entire league is in financial trouble, why would Atlanta be any different?
She would do better for women if she gave her time and money to a charity.
Ok women, you may now call me a sexist.

dreed

December 15th, 2009
1:19 pm

Good luck Betty! Is she still apart of Earthlink.? If so I am getting ready to convert my internet to Earthlink. I will do my part to help.

five_to_the_third

December 15th, 2009
2:24 pm

I love the WNBA and I’m really glad the Dream will continue to operate, but 8500 attendance is not realistically going to happen! The Dream average draw last year was 7100, not 7500. Owners like Betty need to EITHER start thinking of WNBA teams as community investments rather than profit centers, OR move to smaller arenas and significantly cut expenses.

B_Ball lover

December 15th, 2009
5:51 pm

I liked the Dream but the cost of seats is way to high. A mother and 2 kids are spending way to much for tickets. Lower prices and you will get the crowds. If not go to Gwinnett Arena to attact Athens and other areas that don’t like to go downtown.

The Nerd

December 16th, 2009
8:43 am

B_Ball lover, Athens doesn’t have a professional basketball team.

Traci

December 19th, 2009
4:59 pm

They need to market this differently — Market this as Girls Night out, Mother-Daughter-Niece Night!
They need to focus on women CEO’s and VP’s and Girls HIgh School Athletics.

We will never be able to compete with the guys — but we are missing the POWER of what women do when we bond together.

GIRL POWER is no joke.

Women make 90% of the decisions for cars — have a LEXUS night for Cars
Women make 89% of the decisions about grocery shopping — where is Publix, Kroger, Walmart?
Women make 80% of the decisions on clothing purchases—–
Womaen make 75% of the decisions on furniture — HELLO —

Sponsors can only do so much.

We need unconventional marketing —- Bring your daughter to the game night
How about “Dad Date Night”? – take your daughters to see real role models play.
(Dad will probably get addicted – because – these games are the real fundementals of the game — not just an ESPN highlight)

We need to fill up these seats — if that means you have to partner with every beauty & nail salon in the state —- then do so.

As women we spend FAR TOO MUCH MONEY on things that DON’T SUPPORT US……
WE NEED TO PULL TOGETHER — FOR OUR GIRLS, SISTERS, NIECES and community.

I would love to work in marketing for the WNBA — as a former player in high school and college – I understand what basketball can do for you – off the court. “Team Skills” are important in everything that you do.

I can’t give you all my ideas — but I think- I can help

upscale1@gmail.com

Robert

December 21st, 2009
8:00 am

A WNBA team financially viable? Dream on . . .

KD

February 25th, 2010
4:53 pm

I will be there this season!

Rummy Dummy

August 14th, 2010
11:18 pm

This is not a gender issue (though studies show women spend their sports dollars disproportionately on men’s sports). The simple fact is, even with the NBA subsidizing their losses (and marketing and in many cities, stadium costs), the WNBA doesn’t break even, much less make a profit. Neither does MLS, and I sincerely doubt the NHL does. Hell, WWE and NASCAR are probably the only consistent profit makers in sports, and even the NASCAR’s starting to slip.
Most professional sports team survive on debt: FC Barcelona, probably the most successful football club of the last few years, reportedly has debts 0f $563 million, but they still paid out $40 million for David VIlla. That’s what you need for success in professional sports – a friendly bank manager. Or several of them.