Owner Kathy Betty adds strength to Dream team

She has celebrated the return of her alma mater, Alabama, to the rank of national champion. She has been to Super Bowls and World Series games and Final Fours. From good Braves seats, she has witnessed Sid’s slide and Otis’ catch.

And none of that, Kathy Betty said, held the rapture of a WNBA Eastern Conference championship.

“Not even close,” she said, underlining the claim.

Forgive Betty her unconventional enthusiasm. After all, she owns the Atlanta Dream, the humble No. 4 seed that has risen to the WNBA finals. The best-of-five series begins this afternoon in Seattle.

She bought the Dream last October, rescuing the franchise from being either relocated or dissolved. This was the same franchise that just two seasons ago lost the first 17 games of its existence — a league record for futility — and has struggled since to find a niche in the local market.

The first woman partner at the accounting firm Ernst & Young, the widow of EarthLink CEO Garry Betty, she has a practical business mind. She also finds herself in a lonely corner of sports ownership. Betty is one of five owners-ownership groups in the 12-team WNBA without NBA connections. Her team is one of four women-owned operations in the league — finals opponent Seattle included — and the only four female driven franchises in professional sports. All four made it to this postseason.

Chance to make history

The Dream’s reported home attendance averaged a bit more than 6,500 this season, nearly 2,000 shy of Betty’s stated break-even point. A crowd of 9,045 watched the conference title-clinching victory over the New York Liberty at Philips Arena on Tuesday, lending hope that winning has begun to spark interest within the fickle Atlanta sports marketplace.

“We are on solid [financial] footing,” Betty said. “I have said from day one we have to make money over time. We’ve got to make money, and we will.

“I’ve got to tell you, winning a conference championship really, really jump-starts that plan. I didn’t plan for this.”

The Dream are attempting to become only the third Atlanta major league professional franchise to win a title, joining the 1995 Braves and the 1968 Atlanta Chiefs of the North American Soccer League.

“Know what the difference is? We’re ladies,” said forward Angel McCoughtry, with a wink. She is the Dream’s most marketable star, who went for a WNBA playoff record 42 points in Tuesday’s conference-clinching game and kept the Dream in contention even as they lost six of their last seven games of the regular season.

Even now at their brightest moment, the Dream must compete for attention with the NFL and college football.

“I hope playing for a championship helps us stand out from all that,” Betty said.

“We know we’re in Atlanta, that winning is a big thing here. I live here. I know it,” the owner said.

“We understood we had to earn the respect of the fans. We had to provide good, fun competition. We feel we have worked hard for it and this [finals appearance] truly is a payoff for it.”

‘She brings strength’

It is on a personal level where Betty has enjoyed the greatest immediate payoff.

Having lost her husband of 14 years to cancer in 2007, Betty made the Dream a key part of redirecting her life. She wears her allegiance to this team on her nails, painted a bright shade of Dream blue. Her connections to the Atlanta business community are now focused solely on building support for this franchise.

“She is one of the team,” said Iziane Castro Marques, one of only two carry-over players from 2008. “To have her with us all the time, we know she really cares.”

“She brings energy. She brings confidence. She brings strength,” Dream coach Marynell Meadors said.

At Tuesday night’s postgame celebration, Betty recalled all the other happy moments shared with her sports-minded husband, on fields and courts near and far. “He would have been so proud of this,” she says. She considered offering a toast in his memory during the party, but was overcome by emotion.

One year of sports ownership, one trip to a championship series. Considering Betty’s perfect record, a questioner wondered if women should own everything in sports.

“Can’t you see that?” she joked.

And, what would it take to convince her to buy the Hawks, at least?

“No comment,” she laughed.

Believe it, one little run through a WNBA postseason can be an incomparable experience. Even for someone with so many others from which to draw.

“I have so much joy in my life again,” Betty said.

“I am a happy person by nature. I knew it would take time but I would be ready to move on [after her husband’s death]. Still, in the back of your mind you wonder, will you ever have joy again? In my case, that joy was the Dream.”