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Why the ATL doesn’t scream for the Dream

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Despite significant success, the Dream has not been embraced by Atlanta. Here’s how the franchise can better navigate the complications of its city’s sports market.

‘Night School’ Red Carpet Screening With Kevin Hart And Will Packer At Regal Atlantic Station
Although Angel McCoughtry has been true to Atlanta, the city has not reciprocated.
Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images for Universal Pictures

In 2013, Angel McCoughtry dragged the Dream to the WNBA Finals for the third time in four years. As in 2010 and 2011, when it fell to the Storm and Lynx, the Dream again appeared overmatched, overly dependent on the elite abilities of McCoughtry as Atlanta attempted to topple the burgeoning Lynx dynasty. After dropping the first two games in Minnesota, the Dream returned to Atlanta, hoping to grab a game at home.

Or, more accurately, the team returned to Gwinnett Arena (now Infinite Energy Arena), the Dream’s then-second home in Atlanta’s northern suburbs. And, it just so happened, the home of Minnesota star Maya Moore.

So Minnesota seemingly enjoyed another home game, with the Dream as the all but overlooked victims in Moore’s hometown championship coronation.

Game 3 of the 2013 WNBA Finals serves as a microcosm of the history of the Dream. Despite significant successes propelled by a superstar in McCoughtry, the Dream has struggled to captivate the Atlanta fanbase. Yet, the acclaim for Moore suggests that those in the Atlanta area can get excited about women’s basketball, as long as certain expectations are met.

While Moore’s hometown credibility certainly motivated the loud cheers that she and the Lynx received, she earned more enthusiastic support than McCoughtry and the Dream because she also appeared to be the perfect women’s professional basketball player. As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote of Moore, “Talented, driven, smart, humble - it all sounds so good.”

An attractive, light-skinned young black woman with an aesthetically pleasing game, Moore was ostensibly easy for all of Atlanta to love. Her character — as well as her Christianity — further resulted her in her resonating with the metro Atlanta fanbase.

Members of the Dream have not been such conventional women’s basketball stars.

The Dream’s stars are #RealModels

When asked about the Dream’s shortage of support on a recent episode of the Locked on Women’s Basketball podcast, LaChina Robinson suggested that Atlanta, at least in the team’s earlier years, lacked notable collegiate stars — namely any Tennessee Lady Vols or UConn Huskies — that would attract the attention of a new fanbase. Implicit in her commentary is the idea that the Dream has historically not featured players that fit the desirable women’s basketball player mold, meaning players that a white suburban fanbase easily could understand as the “right” kind of role model due to reasons of class, race, religion, or sexuality.

Instead, Angel McCoughtry, as well as the emerging face of the team in Tiffany Hayes, exude unconventionality.

On the hardwood, McCoughtry and Hayes are both dynamic, yet dissonant players. Their games are effectively uneven, with McCoughtry taking advantage of her savvy and Hayes her speed to create crevices and chaos on both ends of the floor. Both players also do not hesitate to exhibit emotion, readily taking umbrage when they do not receive the calls they believe they have earned. In the aforementioned interview, Robinson posits some may see this passion as petulance, resulting in the absence of requisite acclaim.

Off the court, McCoughtry and Hayes remain resolutely true to themselves. Throughout her career, McCoughtry has shown a spirit of entrepreneurship, releasing a R&B single before opening an ice cream shop. Last year, she and Hayes appeared on an episode of MTV’s Wild ‘N Out, spitting rhymes. As Hayes proclaims, she, like McCoughtry, is a “REAL MODEL.”

To its credit, the Dream organization has embraced its players as they are, not demanding that they conform to certain norms. The team smartly see its players as expressive of the diversifying city that they occupy. As part of her ICE (Invest. Compete. Empower.) principle, head coach Nicki Collen has further incorporated an ethos of empowerment into the organization. She told The Athletic, “We want to empower each other to play our best; we want to empower the next generation; we want to empower the city.”

How to make the ATL #RunWithTheDream

Yet, in order to thrive in the Atlanta sports market, the franchise must navigate the city’s complicated racial realities.

In 2014, former Hawks partner Bruce Levenson sent an email to then-General Manager Danny Ferry and other staffers that expressed a discomfort with the team’s majority black fanbase and connection to hip-hop culture. The insensitive email, which led to Levenson and his partners selling the team, exposed the uncomfortable racial reality that long has organized professional sports fandom in Atlanta, where the mostly white suburban fans in the city’s northern suburbs have been prioritized over the mostly black urban fans in the city limits. In short, it’s the underlying reason the Braves decamped to Cobb County.

The Dream ownership has not fallen prey to the promises of an idealized and suburbanized fanbase. The organization rightly welcomes the majority black fans who appreciate the skills and styles of the women athletes who suit up for the squad. In a recent interview with The Athletic, owners Mary Brock and Kelly Loeffler shared their enthusiasm for Dream fans. Brock noted:

“When it comes to that, Kelly and I have both been to a lot of different arenas and seen a lot of different fanbases, but when it comes to Atlanta, we just really like our fanbase. Our fanbase is so diverse. It really spans all types of people from all different backgrounds. And we really like that because that is Atlanta. The Atlanta community is a slice of life, and we like that our fans reflect that.”

An enthusiastic young fan named Maya certainly possesses the passion that Brock speaks of.

But otherwise, the expanse of empty seats at State Farm Arena suggest Brock and Loeffler are ignoring the realities of their market. The franchise must do more to make the WNBA sustainable in the ATL.

Luckily, the Hawks and Atlanta United provide positive examples. Under the organization’s current ownership and leadership, the Hawks have further embraced hip hop culture, rooting the team’s culture in Atlanta’s black culture. In a still relatively short-lived existence, the Atlanta United has impressively established an enthusiastic and, more importantly, diverse and inclusive fanbase. Recently, members of the Dream attended a game, decked out in custom jerseys.

The organization must take advantage of such synergistic possibilities, making more actionable efforts to attract a greater cross-section of the city of Atlanta and state of Georgia. When speaking with The Athletic, Brock and Loeffler appeared excited to do. Loeffler stated:

“I think the Dream is an amazing asset for Atlanta, and we’ve always been about community. I think one of the early attributes that attracted Mary and I to the Dream was that when we came to the first game, we could see it brought all of the community together. I think in this environment where athletics in Atlanta are highly competitive, this is a tremendous market for entertainment, for sports both professional and collegiate. It’s forced us to raise our game, and I think we have done that. It’s a very competitive market competing for attention, dollars, fans. So, community is really where we put our focus every day.”

Unfortunately, the organization recently made a rather disappointing decision.

How not to make the ATL #RunWithTheDream

As reported by High Post Hoops, the Dream discontinued its partnership with Fox Sports South and, in turn, commentator Bob Rathbun and analyst LaChina Robinson. In a subsequent interview with High Post Hoops, President and General Manager Chris Sienko explained the organization’s pivot to a local network approach with WSB-TV.

Although such a partnership sounds promising, the allure of localism should not serve as cover for an ill-advised, cost-cutting decision. The regional reach of Fox Sports South allowed for fans outside the immediate Atlanta area and across the southeast to watch the Dream on television, which is no longer possible with WSB. As a regional sports network with which potential fans are familiar with due to broadcasts of Hawks, Braves and various collegiate games, Fox Sports South carries legitimacy, something WNBA squads must still be concerned with.

Most critically, the Dream sacrificed one of the best broadcasting pairs in women’s basketball in making this move. Statements from Sienko seem to indicate that, had Rathbun and Robinson agreed to a significant pay reduction, they would have been welcomed in the WSB booth. The pair — rightly — rejected the plan. It is baffling that the organization would even consider such an insulting offer to two of the team’s greatest ambassadors. Since the squad’s inaugural season, Rathbun’s characteristic enthusiasm and Robinson’s insightful intelligence have provided fans with a quality viewing experience.

Although the instinct to cut costs is understandable, establishing a sustainable women’s professional basketball culture requires investments and expenditures. Failing to retain Rathbun and Robinson makes the proclamations of Brock and Loeffler ring hollow.

#DreamOn

Despite concerns and challenges, the Dream has the ingredients for success. By recapturing the spirit it showed last season, the team can notch wins on the court and find a niche in the city of Atlanta, slowly but surely filling State Farm Arena.