The moment the WNBA Finals finish, the top U.S. professional women's basketball league will have written a new chapter for the record books. The winner in the five-game series that started on Sept. 12, whether it's the Atlanta Dream or the Seattle Storm, will be the first female-owned champion in the league's 14-year history. A second milestone—making a profit—might prove to be a bigger hurdle. "The truth of the matter is, there are charity banquets that generate more dollars than a WNBA team," said Bob Hope, an Atlanta public-relations executive who last year helped broker the sale of the city's Dream to the current owner, Kathy Betty, 54. "It's clearly a challenge."
Betty, a former partner at accounting firm Ernst & Young, says she didn't buy the team solely as a money-making investment. When Hope and other local business leaders approached her last year about buying the team, "I laughed," she said during an interview at the team's practice facility. "It's the worst economy in my lifetime, we're in a recession, and he wants me to buy a sports team?" Yet following the 2007 death from cancer of her husband, former EarthLink Chief Executive Officer Garry Betty, she says she was in need of a new passion. So after some soul-searching, the longtime sports fan gave in.
Even Dream coach Marynell Meadors, who earned 2009 WNBA Coach of the Year honors after guiding the team to an 18-16 record following a 4-30 rout in its inaugural season, scratched her head over Betty's decision to purchase the club last October. "It made no [economic] sense," Meadors said. "But it's perfectly clear why she did it: She wanted to empower women." Betty also says she wants to be the first WNBA owner to turn a profit. She wouldn't disclose the financial terms of her purchase of the team from Ron Terwilliger. Other WNBA franchises have sold for about $10 million.
Storm co-owner Dawn Trudeau bought the Seattle team in January 2008, as part of a four-woman group, to prevent the club from leaving town with the NBA's SuperSonics when that team moved to Oklahoma City. Like Betty, she hopes the purchase will provide role models for local girls. Recording a profit, however, won't be as easy. "We're still in the red," Trudeau said. "But we have a multiyear plan for how we are going to build the business and get in the black."
She declined to reveal specifics, but other WNBA teams, including the Dream, are wooing corporate sponsors as well as trying to get dads and their daughters to become season ticket holders. Making it to the finals has helped, Trudeau said. "We don't budget for being in the playoffs," she said. "So we are overachieving on...our overall march towards profitability."
Trudeau, who spent 14 years as a manager at Microsoft (MSFT), wouldn't comment on when she expects the team to turn a profit. Capitalizing on its owners' ties to Microsoft (another co-owner is Lisa Brummel, senior vice-president for human resources at the tech giant), the Storm's jerseys are sponsored by Bing, the software company's Internet search engine. "It isn't something you would enter into if you're trying to make a lot of money," Trudeau said. "It's something you're doing because you have a love for the game, your community, and what this says to the world."
This season average attendance at Storm games rose 5.7 percent, to 8,332, fifth-highest in the 12-team league, according to SportsBusiness Daily. Trudeau declined to provide season ticket sales figures. It's been tougher for the Atlanta team. The Dream lost $3 million in its first season, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported last December. Attendance has declined every year since. This season's average of 6,293 for 17 games marked an 11.4 percent decline from a year earlier, the second-biggest drop in the league behind the Washington Mystics (17.5 percent) and off 25.9 percent from the inaugural 2008 season.
In her first full year as owner, Betty said she has been "drinking through a firehose" and hasn't had time to actively pursue other investors to share her financial load. Asked if she has a gender bias regarding potential investors, Betty smiled and said, "I probably shouldn't comment on that because it could hurt me. But do I have a preference? Yes."
The financial risk Betty took helped inspire her players this season. "She's like a true leader," said Dream center Yelena Leuchanka. "For her to make a decision like that in a bad economy takes a lot of faith. Having an owner who has faith in us, it helps."
A self-described "sports fanatic" who played basketball, baseball, and football while growing up in Decatur, Ala., Betty says owning the Dream gives her more of a thrill than simply being a fan. Yet now that she's reached the finals in her first year of ownership, Meadors wonders how high her boss's expectations will be in future seasons. "She might get used to this," the Dream coach said. "It's not going to be this good every year."
The bottom line: With both teams in this month's WNBA finals owned by women, the league will make history. Logging profits will be more difficult.