Did you watch the 1996 Summer Olympics? Remember the excitement of Team USA led by Sheryl Swoopes, Lisa Leslie, and Teresa Edwards bringing home the gold me.
That was one of the most memorable moments in sports history, and by all accounts it was the coming out celebration for women’s professional basketball in the United States.
Now, 15 years later, women’s basketball is making headlines in Atlanta once again. This time it’s for the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream.
You probably didn’t know that there is professional women’s basketball in Atlanta. For first-year owners Kelly Loeffler and Mary Brock, women’s professional basketball in Atlanta was new to them, too.
Loeffler, vice president of investor relations and corporate communications at IntercontinentalExchange (NYSE: ICE), and Brock, philanthropist and sports advocate, began the 2011 season as minority owners alongside then managing partner Kathy Betty; pending the approval of the WNBA’s Board of Governors, they will end the season as majority owners.
As Loeffler and Brock take over the reins, they recognize that their No. 1 challenge is to raise the profile and visibility of the four-year-old franchise and do whatever they can to increase profitability and fill Philips Arena.
What’s the easiest way to fill an arena and sell tickets? Win games, of course! Luckily for Brock and Loeffler, the Dream knows how to win.
The team recorded its first 20 win season. The owners credit the strong coaching staff and incredible players, including Angel McCoughtry, Armintie Price, and Lindsey Harding for such a successful season. Loeffler specifically acknowledges, head coach and general manager, Marynell Meadors, whom she calls the "secret sauce of our success." Says Loeffler: "She has been a huge trailblazer for us. Her legacy and what she is building with the Atlanta Dream will probably be more than any owner could ever do."
On Tuesday the Dream are playing in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Indiana Fever. The entire Atlanta community will be rooting for the Dream, including Brock and Loeffler, who are already preparing for the 2012 season and beyond.
Here is the third installment of the on-going interview series featuring Women Entrepreneurs of the WNBA. Meet Brock and Loeffler – Run With The Dream
Q. Can you share with me your background? What attracted you to the Atlanta Dream and the WNBA?
Loeffler: I am originally from the Midwest and I grew up playing all kinds of sports. I was a three sport athlete throughout high school. Unfortunately it didn't go further than that. I love basketball and running track, sports gave me the confidence I think to succeed in the business world. I got my MBA and became a chartered financial analyst or a CFA. I worked on Wall Street as a financial analyst for a few years and then I ended up coming to ICE. Our business is in the commodity market, so the intensity of being in the market and a business like this certainly parallels the intensity of the sports world.
I was not aware that there was a WNBA team in Atlanta. I went to my first Dream a game and could not believe the level of play and the sense of community. I was talking about the experience afterword with Kathy Betty and she mentioned to me, “Would you ever think about being an owner?” I said, “Absolutely.” I came in at the beginning of this year and it felt like a very natural progression for me. It really was the intersection of business and sports, which have kind of been alternatively throughout my life two passions. It was a unique opportunity for me where I never once thought about saying no to it.
Brock: I started off in education and I moved to doing things more community oriented. When I came into the WNBA and the Atlanta Dream, it really fit so nicely with what I spent a lot of my life doing; identifying things that I felt very passionately about and deciding how I could help make something successful that I thought was very worthwhile. The other side of it is that I was born and raised in the South and there is no doubt that you can't the raised in the South and not love sports.
You don't come to the WNBA because you think you are going to make a lot of money and get very wealthy. Our players and the other players on the other franchises love this game and so they are doing it because they really do believe in the league. They want the league to be successful and our league is successful. I've spent my whole life asking people and talking them into believing whatever I believe in and getting them to support it. I thought this is perfect because in the WNBA and the Atlanta Dream we need sponsors and supporters in the community. We need individuals and we need corporations, and that is what I've spent a lot of my life doing.
Q. What do you envision for the Atlanta Dream in the future?
Loeffler: There are a number of goals that we have. Most important is creating a business model that is sustainable and that has a stable platform, so that fans, players, coaches and sponsors all know that we're here for the long haul. Clearly, after 15 years that message is getting across outside of the business model, which first and foremost is selling more tickets and attracting more sponsors. I think we need to look at elevating players and the teams, and letting fans see who these amazing women are. They are athletes. They are role models. They are active in the community. I think our players are one of our biggest assets. There are other aspects to be business model that we are looking at and just making sure that we right size the expense base so that we can generate the revenues that we need. There is a layer of internal work that we are doing on the business model and the external work of how do we get the message out using what I think is our best asset, which is the players.
Q. What are some of your goals? As you move forward, what is your game plan to get others to believe in what you believe in?
Brock: I think we are always looking for our target group. We just did a market research study to find out who our fans are and why they support us. Should we go after that target group and make it bigger and bigger? Should we go after a group that is not so large, which would be men who love sports?
We had a senior person in the Coca-Cola Company recently come to a game and at the end of the game he said, “This may be the best sporting event that I have attended this summer.” And then he said, “Wait a minute; this is the best sporting event that I have attended all year. It is incredible basketball and incredible competition.” We see this all the time, someone who sees a game and wants to come again. That is our challenge. Not only how do we get people who already support us, supporting us more but how do we get people who haven't experienced a WNBA game to come and experience it. I think Laurel Richie is going to be so incredible for us because her background is brand management and marketing. She is looking at us as a brand and I think that is what we want to do as well.
Q. What is the mission of the Atlanta Dream?
Brock: We decided that we want to do anything that we can to get our team out into the community to talk with groups and we tend to work with groups like Girls Inc. and the Boys and Girls Club. We partner with organizations that work towards what young girls need to be doing to help them fulfill their goals. We are these incredible role models of these smart young women interacting with organizations out in the community. We know if we can show the statistical advantages of girls participating in sports and why supporting the Atlanta Dream is a good thing to do because of the outcomes; then we further our teams support out there in the community and individuals in the community.
Q. How would you describe the brand of your team and organization?
Loeffler: Angel McCoughtry just turned 25 years old and she plays way above her age and beyond her years. She really takes the leadership of taking the team on her back while providing a teamwork environment. We have been17-5 over the last 22 games and that is the best record in the league for that period. That is basically the period when Angel came back from her injury. I think that speaks volumes. She is among the top two players in the league per game scoring despite missing part of the season. She has been a real catalyst and I say that I not to overlook the rest of our team, which up and down the bench is amazingly talented. I have a tremendous amount of respect for each woman's level of play and their style.
The Dream is about teamwork, chemistry and everyone bringing their own thing to the court and making it work. That creates a really exciting brand of basketball. It is a below the rim brand of basketball, but it also makes it a very pure fast game. We have a 24 second shot clock so the game keeps moving. The feedback that we have gotten from the hundreds of people that we have introduced to the game is “I didn't expect that. That was amazing. I want to come back.”
Q. How has the Atlanta community embraced the WNBA and the Dream?
Loeffler:I think our community has been amazing; starting from the top from Mayor Kasim Reed who came to our first game and lowered our conference championship banner in Philips Arena, to the head of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and all of the sponsors and fans. Sponsorships are up and ticket sales are up. The metrics are telling us, in addition to the anecdotal evidence that we are moving in the right direction. We know that we have more work to do so. We are not resting on any of that.
Q. What are some of your biggest challenges in being in owner in professional sports? Do you find that being a female entrepreneur adds to any of that?
Loeffler: Certainly I think male or female; we all have the same challenges. I don't see any difference being a female entrepreneur but maybe I am so focused on the task at hand that I've missed the subtleties there. We are a small business. We employ more than 30 people directly at the Dream and probably a few more than that. The day to day requirement of making this work with our team with our front office and the fans is a really big focus.
I think it is always looking at how we can make things better. How do we grow ticket sales in a meaningful way while holding expenses in a reasonable range? How do we attract sponsors and tell our story effectively? I think the league sponsorship with Boost is a great example of the value that people are recognizing that our fan base has for them. Our demographic is very attractive and it is up to us to tell that story, and certainly not just at the Atlanta Dream level but at the league level. I know Laurel Richie and her team is working very hard at that, and we are thrilled to have Laurel here. I think telling the story is a big challenge. We can't be all things to all people. But the things that we do well, we do really well and we need to articulate that.
Q. What are your thoughts about the WNBA as it moves into its next 15 years? Where do you see the league going?
Loeffler: As we move into the next 15 years, we need to do so confidently; knowing that the support that we have out there, fans and the broader athletic community is at an all-time high, as is the level of play. We have no reason not to be confident with what we have. We are at a point where this next year or two is going to be really defining for the league because of the level of play and the momentum behind it. What we do with that momentum is going to be defining. In Atlanta, we are trying to see what could create a model franchise and looking at all of the aspects from the financial model to making it a great place for the players and coaches.
I also think that one advantage that we have is that women have tremendous control over purchasing power in the household. They are increasingly consumers of sports or increasing their share of the remote control if you will. I think we really need to use that aspect to our advantage because that is really an important growth initiative for many companies.
Brock: I think if you look at the women who were there in the beginning, they'll look at the league now and they are so amazed and proud and thrilled with the progress definitely as the league has grown from year one to year 15. It has gotten more competitive and it is the go to league.
Before this existed there were no role models or league out where they could say this is what I want to do one day. I think if you look back over 15 years, it is definitely a more competitive league because this is where everyone wants to go. When you look back to the Olympics when David Stern had this brainstorm and people thought women's basketball is so incredible and what a unique opportunity to have something going on during the summer and the off-season. We feel that our job is growing awareness and raising the profile. All we have to do is let people experience it, and they are ready to come back.
Q. What do you think will be your legacy as a professional sports owner?
Brock: I think about my mom when I told her about this. She thought we were probably just about to settle down and I would be doing my last hurrah. A lot of people thought, why are you doing this? Why not just take it easy? I feel like if I can make this women's professional team, the Atlanta dream successful and like I said successful would be turning a profit. I think any of us would say that is where we want to go, not necessarily to make money for ourselves but to put it back in the community.
I’d like to see all of the teams that are here now successfully operating, and people in the summer saying I've got baseball and I've got women's professional basketball and that is what I'm going to do. I think success will be raising the profile and brand awareness.
Loeffler: Hearing that for the first time, my thought goes to a person like an Arthur Blank, who owns the Falcons. Here in Atlanta he probably serves as a role model from afar. Just seeing how he's brought a great level of professional discipline to the franchise, he has created value in the brand. He is invested in players and in the brand. I really think that Mary and I have that commitment too. As I said earlier, taking it to the next level and becoming a franchise that is a business and a team that has stronger brand equity.
The Bottom Line
Together Brock and Loeffler are a dynamic duo. They are strong businesswomen with vibrant leadership skills; and add to that a dash of southern charm, which will make anyone lean over and listen. With that combination there’s no doubt that they will achieve their long-term goal of getting sports fans to attend games and experience the excitement of WNBA basketball. It’s not too late; you can catch the excitement to and…Run with the Dream!!