Owning a sports team can be lots of fun until the real numbers get tallied — the ones with dollar signs in front.
With the Atlanta Dream in first place in the WNBA after half the season, I checked in with Kathy Betty, the rookie owner, to see how the business side is holding up.
It’s not easy to make money in women’s pro sports and Betty, an optimist at heart and accountant by trade, wants to prove she can.
At the same time, she believes — with religious fervor — that young girls need more opportunities and role models to help develop a healthy concept of their self-worth. Sports, like it has done for many boys through the ages, can play a key role in a girl’s psychological development.
“We’ve got to succeed. It’s important for Atlanta and little girls,” Betty, 54, said while rattling off stats about the high percentage of women CEOs who participated in sports growing up.
Betty purchased the team, which had lost about $3 million, in late October, saving it from a likely relocation to Tulsa. A basketball lover, she was looking for a new challenge following the death of her husband, Garry Betty, a former CEO of Earthlink.
Given the competition from the Braves, Falcons, Hawks and Thrashers, (not to mention the Bulldogs and Yellow Jackets), the Dream certainly qualifies as a financial challenge.
How’s it going so far?
“I thought start-up companies worked hard,” Betty said. “This sports world is 24/7.”
Some of her hard work is paying off. Betty has reduced the red ink by cutting expenses, securing sponsors such as Aaron’s, Coke and Grady, and hiring an experienced sports exec, Toby Wyman, as chief operating officer.
But, even with a first place team, attendance is well behind where it needs to be. To break even, the Dream needs to draw about 8,500 paying fans, Betty said. This season, it has been averaging “just under 7,000,” which is similar to last year’s performance.
To be fair, Betty had a steep learning curve after buying the team and got a late start on hawking season tickets, which need to double from the current 1,500 level. A championship this season would certainly help.
But because the team is playing so well, there’s little chance of it getting in a position to draft the nation’s best college player — Gwinnett’s Maya Moore of UConn, who will go to one of the bottom feeders next season. A trade that would allow the Dream to secure Moore also is unlikely since she will be a big boost to any team — on the court and in the stands.
So the buzz next season — which will give a good indication of Betty’s money-making prospects — will likely have to come from elsewhere.
“This is hard work. There is no magic bullet. This is about building our house one fan at a time,” Betty said.
She has resources and patience — all to the good. But she’s a businesswoman intent on making money — a very tall order in women’s sports.
“If you don’t make money in the business world, you’re not in business for very long,” Betty said.
For the sake of the “little girls,” I hope she is.
Next week: There’s even a tougher road ahead for Atlanta Beat owner Fitz Johnson.
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