Atlanta Dream hitting records amid surging interest in women’s sports

Revenues in women’s elite sports are expected to surpass $1 billion for the first time this year, one report says
Atlanta Dream guard Allisha Gray (15) goes up for a basket during the second half against the New York Liberty on Sunday, June 23, 2024, in Atlanta, at Gateway Center Arena. 
(Miguel Martinez / AJC)

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Atlanta Dream guard Allisha Gray (15) goes up for a basket during the second half against the New York Liberty on Sunday, June 23, 2024, in Atlanta, at Gateway Center Arena.  (Miguel Martinez / AJC)

Women’s sports have captured the national spotlight, and the Atlanta Dream is taking advantage.

The city’s WNBA franchise has spent the first half of the year breaking franchise records amid the growing popularity of women’s basketball.

In April, the team sold out their season ticket allotment, making the Dream only the second WNBA team in the league’s 28-year history to ever do so, according to the team. The Dream played in what is now known as State Farm Arena from its founding in 2008 before moving to the smaller 3,500-seat Gateway Center Arena in College Park in the 2020 season.

Last month’s home game with the Caitlin Clark-fronted Indiana Fever garnered enough ticket demand, however, for the Dream to move the game to State Farm Arena, where a record 17,500 fans would eventually watch from the stands. That same game was television network Ion’s most-watched ever.

Indiana Fever guard Caitlin Clark (22) drives against Atlanta Dream center Tina Charles, facing, and Atlanta Dream forward Nia Coffey (12) during the first half at State Farm Arena, Friday, June 21, 2024, in Atlanta. Indiana won 91-79. (Jason Getz / AJC)

Credit: Jason Getz /

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Credit: Jason Getz /

It’s a 180 for a team that hadn’t sold out a single game until 2021, when its ownership trio — real estate executives Larry Gottesdiener and Suzanne Abair, along with former basketball pro Renee Montgomery — bought out the group that had owned the team for a decade.

The growth in ticket sales even has the Dream considering expansion at Gateway Center, and contemplating the need to relocate at least some of its home schedule to a bigger venue.

“Gone are the days when the Atlanta Dream was a personal hobby or a feel good charity,” said Atlanta Dream President and COO Morgan Shaw Parker. “We’re not just a small niche market team. We’re seeing a diverse market and diverse fans come out of the woodwork to support this organization.”

Atlanta Dream forward Cheyenne Parker-Tyus (32) fights for the position against Chicago Sky forward Angel Reese (5) and Chicago Sky guard Diamond DeShields (0) during the second half at the Gateway Center Arena on July 2, 2024, in Atlanta. Chicago Sky won 85-77 over Atlanta Dream. (Hyosub Shin / AJC)


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The recent successes of the Dream reflect the work the ownership group has put in to rebuild the franchise. But it also coincides with a larger growth trend: viewership and attendance is surging for women’s elite sports as brands, advertisers and broadcasters invest further into the still-nascent industry. Leagues are expanding and increasing the fees they charge television networks or streamers to carry their games.

More women athletes are becoming household names, from Clark to fellow WNBA rookie and rival Angel Reese to track star Sha’Carri Richardson and pro tennis champion Coco Gauff, with even more set to gain widespread recognition during the 2024 Summer Olympic Games in Paris. The U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team will again be a top contender, and superstar gymnast Simone Biles will lead Team USA at the Games.

Globally, revenues in women’s elite sports are expected to surpass $1 billion for the first time this year, according to estimates from consulting firm Deloitte. The projection is quadruple the estimate from 2021, and accounts for revenue from club sponsorship and partnership arrangements, retail and merchandise sales and broadcast deals, among other areas.

FILE - Sha'Carri Richardson celebrates her win in the wins women's 100-meter run final during the U.S. Track and Field Olympic Team Trials Saturday, June 22, 2024, in Eugene, Ore. Richardson makes her Olympic debut after her much-discussed and debated absence from the last Olympics due to a positive marijuana test. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson, File)

Credit: AP

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Credit: AP

Though women’s sports revenues still pale in comparison to revenue produced by the top men’s leagues, the cash boost can fuel even more growth.

Teams benefit from the increase in revenue in multiple ways. More dollars can lead to improved training and practice facilities, upgraded stadiums, better resources to engage with the community through camps or youth clinics or recruitment efforts. For the leagues, it could mean improving player salaries and benefits, adding new teams and, most of all, forging a pathway to financial stability.

“It’s taking off and it hasn’t scratched the surface,” said longtime Atlanta media executive Bob Hope, who has been involved in furthering opportunities for women in sports for decades. “What we see today is just the beginning.”

Exposure, exposure, exposure

“‘If you show it, then they will come,’” has always been a mantra in women’s sports, said Charlotte Howell, a media professor at Boston University. Put the matches on TV and viewership will follow.

For years, women’s games have often been relegated to undesirable time slots, or aired on lesser networks or streaming packages. In March of last year, about a fifth of 1,000 surveyed U.S. sports fans said live airings of women’s sports aren’t easily accessible, according to media research firm Nielsen.

This is changing. Networks and streamers are catching onto the missed business opportunity of acquiring rights deals for women’s games as live sports has become one of the final holdouts of drawing consistent audiences to traditional TV. Owning the rights to broadcast games gives media companies an advantage over their competitors. Plus, larger audiences equals greater advertising revenue from companies looking to capture eyeballs.

So media companies are paying record amounts to acquire or renew contracts to carry games across both men’s and women’s major leagues.

Bay FC's Kiki Pickett (23) slide tackles Washington Spirit FC's Courtney Brown (16) during the second half of an NWSL soccer match in San Jose, Calif., Saturday, July 6, 2024. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group via AP)

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Credit: AP

Earlier this year, the National Women’s Soccer League signed the largest media deal in women’s sports history. ESPN, CBS, Amazon and Scripps Sports landed deals totaling $240 million to provide coverage for NWSL games over the next four years. The annual value of the deals, according to unnamed sources cited by Front Office Sports, is 40 times higher than the league’s previous national TV revenue.

The WNBA’s media rights deals with ESPN, Ion and Prime Video expire after the 2025 season. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert wants to “at least double” its fees, telling CNBC in April that rights fees within women’s sports have been “undervalued for too long.”

Ratings have been on the rise. April’s NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship matchup between Iowa and South Carolina almost doubled its viewership from the previous year, and nearly quadrupled from 2022, according to Nielsen. It was the most-watched women’s college basketball game on record, and the first in NCAA tournament history in which viewership for the women’s championship game was higher than the men’s.

Leron Rogers, an Atlanta-based attorney in the sports and entertainment practice at law firm Fox Rothschild, advises clients to invest in women’s leagues because of the growth trajectory.

“The increased number of eyeballs that will be on women’s sports leads to greater economic investment in advertising,” Rogers said. “This leads to larger return-on-investment for those team owners and league owners.”

There are other factors playing into the growth in viewership. Teams and leagues themselves are increasing their marketing budgets to try to reach new audiences, Boston University’s Howell said, and players are using social media to build brands.

Georgia State University media scholar Ethan Tussey compares the rivalry between Indiana Fever’s Clark and the Chicago Sky’s Reese to that of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, which helped to drive ratings for the NBA in the 1980s.

“The contracts and the ratings suggest that now is the time for leagues to start expanding. And now it’s about sustaining it,” Tussey said. “That’s going to require these rivalries and this drama to continue, and for people to fall in love with the whole league using stars as a gateway.”

‘Investing in ourselves first’

As it begins planning for its 2025 season, growth is on the horizon for the Dream. The team, just 7-13 on the season as of Wednesday, is looking at adding seats at the Gateway Center. It’s also trying to determine its long-term home. It will likely be a combination of Gateway Center and another arena, Parker said.

Growth has always been the priority of the Dream’s new ownership team. Over the last three years, the team has increased its full-time employees from seven to more than 50. It has invested in its players, upgraded its facilities and dedicated more resources to its clinics and camps for young athletes.

South Carolina Women's Basketball Coach Dawn Staley and Atlanta Dream guard Allisha Gray greet at the Gateway Center Arena on July 2, 2024, in Atlanta. Chicago Sky won 85-77 over Atlanta Dream. (Hyosub Shin / AJC)t


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“In the context of driving revenue, we couldn’t come in here and expect the sponsors and the fans to invest in us if we weren’t investing in ourselves first,” Parker said.

Only halfway through the season, the team’s ticket and merchandise revenue trajectory is already double that of the previous year, and its sponsorships have nearly tripled, Parker said. The Dream has the lowest valuation out of all WNBA teams — $55 million, according to a June report from Sportico — but it’s also the newest in the league and has the smallest arena.

“There’s a lot of people out there who are questioning whether this is a blip on the radar, or this is just about one athlete. But that all signs point to the fact that that’s not the case,” Parker said. “The floor is going to be much higher for women’s sports moving forward. And I think we’re just setting a new bar in terms of what it will look like in the next five to 10 years.”