First, WNBA players campaigned to oust Atlanta Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler from her seat in the Senate. Now, after months of pressure from players who said Loeffler’s values didn’t fit with the WNBA’s, Loeffler is out of the league, too.
The WNBA announced Friday that Loeffler and co-owner Mary Brock have sold the team to an three-person investor group that includes former Dream star Renee Montgomery. Larry Gottesdiener, chairman of the real estate firm Northland, and Suzanne Abair, Northland’s chief operating officer, will also share ownership of the team. The WNBA and NBA Boards of Governors unanimously approved the sale, the league said in a statement.
The transition from Loeffler, the former Republican Senator who became an enemy of the players after speaking out against Black Lives Matter, to Montgomery, who opted out last season to focus on social justice, marks another milestone in a new era of athlete empowerment.
“My Dream has come true,” Montgomery said in a statement. “Breaking barriers for minorities and women by being the first former WNBA player to have both a stake in ownership and a leadership role with the team is an opportunity that I take very seriously.”
The sale was quickly celebrated by the WNBA players who’d pushed for it.
“It is time for the women of the Atlanta Dream and their fans to have an opportunity to heal and move forward. It is our fervent wish that we shall never see again such an abuse of power and arrogant display of privilege,” WNBPA Executive Director Terri Jackson said in a statement. “It is our hope that no one will ever again attempt to use the players for individual political gain or favor. Those actions were unbelievably selfish, reckless and dangerous. And those who would conduct themselves in that manner have absolutely no place in our sport.”
In a joint statement, Loeffler and Brock said: “We are proud of what we accomplished and wish the team well in their next chapter.”
After opting out last season, Montgomery recently announced her retirement from the league. Following Rev. Raphael Warnock’s victory over Loeffler last month, NBA star LeBron James tweeted about putting together a group to buy the Dream. Montgomery responded: “I’m ready when you are.”
Montgomery, with former NFL great Marshawn Lynch, also owns a share of a team in a new fan-controlled football league. In the WNBA, she and her co-owners inherit one of the best known teams in the league, thanks in large part to the controversy stirred by Loeffler.
Last summer, while running to retain her seat in the Senate, Loeffler, a Republican, branded herself as a tough-talking loyalist to President Trump amid protests against racial injustice. After the league pledged support with Black Lives Matter,Loeffler wrote an open letter to WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert denouncing the move as divisive. Instead, Loeffler suggested, the league should put an American flag on all licensed apparel for players, coaches and staff, as a show of unity.
Players roundly rejected the letter and called for Loeffler to leave the WNBA, with the players’ union tweeting in all caps: “E-N-O-U-G-H! O-U-T!” With no commitment from the league to force her out, players turned their attention to removing Loeffler from office.
In early August, players across the league wore “VOTE WARNOCK” shirts in support of Warnock, who was polling at nine percent at the time. The gesture ignited his campaign and, on Jan. 20, Warnock was sworn in as the first Black senator from Georgia.
The NBA, led by superstars James and Chris Paul, has received much of the credit for leading athletes to speak out for social justice, including in their fight against voter suppression. The women of the WNBA, however, have helped lead the charge of athletes as activists. In 2016, before any professional team embraced Black Lives Matter, the Minnesota Lynx wore the slogan on T-shirts with the names of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, Black men who had died during interactions with police.
Montgomery, who won two WNBA titles with the Lynx, took part in those protests. Maya Moore, Montgomery’s former teammate and the 2014 MVP, left the league at the height of her career to help overturn the conviction of a Missouri man who had served 22 years for burglary and assault.
“People forget that we’re not the NBA. We don’t just leave in a year of playing. We all have our degrees. We’re all intelligent and strong women,” Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud said in January. “When we put our heads together, it’s like who’s going to stop us?”
Loeffler leaves behind the game she once professed to love. Loeffler played high school basketball and, though clumsy on the court as a 5-foot-10 teenager growing into her frame, she found a sense of purpose.
“I loved the ability, first of all, to be part of a team,” Loeffler said last summer. “It taught me a lot about resilience and the ups and downs of winning and losing and I loved the ability to be able to improve.”
During the Dream’s early years in Atlanta, Loeffler watched a game from the front row and, according to a person affiliated with the team at the time, seemed impressed at the pace and quality of play.
Loeffler wasn’t just any fan with a courtside view; her attendance was part of the franchise’s courting process. As a multimillionaire and basketball fan, Loeffler was an ideal candidate to support the team either as a season-ticket holder or an investor.
But Loeffler made a deeper commitment. In 2011, she and Brock combined to invest $1 million to join Kathy Betty as managing partners. Despite advancing to the WNBA Finals in its third season, the Dream still operated in the red. During an interview with The Post last summer, Loeffler likened owning the Dream to operating a “struggling small business.”
The financial losses didn’t deter her. Ahead of the 2012 season, she and Brock took over as the sole owners. While Brock expected frequent check-ins with the business staff, according to a former employee who had direct contact with the owners, Loeffler was busy in her career and trusted the day-to-day operation to her deputies. Even so, Loeffler was not an absent owner, according to several employees who worked with the Dream. Her focus was on winning basketball games.
When she watched from her owner’s seat, Loeffler openly cheered and quietly catalogued the substitution patterns. After games, Loeffler would visit the head coach and break down the Xs and Os. Michael Cooper, who coached the Dream from 2013 to 2017, remembers visiting Loeffler’s house several times to talk roster moves like trading for center Elizabeth Williams for the fourth overall pick in 2016. Cooper found a few of Loeffler’s proposals for attaining players to be far-fetched but otherwise, he appreciated her passion as a team owner.
“Kelly was the more basketball person,” Cooper said in an interview last summer. “That I really loved.”
Loeffler will exit professional sports and likely return to business. Before taking office, she resigned as CEO of Bakkt, a crypto futures trading exchange. Her husband, Jeffrey Sprecher, is CEO of the company that owns the New York Stock Exchange.